Doughnuts: A Short History

Doughnuts are one of the culinary sweethearts of early America. The history of the doughnut is like a classic tale of Americana. It has been said, that the doughnut was ‘invented’ in the mid-1800’s by Dutch settlers whose cow accidentally kicked boiling water onto some dough and consequently discovered  a tasty golden brown delight. These settlers did not share their discovery with their homeland, and thus doughnuts became, like so many other things, inherently American.

These settlers did not invent the simple act of frying dough, in fact, this practice has been pleasing palates for hundreds of years. In Mexico, churros and sopapillas are popular treats, in Italy it’s zeppole, they make beignets in France, and the list goes on. Cultures all around the world know how delicious fried dough lightly dusted in sugar or iced heavily in sugar – let’s face it, anything that’s fried and topped with sugar is going to be delicious.

The treat at point in this post, however, is the classic American doughnut. It’s not recorded in certainty how doughnuts came to have their signature hole in the middle. Some say a sailor in tumultuous weather stuck his fried dough on the helm so he could use two hands to steer, others say it was the ruse of a cheapskate salesman who was trying to cut costs. I personally believe it came to be, simply as a satisfactory way to eliminate the sogginess from the middle.

Doughnuts had been consumed for at least a hundred years before becoming the beloved American treat of the 1930’s, when the notion of dunking doughnuts in coffee became a staple in pop culture. During WWII, Red Cross women (aka: Doughnut Dollies) passed out hot doughnuts to soldiers. And now here we are in 2011, and doughnuts are still an American favorite.

In fact, in the past few years, there has been a resurgence in the doughnut trend and specialty shops have popped up around the nation. The Cooking Channel even dedicated an entire show to this classic treat. I went to one of the shops featured on that show this past weekend in Manhattan called, Doughnut Plant.

I’ve been hearing a lot about this place lately and have been dying to try their doughnuts for years. Now that I have finally had my doughnut, I can say with some certainty that I will definitely be going back. What I love about this bakery is their new way of thinking about an American classic. They’re not afraid to play with flavors and fillings and even the classic shape. One of their signature innovations, is creating jelly donuts in a square form with a hole in the middle for more equal distribution of jelly than the classic round filled. You’ll find everything from fresh fruit flavors like cranberry and blackberry jelly-filled, to crème brûlée and tres leches.

I wanted to try both a yeast and a cake doughnut, knowing that I probably wouldn’t like the cake because of their typically dry nature. Don’t you just love being pleasantly surprised?

The Roasted Chestnut cake doughnut I tried was absolutely delicious. Very moist, flavorful, and tasted like the holidays. I really loved it. Afterwards, I immediately went to Whole Foods to buy some chestnuts for roasting. The Vanilla Bean yeast doughnut was unfortunately, only ok. I think I would have been happier with a chocolate icing topped one. That will be next time …

I nibbled and paid the cashier, nibbled and sprinkled my coffee with cinnamon, nibbled and found a seat.  I was perfectly content to sit in their sugary-smelling shop all morning, admiring the doughnut shaped pillows on the wall while sipping my soy cappuccino. I’m not embarrassed to say that my doughnuts had long since been devoured by that point.

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