You probably know that Mardi Gras is the French translation of Fat Tuesday, the nickname for the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The icon of Fat Tuesday is the doughnut, or beignet in French.
But Lent is really far away, and who wants to wait for delicious, hot fried dough?
You don't have to wait.
Every Tuesday morning is "Fat Tuesday" at Marty's Market in the Strip District. That's when New Orleans-style beignets are fried, showered with confectioners' sugar and served in a paper bag with a side of coffee. It's Mardi Gras, once a week, every week.
You can thank an "aha!" inspiration for this treat. While baking one early Tuesday morning at the market, a pair of bakers found that there was a bit of extra brioche dough. Why not fry it up? The dough was formed into ropes, portioned into pudgy blobs and tossed into hot fat. The blobs bubbled and swelled up and browned. After a roll in confectioners' sugar, the little dough balls had morphed into the classic doughnuts we call beignets.
They are bigger and fluffier than a doughnut hole and, right out of the fryer, served with black coffee, the sweets are irresistible. Orders are three for $3 or six for $5.
And when your shirt is splotched with tell-tale sugar, you might feel transported to New Orleans' Cafe Du Monde, the epicenter of beignet consumption. At least one customer was. One of the first takers on the first day of service last week was WQED's Chris Fennimore, who gave the bakers a CD to play while they bake: Dixie Doc and the Pittsburgh Dixieland All-stars, featuring himself on banjo and lyrics. A perfect sound track.
In the kitchen
The two bakers with a common passion for baking are regularly turning out the beignets and much more at Marty's Market. Beth Trimble was a human resources exec at UPMC. John Davis works in technology. Not long after they met and fell in love, they found they also had a passion for baking.
He learned to bake bread the way his family does in Italy, and he's returned there several times to bake with his relatives. His loaves are yeasty and dense, dark and heavily crusted. She always has been a sweets baker and is proud of her bourbon-pumpkin tarts, croissants, palmiers and galettes. They consider themselves artisanal bakers.
Their company name is di Colibri Bakery Boutique. No, it's not a family name. In Italian, colibri means hummingbird. The wee bird has special significance for the couple, because it is something one often has to go out of one's way to find. A hummingbird logo is the symbol of their baked products.
During the past three years, the couple tried to figure out how to open a bakery and make the transition from making corporate dough to baking dough. They didn't want to wait until later, when career directions might derail the dream. So they took a plunge.
For three months they baked in the kitchen at Butch Krill's Family Deli in Bethel Park, where their breads were a hit with customers.
One day, John was in the Strip, chatting up a pal, Ron Razette, owner of Peace, Love and Little Donuts, and they decided to go for coffee and a bite up the street at Marty's Market. When owner Regina Koetters came over and joined them, somehow the stars aligned.
She had just lost a baker and was looking to replace him. Mr. Davis planted the conversational seed that he and his baking partner were looking for a larger space. Long story short, Ms. Koetters said, "If you are serious, you can lease my kitchen, incubate the business and get a footing."
But first there was work to do. Over the summer they talked about sourcing, access to the market kitchen without disrupting employee schedules and discussion about merging philosophies. The market, named after her father, focuses as much as possible on organic, certified natural and locally sourced foods.
Ms. Trimble and Mr. Davis talked about whether their bread would bake properly in a standard double-deck convection oven. They decided that by adding baking stones, it could work. But would it?
August and September were devoted to research and development: tweaking, under-proofing, over-proofing, determining baking times. They learned where to stash their equipment, and how to mesh with staff.
Sampling began in late September. Customers loved the bread. By October, it was full speed ahead. They do much of the prep and mixing in the evenings, then arrive at the market at 4 a.m., finishing by 7 a.m. when the food-service crew arrives to begin the day's production.
The di Colibri product line includes focaccia, baguettes, fougasse and brioche. And every week, it seems, something new makes the lineup.
Marlene Parrish can be reached at email@example.com or 412-481-1620.