My favorite mornings growing up, I’d wake to the sounds of Mom busy in the kitchen, rolling out freshly risen dough as a pot of oil heated on the stove. I could soon tell by the aromas wafting through the house that the morning was going to be special.
Mom was making doughnuts for breakfast.
Before too long, we were picking out our favorites from the freshly frosted bunch. I always chose one of the long johns she shaped using a large dog-bone-shaped cookie cutter. My siblings and I would pile in front of the TV, all four of us propped against the family dog (a very big St. Bernard), devouring her creations as we fought for the remote.
The crisp, brittle crust of each golden-brown doughnut would give way to a warm and tender interior, delicately flavored and comfortingly fragrant. We’d savor every last bite, licking the rich chocolate glaze from our fingers as we watched cartoons.
There’s something magical about the doughnut. You don’t have to be Homer Simpson to swoon when you’re greeted with all those bright colors and sparkly decorations in a doughnut shop display case. But no matter how wonderful they may appear, it’s hard to find a store-bought doughnut that compares with homemade.
And believe it or not, they’re really not hard to make. You can whip up a batch of cake doughnuts in about an hour. Put together a batch of yeast-raised the night before, and all you have to do is fry them the next morning. Making breakfast for someone special? Try a batch of French crullers, their thin, golden crusts yielding to the most delicate, lightly flavored interiors.
A classic buttermilk cake doughnut is a great place to begin. The method is similar to a classic cake recipe but with a slightly thicker dough. I add an extra egg yolk for a little more richness, and mix in a cup of buttermilk for both texture and a hint of tang.
Leavened with baking powder and a little baking soda, these doughnuts don’t need time to rise. Simply roll them out and cut them up. Use a doughnut cutter, or go with a couple of biscuit cutters or empty cans.
Then fry. Use a neutral, refined oil, such as canola or vegetable oil – they have a higher smoking point and a more neutral flavor. And always use a thermometer – a candy or digital probe works well – to keep the temperature consistent.
Proper temperature is key: too high and the doughnut’s crust will scorch before it is done in the center; too low and the doughnut won’t cook in the oil, it will soak it up like a sponge.
For chocolate lovers, there’s nothing like a great devil’s food doughnut, but so many times the store-bought variety is overly sweet and artificial tasting.
These are made with a technique similar to the buttermilk cake doughnuts. The trick here is adding a good amount of chocolate to the recipe – I use both melted chocolate and cocoa for depth of flavor. Splurge a little and buy good chocolate; you’ll taste the difference. And add some coffee – you won’t taste it but it will help bring out the chocolate flavor.
Finally, fold in a little sour cream: It lends a slight tang and lightens the structure of the cake, making for a more delicate crumb.
And what about French crullers? Wreath-shaped puffs of air that are piped before baking, crullers may at first seem intimidating, but they’re nowhere near as difficult as they may appear, once you figure them out. And the flavor is terrific.
Unlike cake doughnuts that use chemical leaveners, or risen doughnuts that rely on yeast, French crullers are based on pâte à choux, the same dough used to make cream puffs and éclairs. The trick is making a doughnut that is light and airy but still firm enough so it won’t collapse as it cools – something both delicate and structured.
After a lot of trial and error (and several dozen eggs), I found a winner. For help, I turned to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s chapter on cream puff pastry in “The Pie and Pastry Bible.” She adds additional egg whites to increase the structure and crispness and stresses using water instead of milk in the base (milk causes the egg to bind more quickly when cooked, reducing potential volume).
But perhaps the best trick she gave was making the dough in the food processor – it’s much easier than mixing in the eggs by hand and it increased the volume of my crullers by a third. From now on, I’ll never make choux paste any other way.
Another problem I had was getting the delicate cruller dough into the oil to fry. I found the solution in Nancy Silverton’s excellent “Pastries From the La Brea Bakery,” in which she suggests piping the dough onto a square of well-greased parchment paper and then flipping the paper and cruller over into the hot oil, allowing the pastry to slide off – this helps the cruller keep its shape.
When they fry, these puff up nicely for about a minute or so, and then they sort of explode around the edges. This is fine (choux dough cracks when it bakes in the oven too). Just keep frying them until they’re golden all over. They triple in size.
Because they crack, the doughnuts may be a bit misshapen. I prefer to call them “artisan” or “rustic,” but if you’re really concerned about looks, frosting, like makeup, works wonders on imperfections.
Glazes are simple to make. For the chocolate, simply heat some cream, water, butter and a little vanilla and then stir over a bowl of some chocolate chunks or chips to melt. The glaze is rich with a beautiful sheen, but the method is simple.
For maple, whisk together syrup with some powdered sugar and butter — brown the butter first just to give the glaze a little depth.
Or go with a fresh fruit glaze: Whisk chopped or pureed berries or stone fruit with powdered sugar and a little vanilla or a liqueur.
Finally, be sure to enjoy the doughnuts while they’re still warm. Put on another pot of coffee and take in the quiet morning.
Or, do what I still do, and throw on some cartoons.
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/4 cups (5.3 ounces) flour
2 egg whites
Canola oil for frying
In a medium-size, wide heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the butter, water, salt, sugar and vanilla seeds and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Remove from heat and quickly stir in the flour (stir quickly or the flour lumps will cook). Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring frequently, for about three minutes to cook the flour slightly and rid the mixture of any starchy, floury taste.
Remove the pan from the heat and place the dough in the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer. If using a food processor, process the dough for 15 seconds to cool slightly and release steam (leave the tube open), then add all of the eggs and egg whites at once. Immediately continue to process for 30 seconds to combine and form the cruller batter. If using a stand mixer, beat the dough with the paddle attachment until most of the steam has subsided, then add the eggs and egg whites, one at a time, until each is incorporated and a batter is formed.
Remove the batter to a bowl set over an ice bath and continue to stir gently just until the batter cools and thickens (it should be thick enough to hold its shape when piped).
Grease a large piece of parchment paper with spray oil, or generously brush with oil to keep the doughnuts from sticking to the paper.
Place the batter in a large pastry bag fitted with a large star tip (the hole should measure just over one-half inch in diameter). Pipe the batter onto the greased paper into doughnuts measuring about 3 inches in diameter, with a hole about 1 inch in diameter, and spacing the doughnuts about 2 inches apart. The dough might slide as the doughnut is piped; hold the paper in place with one hand as you pipe, pressing in gently with the tip of the bag to close the doughnut and then quickly releasing to cut the dough (wet your fingers to pat down any dough “tips”).
Fill a deep fryer with oil, or fill a large pot to a depth of at least 3 inches, and heat to a temperature of 350 degrees.
While the oil is heating, cut the paper around each of the doughnuts into squares. This will allow you to pick up each doughnut individually and invert it over the oil to release.
Gently place the doughnuts in the fryer one at a time, gently placing the paper in the hot oil until the doughnut releases and slides off. Fry just a few doughnuts at a time, being careful not to crowd. Fry the doughnuts until puffed and golden (they will triple in size), about 6 minutes total, flipping every 30 seconds or so. The doughnuts will begin to crack and expand after a minute or two – this is fine, they will be slightly misshapen. Keep frying until evenly golden.
Drain the doughnuts on a rack and cool slightly, then frost and decorate as desired.
Yield: 10 to 12 doughnuts
Approximate nutrition per doughnut (based on 12): 241 calories, 21 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 4 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate, 68 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 125 milligrams sodium.
4 1/4 cups (18 ounces) flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, grated nutmeg and cinnamon.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the eggs and egg yolk with the sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
In a large measuring cup, stir together the buttermilk and butter.
Alternately beat the dry ingredients and buttermilk mixture into the egg mixture, one-third at a time, until all of the ingredients are combined and a dough is formed. It will be soft and sticky.
With floured hands, remove the dough to a floured board and gently roll out until the dough is one-half inch thick. Using a doughnut cutter, or two biscuit cutters (a larger one measuring 3 to 31/2 inches in diameter, and a smaller one measuring about 1 inch in diameter), cut the dough into doughnuts, spacing the doughnuts as close as possible. Collect the scraps and roll out to form another batch of doughnuts (note that this batch may be a little tougher than the first as the dough has been worked).
Meanwhile, fill a deep fryer with oil, or a large pot to a depth of at least 3 inches, with oil, and heat to a temperature of 350 degrees.
Gently place the doughnuts in the oil, being careful not to crowd. Fry the doughnuts on each side until puffed and golden, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side.
Drain the doughnuts on a rack and cool slightly, then frost and decorate as desired.
Yield: About 1 1/2 dozen doughnuts
Approximate nutrition per doughnut: 291 calories, 17 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 4 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrate, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 237 milligrams sodium.
1 pound bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (chips or finely diced)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons corn syrup
Place the chocolate in a large bowl.
In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, cream, water, vanilla, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a good simmer over high heat. Remove from heat.
Pour the cream mixture over the chocolate and gently stir to combine, melting the chocolate and forming a glaze.
The glaze will thicken as it cools. This makes 2 1/2 cups glaze, which will keep for up to 1 week, covered and refrigerated. Rewarm slightly to thin.
Yield: About 2 1/2 cups glaze, enough to frost a batch of doughnuts
Approximate nutrition per tablespoon: 81 calories, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 1 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrate, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 5 milligrams sodium.
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
1 pound powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B
In a small saucepan heated over medium-high heat, melt the butter and continue to cook until the butter browns, being careful not to burn. Remove from heat and set aside.
Place the powdered sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl. Using the whisk attachment or a hand mixer, beat in the melted butter and browned bits along with the vanilla. Slowly beat in the maple syrup. When all of the ingredients are incorporated, briefly beat over high speed to remove any lumps. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate until needed (bring back to room temperature and beat briefly before using).
Note: Grade B maple syrup is less filtered than Grade A, making for a more richly flavored syrup; it is generally available at most markets.
Yield: About 2 cups glaze, enough to frost a batch of doughnuts
Approximate nutrition per tablespoon: 94 calories, 2 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no protein, 19 grams carbohydrate, 6 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 1 milligram sodium.
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