Dipping Into Doughnuts

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

January 21, 1996|By ROB KASPER

If there is an opportune time to make doughnuts, it would be a winter weekend, when you have plenty of time on your hands. That is not all you will end up having on your hands. There will be flour, powdered sugar and maybe little burn marks from hot oil. Doughnut-making is an aromatic, sensual and delicious mess. It is worth it, I think.

A few weekends ago, members of my family made doughnuts. We used a yeast dough, which required a lot of punching. It also required much table-top space and patience. After the dough had risen, and been punched down, and shaped into doughnuts, it was time for the cooking process.

The doughnuts, like the heretics of old, were supposed to be cooked in very hot oil. It was quite a spectacle. The oil was about 375 degrees. When we dropped in a piece of dough, it was supposed to float. If it didn't, it meant the oil wasn't hot enough.

After bubbling away in the oil for about two minutes a side, the brown doughnuts were fetched from the oily caldron, then dropped on paper towels to cool. Quickly more dough was dropped into the oil. The aroma of the bubbling oil, the transformation of the doughnuts from white dough to crisp brown goodness, the peril of it all made for a dramatic day in the kitchen. I could see why communities used to get together for a heretic fry.

While they cooled, the doughnuts were covered either with powdered sugar or a topping made of orange juice. The orange topping was there for its flavor, not its vitamin C. As for the nutritional value of dough cooked in hot oil, let's just say doughnuts are terrific mental-health food.

Flour, sugar and orange peels were everywhere. From time to time, the pot of oil would send up a geyser. This was not an experience control freaks would enjoy. But, man, did it produce good doughnuts!

As soon as the doughnuts cooled, they disappeared. My kids, who consider themselves aficianados of various forms of fried dough, said that these homemade doughnuts were the best food they had ever gobbled. We cooked until we ran out of dough.

Such stories of the appeal of fresh doughnuts are old news to veteran bakers like John M. Fisher. He and his wife, Linda, operate Fishers' Bakery in Ellicott City. Fisher told me he learned the doughnut-making craft from Norm Leidig, who back in 1948 opened Leidig's Bakery at 8143 Main St., the same spot where Fisher now operates his business.

Fisher said Leidig taught him that making doughnuts requires using quality ingredients and putting in long hours. "Norm said that if you are going to put vanilla in your doughnuts, you use real vanilla, not imitation," Fisher said. "And you don't use cheap flour."

Then there is the work. To get a yeast doughnut that gets in a hungry customer's hand by 7 o'clock in the morning, you have to start mixing ingredients at 3 or 4 o'clock, Fisher said. Cake doughnuts, which do not use yeast dough, are faster to make, he said. But doughnuts of either kind are the most labor-intensive item his bakery produces, Fisher said.

However, if you make fresh doughnuts, the customers will come, Fisher said. These days some fiber-conscious customers ask for muffins or bagels for breakfast at Fisher's shop, but on most winter mornings, doughnuts are in great demand. The colder the weather, Fisher said, the greater the hunger for doughnuts, especially among early-risers.

"The doughnut business in an a.m. business," Fisher said. "Sunday mornings, after church -- and we are surrounded by churches -- people want doughnuts."

Fisher's comments got me thinking about the link between church-going and doughnut-eating. Why, I wondered, are doughnut shops so busy after church lets out? Is it because after a morning spent worrying about the hereafter folks are ready to allow themselves a little pleasure in the here and now? Is it because after being virtuous for a few hours in church, folks are willing to cut themselves a little moral slack and wolf down something "sinful"? Or is it that doughnut-eating is part of the whole Sunday-morning experience? I suspect the answer is a mixture of all three reasons.

I have also found plenty of evidence from the secular side of life of the powerful appeal of doughnuts. For example, as a regular reader of crime stories in the newspaper, I have noticed that the thugs who rob convenience stores often can't resist taking a few doughnuts with them as they flee. One robber swiped some doughnuts and a bottle of spring water from a store in Anne Arundel County. Talk about conflicted.

I have also read that the director of a smell-and-taste research center on the West Coast has reported that most men find the aroma of homemade doughnuts and black licorice to be erotically stimulating.

I don't know about that. Licorice has never done anything for me. But on one of these long winter weekends, I might just cook some doughnuts in hot oil and let nature take its course.

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