Pass through any city or town in North America and there’s a good chance you’ll happen upon a doughnut shop. Regardless of the name on the sign, the layout is more or less the same: a wall of baskets or a clear glass box displaying rows of doughy cakes coated with sugar, glazed or topped with colored icing. Maybe in the periphery is a metal sheet pan rack with layers of reserves, ready to be packed into boxes or eaten straightaway with a steaming cup of coffee. How did the doughnut, a humble hunk of fried or baked dough, rise to its ubiquitous and iconic position?
INTRODUCING AN ICON
As Smithsonian Magazine has reported, an early version of the doughnut was introduced to New York City by the Dutch, back when it was still known as New Amsterdam. They were called olykoeks, for “oily cakes.” Made from spooning a bit of dough into sizzling pork fat or rapeseed oil, they were typically a Christmas treat.
DOUGHNUTS TO GO
In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Gregory, the mother of an east coast ship captain, prepared her version of doughnuts to send with her son and his crew on their long voyages—a precursor of the takeout box. Ms. Gregory’s version was flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and preserved lemon from her son’s cargo of spices, allegedly to help ward off scurvy. She also put a nut in the center, possibly inspiring the extremely literal “doughnut” name.
This is where it gets interesting. Elizabeth’s son, Captain Gregory, says he created the doughnut hole. Apparently he cut the middle out of his mother’s cakes so they could be skewered on the spokes of his steering wheel. As if he couldn’t have handed control of the ship to his first officer and taken a five-minute coffee and doughnut break like the rest of us. People with common sense have noted the hole in the doughnut also helps the dough cook evenly throughout, to avoid of having a raw center.
BEIGNETS MAKE A MARK
Fritters are a variation of the classic round doughnut that have also been around for a long time—possibly as far back as 2nd century Rome. (I would recommend seeking out fritters that are not that old.) The beignet, famous in New Orleans and officially the state doughnut of Louisiana, is a type of fritter. It was brought to the area by French colonialists in the 18th century. In the U.S., a beignet is made from fried choux pastry. Elsewhere it can be made with yeast dough, which might be called a Berliner, and filled with jam or custard.
In the 1920s, New Yorker Adolph Levitt invented a machine that produced doughnuts quickly to satisfy a hungry theatre crowd, who would watch in wonder through his shop window as the round dough was fried and flipped then eaten fresh.
CRONUTS AND BEYOND
The doughnut evolution slowed over the next several decades. Though many attempted to stand out through variations in ingredients or toppings or production methods, few legitimate innovations have taken place. That is, of course, until the 2013 breakthrough of the cronut, a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by chef and baker Dominique Ansel. Today our choices are nearly limitless, from the simple Old Fashioned Plain to the articulated cruller to the contemporary cream-filled. There’s one for every taste.
Chocolate glaze or Boston Cream? What’s your favorite type of doughnut? Let us know over on Twitter at @luvoinc. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter, Plated, to unlock a $2 coupon to use on your next Luvo purchase.