Jim Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur, shares his take on one of our favorite guilty pleasures: the humble doughnut, a subject which the magazine focuses on for its March issue.
There’s no other way to slice it: Doughnuts are food as pleasure. It’s as simple as that.
I grew up in Mountain View, Calif., and while it wasn’t the bustling home of kale juice-sipping startup entrepreneurs that it is now, my mother did her best to feed me nutritious dinners. Whenever I could, I’d sneak my favorite indulgence: a jelly doughnut. It didn’t really matter where it came from. There was something about the utter decadence, the pillowy softness that gave way to an ooey-gooey sugary sweet center, that comforted and thrilled in equal measure. A close second? A simple yeast-risen glazed doughnut (think Krispy Kreme). I wasn’t yet old enough to dunk it in a cup of joe, so I subbed in a tall glass of ice-cold milk, which worked just fine for dunking, thank you very much.
Years later, amidst a lengthy research process — which, lucky me, involved eating loads of doughnuts from recipes our kitchen staff tested at Saveur — for March's doughnut issue, I was astonished by how my childhood treat has evolved. Just a short drive from Mountain View, at Pepples Donut Farm in Oakland, Josh Levine now creates vegan-organic doughnuts such as the WTF, a cake doughnut made with whiskey, tangerine and fig.
As I learned from Michael Krondl’s article, “Donut Planet,” a paean to the treat, the roots of this WTF doughnut started way back, way before I took my first illicit bite in the 1960s. Myriad countries and regions have their own versions—sufganiya in Israel, pets de nonnes in France, gulab jamun in South Asia — which are often linked to religious ceremonies. And they arrived on our shores before America was even a country.
It includes not just the history, but also a primer on distinguishing between cake, yeast and baked doughnuts; recipes for making them at home; mouthwatering pictures of dougnuts from the world over and a fantastic map highlighting the top 50 doughnut shops in the country. When I'm home in New York, I frequent the Doughnut Plant for innovative flavors like the Panettone cake doughnut. When I'm in L.A., I hit up Stan's for a peanut butter and banana one and on trips to the desert, I trick myself into thinking I'm taking a break from decadent Vegas cuisine with a vegan apple fritter from Ronald's Donuts. Let's face it: it may be vegan, but that moist, fruit-loaded fritter is still a fritter, and a damn good one.
It occurred to me that most inflection points in America’s history — immigration, the world wars, mechanization and innovation — are represented, in microcosm, in this sweet fried ball of dough. Doughnuts were given to our soldiers in WWI; Adolph Levitt invented the Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Doughnut Machine in 1920, which popped out 80 dozen doughnuts every hour; car culture helped proliferate the donut chain, and on and on.
Of course, I didn’t really think of any of that when Kellie Evans, our test kitchen director, called me in to sample a freshly fried Berliner, or jelly-filled doughnut. I just bit into it and enjoyed.
Berliners (Jelly-filled doughnuts)
Makes about 2 dozen
If piping the jelly into these doughnuts proves challenging, use a paring knife to hollow out the side of the doughnut, making a cavity for the jelly.
- 2 ¼-oz. packages active dry yeast
- 1½ cups milk heated to 115°
- 1½ cups sugar
- 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing
- 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 egg, plus 3 yolks
- 4¾ cups (1 lb. 5 oz.) all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for dusting
- Canola oil, for frying
- 2 cups seedless strawberry or plum jam, for filling
Combine yeast and milk in a bowl; let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Beat ½ cup sugar and butter in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy. Add yeast mixture, vanilla, salt, egg, and yolks; beat until combined. With the motor running, slowly add flour; beat until dough is smooth. Transfer to a lightly greased bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap; set in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.
On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 14” round about ½” thick. Using a floured 3” ring cutter, cut dough into 20 rounds; gather and reuse scraps. Transfer rounds to lightly greased parchment paper–lined baking sheets, at least 3” apart. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.
Heat 2” oil in a 6-qt. saucepan until a deep-fry thermometer reads 350°. Using scissors, cut the doughnuts out of the parchment paper, leaving about 1” of paper around the sides of each doughnut (the paper makes it easier to transfer them to frying oil). Working in batches, place doughnuts in oil, paper side up, using tongs to quickly peel off and discard paper. Cook, flipping once, until puffed and golden, 2–3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a baking sheet with a wire rack; let cool completely.
Place remaining sugar in a large bowl; set aside. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain ¼” tip with jam. Working with one doughnut at a time, insert tip about ½” deep into the side of doughnut, pipe 2–3 tbsp. jam, and toss generously in sugar.
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