Thursday, December 17, 2009

Do, or Do Not

Sometimes I long for the days when ignorance was bliss -- before we all knew that sunburns and cigarettes could kill us.

I'd kill for a good doughnut.

Ok, maybe those three things aren't exactly equal on the scale of vices but seriously, who doesn't love a good glazed doughnut or a bite of a doughnut just dipped in cinnamon sugar?

And my preference leans toward the yeast doughnut, not those heavy cake-like numbers.

In my hometown in Indiana we pretty much excelled in frying just about anything. In fact, the Indiana State Fair is certainly a candidate for the fried food hall of fame: fried strawberries, fried green beans, fried snicker bars and even deep-fried Pepsi.

If it can be breaded it can be fried. Not a bad motto to live by.

So I should be forgiven if I mourned the passing of each of my favorite food groups from my life once I moved to California and became enlightened to the horrors of the fryer.

But still, the doughnut never left my mind.

Because I give myself free reign to try all foods when travelling, I've encountered some pretty spectacular doughnuts across the world. Of course these treats go by much better names than the American word for fried dough.

In Italy we fell in love with ciambelle. We had rented a small apartment in Rome near the Piazza Farnese. Each morning we walked to our corner cafe. The first morning we saw the businessmen leaning against the bar sipping their cappuccino or espresso and eating what looked like a filled doughnut.

We asked the incredibly chic and snooty cashier what the name was of this breakfast treat and she said, "ciambelle." Of course, we didn't pronounce the name exactly right and every morning she would correct us as we asked for a jambelle.

But that turned out not to be a problem. In fact, by the end of our visit the not so snooty cashier would smile when she saw us coming -- knowing we were about to butcher her beautiful language asking for this delicious treat.

In other parts of Italy they call a similar treat bomboloni. I have been fortunate enough to find two shops in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live that sell them. One is in the beautiful S.F. Ferry Building. They only have a few each day so I always head there first.

The other is a small cafe in Palo Alto that sells bomboloni on Saturday nights only. Not a bad reason to venture out.

And in Los Angeles, the Three Square Bakery in Venice makes a German version of a doughnut called a Berliner. They only offer this treat on Fridays.

It seems a limited time offer lessens the guilt.

But doughnuts were not in short supply in my childhood home.

Despite working full-time, my mom routinely made doughnuts for her five kids. She thought nothing of mixing together a batch of dough and frying them up for us.

One of my sisters still fondly remembers watching my mom slip each piece of dough into the frying pan and waiting and watching until she turned the doughnut over to brown on the other side.

I remember the doughnut holes the best -- I always wanted to shake them in the brown paper bag filled with cinnamon sugar.

And perhaps the best part of making doughnuts is that they really don't keep well. You just had to eat them right away or they became greasy and heavy.

It probably isn't too surprising that when I was pregnant, my craving was for doughnuts -- the glazed ones.

And no wonder one of my daughter's favorite treats is a glazed doughnut. I routinely buy them for her each week as I'm shopping for groceries. Nothing like a cold glass of milk and a glazed doughnut after a hard day of teenage drama.

A long time ago I had acquired a doughnut pan for making baked doughnuts. I enthusiastically followed the recipe that had come with the pan. I couldn't wait to try them.

But they looked and tasted like what I imagined my dog's doughnut shaped chew toy to taste like: blah.

But now that my craving was growing, I either needed to find or develop a baked doughnut recipe.

Many of the recipes I found weren't really doughnuts but rather were cupcakes that resembled doughnut holes that once baked, were rolled in butter then cinnamon sugar.

I came across quite a bit of positive Internet chatter over the Baked Doughnut Recipe developed by Heidi Swanson of the website 101cookbooks.

I was all set to try it then I remembered to check The Breakfast Book by cooking legend and Bakers Dozen founder, Marion Cunningham. Sure enough, she had a recipe for baked doughnuts.

The recipe couldn't have been easier -- it mixed together quickly, the dough had to rise for only one hour and it took just ten minutes to bake each batch.

I even got to use the doughnut cutter that my mom used all those years ago -- thankfully one of my sisters had grabbed it while we were closing down my mom's house. It is a very retro cutter -- it has the piece for the doughnut hole attached to the middle of the bigger cutter, you can choose to leave it in or twist it out if you are baking cookies.

The doughnuts were delicious. But you really can't compare a baked doughnut to a fried one. It is just too different. They taste and have the consistency more of a cinnamon roll than a light as air fried doughnut.

And then I thought about the person that the recipe had come from and I adjusted my attitude.

As food writer Jeffrey Steingarten described her in his essay on making pie crust in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, "Marion is a calmly fanatical believer in simplicity..."

And according to cookbook author, David Lebovitz, Marion "didn't suffer fools gladly.."

In other words, I think Marion would tell me that if I wanted a doughnut that tasted like the ones I remembered from my childhood to quit messing around with imitations and make the real thing.

Thanks for the reminder Marion. And I will use your recipe.

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