Gourmets have been grousing about southern food for years, but with the new taste for "native American" cooking, the chou is on the other foot: Louisiana, cradle of not one but two indigenous cuisines (Cajun and Creole), is all the restaurant rage. The best of the South can be easily celebrated at home with a Frenchified, fireside New Orleans-style coffee, served with a Sazerac cocktail or sopped up with the sweet, fried squares called beignets.
It is Creole -- that almost swooningly sophisticated culture, with its decadent Louis XIV luxuries egged on by Spanish, island and African influences -- that raised late-night sipping to an American art. According to legend, the word "cocktail" is itself a Creole oncoction: In 1793, a newly arrived apothecary named Peychaud developed a brisk traffic in "tonic." His secret ingredients included cognac and, quite possibly, the absinthe that was the new kick in Paris, and it was served in the double-ended egg cup called in French a "coquetier." Peychaud's tonic evolved into the Sazerac cocktail, now made of Pernod (instead of the hallucinatory punch of original absinthe), simple syrup, bitters and bourbon.
In 18th century New Orleans, when a proper dinner, with its various courses, required the drinking of white wine, sherry, claret, a palate- clearing punch, champagne and burgundy -- in that order -- an impressive after-dinner offering was no slight of hand.
Among the favorites were the flaming coffees: petit br.ul,e (brandy, sugar, cloves and cinnamon served in a hollowed orange, often omitting coffee altogether); grand brulot, with the brandy spice- mulled at the table before the coffee is added; and caf,e royale, the homier, do-it-yourself version in which the cognac-soaked sugar cube is ignited in a spoon, then stirred in the coffee.
But all this flash and flame demands coffee of superlative quality, by tradition brewed strong enough to go half-and-half with milk. The most distinctive New Orleans brew, the scalded-milk caf,e au lait, is made with chicory-coffee blends. (And you can bet in this post-Mardi-Gras gloom, a lot of coffee is going down on Bourbon Street.)
In some uninformed quarters, chicory has a bad reputation (Larousse Gastronomique snittily, "Coffee addicts, justifiably, do not allow the addition of any chicory"). But in fact, chicory- blended coffee has an impeccable pedigree and was used as early as 1550 by the Turks who, after all, invented coffee as a substitute stimulant for the religiously prohibited alcohol.
But it was during the War between the States, when the blockades and the general scantiness of food made coffee too dear, that the inhabitants of New Orleans adopted the plentiful and inexpensive chicory. As southern pride works in reverse, no self-respecting southerner would give up chicory even after the war; that would suggest its virtue had been only necessity. Besides, many drinkers had grown to appreciate its gentling influence. Nowdays, such chicory-blended coffees as Luzianne and French Market are available in supermarkets. Be sure to check the directions: Some, notably Luzianne, should be brewed with smaller amounts per cup; chicory coffee's alleged bitterness is the result of being brewed too strong.
Creole coffee, cocktails and beignets: the trio works fireside at 2 a.m or at midmorning on a snowy Sunday. BEIGNETS (Makes about 2 to 3 dozen) 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 tablespoon granulated sugar 1 cup milk 1 package granulated yeast 1 teaspoon salt 1 (generous) teaspoon nutmeg 3 cups flour 1 egg (Confectioners' sugar for topping)
Cream sugars and butter; scald milk, add to mixture and stir until melted. Let cool to lukewarm and stir in yeast. Sift salt and nutmeg into flour; gradually add about 1/2 cup of flour to milk. Add whole egg and beat thoroughly; add remaining flour. Cover and let rise for an hour. Knead gently, then roll out on a floured board about 1/4-inch thick. Cut into diamonds, cover and let rise again in warm place 30 to 60 minutes. Fry in hot oil, turning once, until golden; drain and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.