Elk’s Club meetings mean donuts to George Geary. “My dad’s Elk’s meetings were Friday nights and he’d always come home with Winchell’s donuts,” says Geary, an accomplished pastry chef, author and donut expert. “It’s my favorite childhood memory.”
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Sweet dough fried in hot oil is irresistible--and not just to Homer Simpson. Argentines love their facturas, Austrians their krapfen, Iceland their kleinuhringar, Japanese their sata andagi and Israelis their sufganiyot.
Canada, in fact, is the world’s largest per capita donut consumer. It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes them, even New York City's trans-fat-fighting Mayor Bloomberg. One day after proposing the New York City soda ban the Mayor proclaimed June 1, 2012, “NYC Donut Day.”
Dutch “olykoeks” (“oily cakes”) are thought to be precursors to modern donuts writes Paul R. Mullins, Department Chair of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, in an email from Finland. “ Though ’olykoeks’ were probably more flat pastries,” explains the author of "Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut" (University Press of Florida).
The contemporary hole-in-the-center “torus”-shaped donut emerged in the second half of the 19th century, says Mullins, when bakers realized that a hollow center made for even frying. Mass-market chains like Winchell’s Donuts, Dunkin’ Donuts, and later, Krispy Kreme proliferated in the 1950s and 60s making donuts widely available.
Donuts remained pretty much trend-resistant until the 2000s says Geary, author of "150 Best Donut Recipes: Fried or Baked" (Robert Rose).
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Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo Donuts cereal-topped trifecta --which is “Captain, My Captain,” (Cap’n Crunch), “The Loop,” (Fruit Loops), “Triple Chocolate Penetration,” (Cocoa Puffs) introduced a new breed of “shock” donuts. (The board of health squashed their NyQuil donuts and Pepto donuts). NYC’s Doughnut Plant invented and patented a square donut. Chicago’s Doughnut Vault played hard-to-get with their donuts and still does. Lining up before they open doesn’t guarantee you’ll get any as they sell out in an hour or so. Other donut groundbreakers Geary says include LA’s Nickel Diner and Atlanta’s Sublime Donuts.
Then things got weirder. San Jose’s Psycho Donuts created French-fry-shaped donuts served with cups of raspberry jelly and Bavarian cream for dipping. The “Luther Burger” debuted, a bacon-cheese burger sandwiched between two glazed donuts. Paula Deen’s version axed the cheese, kept the bacon and donuts, and added a fried egg. This spring Dunkin Donuts announced that it would introduce a shredded pork donut to the Chinese market.
Before getting grossed out, consider that most donuts-gone-wild shops offer maple-bacon donuts and they’re always big sellers. One man’s shredded pork is another’s smoky bacon.
In the late 2000s, gourmet donuts—less fantastical, more technique-driven—started taking hold. “Gourmet” donuts, writes Mullins, “invoke a cultivated knowledge of food.” They “imply the presence of a formally-trained chef, a rotating menu,” specialty flours and ingredients, he writes, and are in towns or cities large enough to sustain a niche product.
Like San Francisco’s Dynamo Donuts. They have Spiced Chocolate Donuts, chocolate donuts coated with sugar, cinnamon, chile and chipotle, Apricot Cardamom, cardamom donuts with dried apricots and currants, with cardamom glaze, and Maple Apple Bacon, studded with bacon and apples sautéed in bacon fat, maple glazed and topped with crispy bacon.
Dynamo’s founder, culinary-trained pastry chef Sara Spearin, says “gourmet” is about technique, labor and ingredients more than flavors. She hand-mixes each batch and explains that working with yeast dough requires knowledge and experience. “Yeast is moody,” she says, “it reacts to weather and humidity.” It requires expertise “to put out the same product every day even though the yeast reacts differently every day,” she says.
She flavors her dough as opposed to heaping flavorings on top. That means that
Molasses Guinness Pear requires its own batch of dough and glaze as does Saffron Chocolate. Dynamo launched in 2008 and just opened their second San Francisco location.
Allison Smith, a 24-year-old old Culinary Institute of Charleston graduate, is barely into her second year owning Charleston, South Carolina’s Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts.
Family, friends and husband helpfully pointed out the failure rates of restaurants, especially in this weak economy. Smith didn’t care. She saw an opportunity: Charleston had no artisan donut shops. And Charleston apparently was pining for unique handmade donuts. It just didn’t know it. The Purple Goat, a triple dairy goat cheese with berries and a lavender-infused glaze is her biggest-seller.
Curry Up! combines curry, chocolate and crystallized ginger and she tops the bourbon cream-filled Charleston with toffee glaze and homemade pralines. It’s like an entire dessert contained in a donut. “Customers at first didn’t know if they could trust me,” she explains, “now they love being my guinea pigs.”