John Laborde runs a small catering business in Marksville, but for the last 31 years, the high point of his life is in New Orleans. That’s because he’s the man who brought crawfish bread to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest.
For a seasoned Jazz Fest goer, crawfish bread is to Jazz Fest what king cake is to Carnival. It’s one of the top things on the menu, a high rating for a festival loaded with the best of Cajun and Creole cooking. It’s right up there with crawfish Monica, cochon de lait poor boys and crawfish sacks, crawfish beignets and oyster patties.
Back in Marksville, Laborde didn’t start out stuffing his bread with crawfish. It was sausage he used. But it was in the ‘80s when Paul Prudhomme put Cajun cooking on the map, and he said, “Why not crawfish?”
The world comes to Jazz Fest, and although the world doesn’t eat crawfish, it seems to be the most popular thing on the menu. What great luck to have the festival during crawfish season.
Now, Laborde’s whole family is involved. Although two grown sons have their own careers and a daughter is in college, they all play a role at Laborde’s booth, and so do his wife, brother and sister.
“Jazz Fest for us is some kind of magical bonding thing,” Laborde said, recalling people from all over the world who have come to the booth. There are the families from England and the group from Minnesota who have stood in the lines for 30 years.
His first day on the race course was a sad one. He didn’t sell a single crawfish bread. “What have I done,” he thought. Along came a news reporter, who tasted the wares, and the next day a line formed. The rest is history.
Store-bought French bread has become a substitute for some people who want to replicate this delicacy at home and serve it like a poor boy.
And making the yeast bread from scratch can be a turnoff for busy cooks. But the homemade yeast bread that wraps around that cheesy Louisiana crawfish mixture is part of the draw for me. I tend to go for the compromise of buying store-bought frozen bread dough to get a product closer to Laborde’s.
Laborde reveals few secrets but has one tip. “Make sure you use a good, high-quality crawfish tail, a Louisiana crawfish with fat.”
2 loaves frozen bread dough thawed
1 Tbsp. butter
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound Louisiana crawfish with fat
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 cup grated pepper Jack cheese, grated
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 Tbsp. water
1. About 3 hours before you are ready to serve, thaw 2 loaves of bread dough at room temperature, about 2 hours.
2. Meanwhile, melt butter in medium skillet. Saute onions and bell pepper until wilted; add garlic and saute a minute more; add crawfish and seasonings and simmer on medium heat for 12 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Set aside until dough has thawed.
3. Grate and mix cheeses and set aside.
4. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Flour a cutting board and spread dough out, one loaf at a time. Lightly sprinkle the top of bread with flour and roll out. The dough will be elastic and shrink back together. After rolling several times, allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes and roll again. Get dough as close as you can to a 10-by-12-inch rectangle. Place the rectangle of dough on a lightly greased or sprayed baking sheet.
5. Spoon ¼ of the cheese mixture down the center of the length of the dough to within ½ inch of the ends. Cover cheese with ½ of the crawfish mixture. Spoon ¼ of cheese mixture over crawfish. Pull the long sides of dough up and over the crawfish mixture, pinching sides together. Then pinch ends together. Move to one side of the pan.
6. Repeat with second loaf, placing it on same pan.
7. In a small bowl, beat egg and add water. Use a pastry brush to cover both loaves lightly with eggwash until evenly coated. Let the dough rise in a warm area or at room temperature for ½ hour or until puffy. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly and slice crosswise into desired number of pieces. Serves 6 as entrée or more as appetizer.
ON THE SIDE
The show goes on for dozens of crawfish festivals, cook-offs and contests throughout the state despite the effects of freezing winter weather. Prices could be a bit higher, and some predict smaller mudbugs, but we all know that won’t stop crawfish lovers.
Breaux Bridge, the crawfish capital of the world, plans its extravaganza May 4-6. Closer to home will be Tulane Crawfest at Tulane University on April 21, and the NOLA Crawfish Festival, April 30-May 2 at the NOLA Brewery and Tap Room.
Bring y’ mama n’em.