Let’s talk doughnuts

What makes a doughnut exceptional?

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This innocuous plastic box contained the best doughnuts I've ever eaten

This innocuous plastic box contained the best doughnuts I’ve ever eaten

Above is a picture of where the best doughnuts I’ve (probably) ever eaten used to reside. There’s no photo of the doughnuts themselves because I didn’t think it was necessary. I mean, we’ve all eaten great doughnuts, and they don’t all warrant a portrait, but the 100 Layer Doughnut™ from Five Daughters Bakery in Nashville, Tennessee does. Or rather, did.

So, let’s talk doughnuts.

It’s like America and France made slow sweet love and had a pastry baby.

Five Daughters

The state of doughnuts in …the States

When we lived in Houston I thought the pinnacle of doughnuts was Hugs and Doughnuts Donuts. They were varied, crazy, decadent. In fact we once employed someone because they brought Hugs and Donuts doughnuts to their interview.1 If you go to their store or look at their Instagram feed you’ll get the idea. These doughnuts were good, great even, but as we’ve been travelling the US and tasting our fair share of doughnuts, I’ve come to realise something: doughnuts that are treated like cupcakes, i.e., regular (or cake) doughnut base with attention-grabbing toppings or fillings are not what make a doughnut exceptional. They make a doughnut look amazing but that’s not were the focus should be. The taste is sugary; sugary bread with super-sugary topping. Hugs and Donuts rises above this but many other bakeries and doughnut shops in the US do not.

Freshness is king

The number one mark of an exceptional doughnut is freshness. If you can grab one while it’s still warm you’ll have the best chance of an exceptional doughnut experience. Somewhat paradoxically, the larger shops, like Shipley’s in Houston, Texas, has such a high turnover of doughnuts that you’re almost guaranteed to get a warm one, and if not, it’s not too far out of the fryer. The best indication of freshness is the doughnut being fried on site. Shipley’s mixes all their dough in one location, but delivers the dough to stores to be freshly cooked.

Less is (often) more

Krispy Kreme stores can knock out 100,000 doughnuts a day while keeping their quality high. Part of this is due to simplicity; they have perfected the plain — or glazed — doughnut for mass production. Sure their recipe is probably secret but the internet has no shortage of people reverse engineering what is essentially a simple doughnut with simple sugar glaze.

“Glazed” is the most popular doughnut flavour in the USA (if my limited (but still-scientifically valid) experiment is any indication): when I wanted to treat my coworkers, I’d bring a couple dozen Shipley’s doughnuts into the office early in the morning. The glazed disappeared quickly while other flavours remained, and the leftovers weren’t some obscure flavour. For example, I ordered 50% glazed and 50% cinnamon sugar (one of my faves), but after several attempts to expand my coworkers’ horizons I just gave up and ordered all glazed doughnuts, with a couple cinnamon sugars on the side for myself. C’est la vie.

A doughnut isn’t a platform

In recent times cupcakes have become more decadent, piled higher and higher with frosting tipping the treat past the point of being pleasant to eat. When you want to enjoy a cupcake with your tea you don’t want a mouthful of claggy butter-sugar. You do want a light, fluffy cake base accented with a sweet note. The same goes for doughnuts: you ordered a doughnut, not an edible plate for an elaborate bunch of flavours (even if it does contain bacon). The doughnut is not a platform for something, it’s the thing.

There’s probably a “perfect” ratio of frosting to doughnut that makes a doughnut exceptional. I don’t know what it is. The bakers at Five Daughters have a pretty good idea…

The 100 Layer Doughnut

The doughnuts that used to be in that container above were both “100 Layer” doughnuts. We ordered “The Purist” (glazed) and “White Chocolate Mocha with a coffee buttercream” (not glazed). Here’s some literature from the Five Daughters site:

This is the Five Daughters Bakery version of a cronut. It is a delicious hybrid of a croissant and a doughnut, and takes up to three days to craft this decadent creation. Once cooked, the 100 layer doughnut is rolled in sugar, filled with cream, and topped with a heavenly glaze. This is one experience you will want to have more than once.

The simplicity of The Purist lets the layers of croissant-like pastry shine. Despite being filled with air pockets and feeling physically light, the doughnut was quite decadent. Unlike Krispy Kreme or Shipley’s I’d struggle to eat more than one. It tasted light but was deliciously dense to chew. There’s some physics-defying shit going on, in a good way.

The Mocha doughnut had all light-but-dense quality of The Purist but flipped the script on the frosting. It had a generous whip of white chocolate mocha frosting that looked sickeningly dense but was delightfully light and fluffy, the mocha flavour ruling over sugary sweetness. It was finished with three coffee beans which crunched easily and didn’t splinter and chip, almost like a perfectly roasted peanut.

Kelly and I shared half of each doughnut over a cup of tea, having to take a half-time break to both savour the experience and extend it.

It was doughnut nirvana.

  1. They were also good at their job but priorities are priorities.