A change of owners at my favorite local doughnut shop has left me with a heavy heart and a lighter stomach.
The owner/baker who'd mastered the technique of making superior doughnuts - especially the raised, glazed variety - sold out to a hard-working successor who frankly lacks the touch - or at least the right recipe.
The doughnuts are still visually appealing, but I detected a difference even before my taste buds confirmed the fact. The honey-dipped beauties looked too uniformly "inflated." The best doughnuts, I'm convinced, should be a tad uneven and the glaze thick enough to provide more than a sheen.
So now I struggle to find a place that makes a doughnut that not only looks delicious, but is.
I've become pretty discerning over the years. Certainly I've raised my standards since college, when I'd down half a dozen store-bought doughnuts during evening study breaks.
But now while I await Krispy Kreme's arrival and possible impact on Dunkin' Donuts' local domination, memories of a long-ago afternoon spent making doughnuts in my grandmother's kitchen come to mind.
That was not only a fun and delicious experience, it showed me that doughnuts can be made at home. This possibility seems completely alien to most people, partly, I suspect, because commercially made doughnuts are so easy to find and partly because frying is a seldom-used and not altogether popular cooking technique.
The doughnut's history is a little mushy. Some trace its roots to Holland and Germany, where bakers made fry cakes of bread-dough scraps. The Dutch twisted the scraps into decorative knots and rolled them in sugar.
The Puritans, who loved these treats, took them to the New World, where they found native Americans already making a similar fried-bread goody.
Some believe the hole evolved from the Germanic tradition of placing holes in cookies and cakes. Others believe an American sea captain who disliked uncooked centers came up with the idea in 1847, perhaps spiking his doughnuts on the ship's wheel.
But whatever their origin, doughnuts are essentially fried dough, and have appeared in various forms around the world - be it as a fritter in the South, a beignet (French doughnut) in New Orleans, or a malasada in Hawaii.
Be that as it may, amateurs today don't have to leave the doughnut-making to the pros. Homemade doughnuts are doable. Making them may require patience and persistence, but watching raw dough transformed into golden, bobbing treats is visually alluring. And they are a pleasure to eat, especially when still warm.
Day-old doughnuts can be revived with a three- or four-second zap in the microwave. But the best strategy is similar to the one you'd use with pancakes: Simply make sure you have plenty of mouths present to eat them as they are cooked.
This recipe is for cake doughnuts, which are easier and faster to make than yeast doughnuts. Before getting started, make sure you have a good thermometer. Maintaining a temperature of 350 to 375 degrees F. is critical.
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, whole or low-fat, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, melted
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-3/4 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
2 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons water, or as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, sugar, and melted shortening, then add the eggs and vanilla. Whisk well until evenly blended.
Sift 1-3/4 cups of the all-purpose flour, all of the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt into a bowl. Add dry ingredients to the buttermilk mixture and stir just until a soft dough forms.
Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the remaining flour onto a work surface. Scrape the dough onto the flour and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons flour. Knead gently just until the dough is smooth and no longer ragged looking. Push and pat the dough into a 12-inch-by-8-inch rectangle about 1/2 inch thick.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Using a floured 2-1/2-inch doughnut cutter, cut out about 15 doughnuts and transfer the doughnuts and holes to the wax paper. If the dough seems sticky, dust it with a bit more flour. Gently knead the scraps together, pat out to 1/2-inch thickness, and cut out more doughnuts.
Meanwhile, about 10 minutes before frying, add enough oil to a large, heavy saucepan to reach 2 inches up the sides, and heat to between 350 degrees F. and 375 degrees F.
Line another large baking sheet with paper towels. In batches of 3 or 4, add the doughnuts and their holes to the hot oil. They will sink, then rise to the surface. Using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, turn them as soon as they rise to the top. Deep-fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. (The holes don't really need to be turned, just nudged so they cook evenly, and they may be done before the doughnuts.) Transfer doughnuts to the paper towels to drain.
To make the glaze, sift the confectioners' sugar into a small bowl wide enough to hold a doughnut. Add 3 tablespoons water, the vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and mix with a fork until blended. Don't worry about small lumps of sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes to dissolve the lumps. Stir again. The glaze should be quite thick but fall slowly from the tines of the fork. If it is too stiff, beat in additional water 1/2 teaspoon at a time.
Place wire cooling rack over a baking sheet. Place a doughnut in the glaze and let stand undisturbed for 30 seconds. Lift the doughnut out of the glaze and place, glazed side up, on the rack. Glaze the holes in the same manner. Let stand until the glaze sets.
The doughnuts are best when served within a few hours. If you want to freeze them, leave them unglazed and freeze within a few hours of making. To reheat, place the unwrapped frozen doughnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for about 10 minutes. Glaze the warm doughnuts just before serving.
Makes about 20 doughnuts and holes.