This article is for Archive Purpose
The hole truth
Can America build a better doughnut? Does it need to?
- Kim Severson, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
At 3 a.m. last Wednesday morning in the corner of a silent commercial bakery in Santa Rosa, Mark Carter's beloved five-grain doughnuts bobbed like little inner tubes in a vat of 375-degree organic palm oil. In just a few hours, Krispy Kreme executives would report that fourth quarter profits nearly tripled. Two days later, they'd announce plans to introduce a low-sugar doughnut to appeal to low-carb dieters and diabetics.
That's just the kind of news that makes Carter nuts.
"They're more chemistry than cuisine -- it's nasty business," he says, decrying the dough conditioners, mixes and bad oil from which most American doughnuts are born. "I'm trying to do serious doughnuts here. There is nothing silly or trivial about doughnuts."
Carter used to be a big-time pastry chef in Los Angeles, working at Scandia, L'Hermitage and the Biltmore Hotel. He even had his own place for awhile, the well-regarded Duplex, which he calls an "urban roadhouse." But now, he's in this cold Sonoma bakery, having gotten out of bed when David Letterman started his monologue. He is dedicated to an only-in-Northern California kind of thing: crafting the perfect, organic, artisan doughnut.
Over the course of seven hours, he will pump some doughnuts full of jelly he made from a friend's Syrah grapes and dip others in Dagoba chocolate. Then he'll pack up his Volvo and deliver about 150 doughnuts to the handful of shops that sell them for $1.29-$1.79 apiece. On the same day, Krispy Kreme will sell 7.5 million doughnuts at about half that price.
Although the two entities couldn't seem farther apart, they are actually brothers, united by a human compulsion shared by virtually every culture on earth: the desire to eat fried dough.
The Chinese have their yiu tiao; Mexicans have the churro, American Indians the sopaipilla. Portuguese love malasadas, and Creole French are passionate about beignets. No Navajo pow-wow would be complete without fry bread.
But for most Americans, the big, sugary glazed doughnut is king (although there are fans of the cakier sinker dunked into a cup of coffee). We take doughnuts by the box load to church gatherings and school functions, and they take the edge off those heinous early-morning meetings. At less than a buck, a doughnut is cheap nirvana. Decadence without the commitment of, say, a whole cake.
We love doughnuts so much we even eat the holes.
As with many obsessions, what is now a nearly $4 billion business in the United States has a foggy past. Sources put the doughnut's arrival on these shores anywhere from the 1600s to mid-19th century. Almost all agree that the doughnut's closest relative is Dutch oly koek -- or oily cake -- brought to Manhattan when the island was still called New Amsterdam.
In an excellent essay on the doughnut published in the Smithsonian magazine in 1998, writer David A. Taylor credits its birth to Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother, who fried cakes with the spices her son transported. She put nuts in the center, where the dough was not as likely to cook through. (Get it? Dough nuts?)
The doughnuts traveled on board with her son. The hole came about either because Captain Gregory wanted to keep food costs down on the long voyages, or because he shoved one of his mom's cakes on the ship's wheel so he could have his snack but keep his hands free to steer. The doughnut quickly worked its way into American culture, becoming such a symbol of home that women volunteered to bring doughnuts to soldiers in the trenches during World War I.
The mechanized doughnut machine came about in the 1920s, an invention of a czarist Russian living in New York City, according to Taylor. By the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, the mechanically made doughnut was a symbol of progress. About that time, Krispy Kremes were born in Winston-Salem, N.C. A generation later came Dunkin' Donuts.
In California, the doughnut became an economic gateway for Cambodians who began to immigrate in the 1970s. In the way Italians and Croatians worked in restaurants, and Chinese immigrants in laundries, the newest wave of California immigrants began frying doughnuts. With prepared mixes, a simple cooking procedure and relatively low buy-in costs, the doughnut shop became a reliable way into the American dream. At one point a few years ago, according to estimates published in AsianWeek, as many as 90 percent of California's independent doughnut shops were owned by Cambodians.
Although competition from the Krispy Kreme juggernaut and coffee shop chains like Starbucks have cut that number, Cambodians in the Bay Area still have a firm hand on the doughnut fryer.
"I have a couple of friends whose relatives have doughnut shops. My dad's cousin has a doughnut shop, and at least one other friend is thinking about a doughnut shop," says Phillip Lim, president of the Cambodian American Resource Agency.
High-end chefs have taken to the doughnut, too. At Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, diners have been treated to baked brioche dough ringing a small demitasse filled with coffee mousse -- his version of coffee and doughnuts. During the dot-com boom, when Gordon Drysdale's House of Fine Eats was in full swing South of Market, the most popular dessert was a plate of made-to-order doughnuts.
Elizabeth Falkner of San Francisco's Citizen Cake says she's played around with variations on the fried dough theme, sometimes serving a churro crafted from choux paste with a cup of hot chocolate so thick it is more akin to ganache. At weekend brunches, she serves little balls of yeasty fried dough flavored with browned butter vanilla beans. She's thinking about a little doughnut from brioche stuffed with jam.
What's the appeal?
"It's a little like why people like french fries," she says. "You get something seared in oil on the outside and all that moistness and sweetness on the inside."
Doughnuts have so changed their image that they've become a refuge for dot-com drop-outs John Brand and Tony Ellis, two ex-techies who are turning the old Clover Leaf Creamery in Fremont into a doughnut and burger restaurant called Cops Donuts, designed to look like a 1940s police station. It's scheduled to open in September.
"Krispy Kreme changed the perception of doughnuts," Brand says. Key to that change, he says, was the idea that you could get a Krispy Kreme hot off the line.
"I remember clearly when I was very young biting into a warm doughnut. If there's anything better in the world than a warm doughnut, I don't know what it is."
Even Laurent Manrique, the French chef of San Francisco's Aqua, appreciates the appeal of the warm Krispy Kreme (although he maintains the French beignet is far and away superior).
"If you get a hot Krispy Kreme and you have that moment when it melts down when you bite into it, it's like a delicacy," he says.
Doughnuts really are meant to be eaten hot, says San Francisco cookbook author and baking expert John P. Carroll. "They just don't keep well," he says. The other secret is the oil. "The ingredients are quite simple. It's the oil that makes the difference. You have to use new oil that tastes fresh."
For Mark Carter, the notion that a doughnut could be something more than the overly processed, made-from-a-mix bombs that flood the market came when he tasted one at Bob's Coffee and Donuts in L.A.'s Farmers Market shopping complex.
Years later, having moved to Sonoma County and in search of a project, he bought a fryer on eBay and began his quixotic quest to change how Americans think of doughnuts. Although Whole Foods has agreed to carry his doughnuts, he still sells them in just a handful of Sonoma County shops. He's simply not big enough yet.
Besides, there is plenty more to learn. Carter is constantly tinkering with temperatures, recipes and techniques.
Turns out that the doughnut, for all its simple beauty, can be quite complex.
"This is the most difficult science pastry project I have ever involved myself in," he says. "But it's like my little secret -- I know doughnuts can be good."
Buttermilk Nutmeg Doughnuts
From cookbook author and San Francisco baking expert John P. Carroll.
1/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg (about 1 whole nutmeg)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Oil for frying
Cinnamon sugar (optional)
INSTRUCTIONS: Beat together the butter, sugar, eggs and buttermilk in a large bowl. Stir and toss together the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt until thoroughly combined. Add to the first mixture and beat until completely mixed.
Begin heating about 2 inches of oil to 375°.
Working on a floured surface, roll and pat the dough 1/2 inch thick; cut out doughnuts using a floured cutter. Set the doughnuts and their holes aside on a baking sheet. Push the scraps together, reroll them and cut more doughnuts.
Gently drop 3 or 4 doughnuts and holes at a time into the hot oil. Flip them over as they rise to the surface and puff, and turn them 2 or 3 more times as they cook. They will take 2 or 3 minutes in all, and are done when golden brown all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
While still warm, toss them in cinnamon sugar, if desired.
Yields about 20 doughnuts and holes.
PER DOUGHNUT: 200 calories, 2 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 11 g fat (2 g saturated), 17 mg cholesterol, 257 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
This is a dough you'll be glad to meet. It is soft and easy to handle, and it turns out light, airy doughnuts. From "The Breakfast Book," by The Chronicle's "Lost Recipes'' columnist Marion Cunningham.
1/3 cup milk, warmed
1 package dry yeast
1 cup water
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar + about 1 cup sugar for sprinkling
4 cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons ground mace
Vegetable oil for frying
INSTRUCTIONS: Pour the warm milk into a mixing bowl and add the yeast; stir and let dissolve for about 5 minutes.
Put the water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the shortening and 1/2 cup sugar, stir until they have dissolved, and remove from the heat. When the water mixture has cooled to warm, add to the yeast mixture. Stir in the eggs and 2 cups flour. Beat well. Add 2 more cups flour and the salt and mace. Stir until well mixed. Add only enough more flour to make a manageable dough; it should be very soft. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in a large greased bowl, cover, and let rise until double in bulk.
Punch down and put the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll it out 1/2 inch thick, and then cut out the doughnuts using a 2-inch cutter. Place the doughnuts on a piece of wax paper or on a greased baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Let rise until light, about 1 hour.
Heat the oil to between 365° and 375°. Fry only about 3 doughnuts at a time -- don't crowd the pan. Fry until golden on each side. Remove and pat free of excess oil on paper towels. Roll in the remaining cup of sugar.
Yields about 30 doughnuts
PER DOUGHNUT: 245 Calories, 4 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 14 g fat (4 g saturated), 4 mg cholesterol, 205 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
E-mail Kim Severson at email@example.com.
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