Recently, one of my most closely held beliefs about the world fell apart before my eyes (and taste buds) when I found out the truth about where doughnuts come from.
Admit it. You thought it was a doughnut machine, too, didn't you?
Ah, the doughnut machine, star attraction of my favorite childhood stories. Having read "The Doughnut," by Robert McCloskey, from his book, "Homer Price," at least a baker's dozen times, the description of the workings of Uncle Ulysses' doughnut machine whirs readily to mind:
"The rings of batter kept right on dropping into the hot fat, and an automatic gadget kept right on turning them over, and another automatic gadget kept right on giving them a little push, and the doughnuts kept right on rolling down the little chute, just as regular as a clock can tick."
While I've never seen a real doughnut machine, I've seen photographs of 1930s polished-chrome, streamlined deco doughnut machines (which look as if they should have turned out food much more glamorous than the humble doughnut) worthy of enshrinement in the Museum of Modern Art, and I've never forgotten McCloskey's humorous yet precise renderings of Homer's uncle's machine gone mad. I have always assumed every doughnut I've ever consumed at commercial doughnut places was, well, gestated in a doughnut machine and born from its chute.
With a lifetime of such images in my head (and a reporter's notebook in my hand), imagine my surprise upon visiting the kitchen of a commercial doughnut chain and discovering that every doughnut is made by hand! In an instant, my opinion of this most plebeian of snack foods soared immeasurably.
Made "by hand," however, is a relative term. A huge, industrial mixer mixes all the dozens of kinds of doughs. And this operation, as do several others, uses a machine to roll and cut the doughnuts, though an experienced baker hand-cutting the dough can easily outpace a machine, according to Rick Schluederberg, owner of a Dunkin' Donuts shop near Pikesville. Skilled doughnut makers must be an energetic lot, considering they usually hand-cut at least 200 dozen per eight-hour shift.
The rest of the doughnut-making process, however, is strictly by hand. After being cut, yeast-raised doughnuts are placed on trays and set into 110-to-115-degree proofer to rise for 20-40 minutes. When fully risen, they are fried in large vats of 375-degree oil for 45 seconds on each side. Cake doughnuts and a few other specialties are prepared much the same, minus the proofing.
While an experienced baker can glide easily through all the doughnut-making steps himself, I happened to catch bakers Kenneth Turner and Faina Shvartsberg dancing a well-choreographed two-step. While Ms. Shvartsberg mixed, Mr. Turner controlled the rolling and cutting machine. As he continued cutting (all the while keeping a watchful eye on his rising rings from the previous batch), Ms. Shvartsberg fried, flipping her bobbing charges with overgrown chopsticks. Some batches she threaded on huge skewers and bathed in a tub of white icing. Plain doughnuts and others slated for filling were carefully laid on racks to cool. Then she mixed more dough, just as Mr. Turner loaded the proofer with the last of the fresh-cut doughnuts and unloaded trays of fully risen doughnuts for Ms. Shvartsberg to fry. Mesmerized, I watches as several kinds of doughs became doughnuts in an amazingly short time.
The dancing stopped abruptly when a batch of crullers wouldn't fry right. Mr. Schluederberg explained that because baking is a scientific process dependent on proper timing, temperature and ingredients, even the most experienced doughnut maker is doomed to at least one dud doughnut batch per shift. He embellished his explanation with a myriad of of charts showing everything that could ever go wrong and why, leading me to wonder if the home doughnut-maker had a prayer.
Happily, I discovered, he or she does. As with any kind of baked goods, however, one must follow doughnut recipes to the letter -- carefully measuring all ingredients, letting yeast doughs rise long and high enough, and kneading the dough the prescribed number of times. Also, the use of a deep-fat thermometer is extremely important, as the flashpoint of oil is only slightly above the temperature needed to correctly fry doughnuts.
Most store-bought doughnuts are certainly good for a quick fix, but the freshness and texture of these homemade treats more than justifies the effort. And no doughnut that ever popped out of Uncle Ulysses' machine ever tasted quite as good.
The first recipe is for glazed doughnuts, far and away the most popular type sold at the major doughnut chains. This version is from Gourmet magazine, February 1991.
Makes about 20 doughnuts.
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour