Zen and the Art of Donuts

When I first started cooking, I was all about results. I wanted to get to the finished product as soon as possible and, since I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was willing to cut corners to get there. I’d turn up the heat, use a rough dice, settle for substitutions instead of the specified ingredients, and generally throw stuff together in the hopes that it would turn out okay. And my standard for okay was “edible and not super gross” so it usually did turn out…okay.

As I cook more often and try new methods of cooking, I’m learning to be patient. I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m enjoying the process a lot more, paying attention to the details, and absorbing as much as I can. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this leads to better end results too.

Making donuts was a perfect example of savoring the process, only to savor the result even more. I try to set aside at least half a day, from lunch to a late dinner, every couple of weekends for cooking projects. Sometimes I know weeks in advance what I want to attempt, and I’ll spend the preceding week gathering ingredients from online retailers and far-flung specialty grocery stores. (For example, I didn’t even know “wheat starch” was a food product until I looked up recipes for rice noodles. Same goes for “nigari,” a coagulant used for making tofu.) Other times, I don’t have anything particular in mind until Thursday or Friday, and I just follow a whim.

This week the inspiration came from Facebook: a friend tagged me and a few others in a post with this photo, captioned “For the donut lovers.” And I thought to myself, Whoa, since when am I a donut-lover? I guess I do talk about them a lot with my friends from the gym who are the real donut lovers. I suppose, if I have this reputation, I might as well walk the walk. It seems it’s time to try my hand at making donuts…

Next thing I know, I’m looking up recipes, adding ingredients to my grocery list, and standing in my kitchen with a big bag of flour. I considered making a basic yeast donut to start, but Boston cream is my favorite and cooking is all about following your joy…so Boston cream it was. The process is fairly simple: make the fried donuts, fill with cream, dip in chocolate. But it can take a little time to bring a yeast-based recipe from idea to edible. In my case, it took about 5 hours.

First, assemble the ingredients for the dough : milk, yeast, eggs, butter (melted and cooled), sugar, salt and flour. The usual suspects. Warm the milk, gently stir in the yeast and let sit for about 5 minutes. You should see the mixture bubble and foam a bit as the yeast gets going. I let it go a little bit longer than five minutes since I wasn’t sure what the recipe meant by “foamy.” Then mix in the eggs, butter, sugar, and salt. The recipe I used suggests an electric mixer for this step, but it worked just fine with a fork and elbow grease.

Next, stir in the flour. Add the first two cups and combine to make a wet dough, then add more slowly to make sure the flour is fully incorporated. At some point you’ll need to switch from mixing with a fork (or electric mixer) to kneading by hand. Don’t overwork the dough. When you’ve added about 4 cups of flour (plus a little extra) the dough should be moist and a little sticky (not perfectly smooth like a crusty bread), but it will hold together. Form into a ball. Place in an oiled bowl, covered with a moist cloth, and let rise until doubled, about an hour, in a warm place in your kitchen.

While the dough is rising, make the custard filling. Combine a lot of sugar and a little flour and cornstarch (with a pinch of salt) in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, then whisk in eggs and cream. Whisk constantly until the mixture starts to bubble. Continue heating and stirring until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of spoon. This happened very rapidly for me (within 60 seconds of the custard starting to thicken) and the mixture actually started to clump up (the sugar caramelized) because I overheated. I made this same mistake when I was making egg tarts a couple of weeks ago. So do as I say, not as I do: Be gentle and patient when heating custard. Creamy eggs hang in the balance.

Before the mixture gets too thick, whisk in some butter and vanilla, then strain the whole thing. The recipe calls for a fine metal sieve. I poured the hot custard into a bowl lined with cheese cloth then gathered up and squeezed the cheese cloth until smooth custard came out, leaving the clumpy bits behind. A year ago (or even two weeks ago), I wouldn’t have bothered with the straining step because the custard tasted “okay” right off the stove, but the silky texture that results from straining is vastly superior to the alternative. That extra step was important.

The filling only takes 30 minutes, so while the dough continues to rise and the custard cools, wash dishes. I’m secretly a 70-year-old granny frequently that thinks things like, “A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen,” in case you didn’t know.

When the dough is ready, divide it into manageable batches and roll out on a well floured surface to a 1/2 inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter or cup to cut circles from the dough. Since I don’t own cookie cutters, I used a wine glass which made cute little donuts, instead of honking big ones. (We don’t drink at home so the wine glasses are mostly decorative anyway.) After you cut the circles, let them rest on a floured cookie sheet, covered with a moist cloth, for about 45 minutes.

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During this second rise, make the chocolate glaze. I expected this part of the recipe to involve melted dark chocolate like the shell on a bonbon, but I was mistaken. Chocolate glaze for pastries is very simple: a lot of powdered sugar and a little cocoa powder dissolved into a tiny quantity of milk so that it’s viscous in large quantities, but effectively solid in a thin layer. This works much better than a chocolate shell because it matches the texture and softness of the underlying donut, and sticks to the pastry rather than flaking off. The more you know!

15 minutes before the donuts are ready, heat 1-1.5 quarts of neutral oil to 350-375 F in a medium saucepan. I used a mix of Canola oil and Crisco to get that intoxicating “state fair fried food” scent. When the oil is hot and the donuts have puffed up slightly, fry them in small batches for 45 seconds to 1 minute on each side, until golden brown. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

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Make sure the oil doesn’t get too hot – Crisco is flammable and a hot pan full of flaming oil sounds terrifying. Oil that’s too hot will also darken your beautiful golden donuts before their time. I adjusted the heat down several times while frying.

This is the part where, after at least two hours, it starts to look and feel like you’re actually making donuts. You can smell the frying dough, see the once-pale circles puff up and turn golden brown, and hear the sizzle of water and air in the dough hitting hot oil.

Once all the donuts have been fried, you can fill them with custard. Transfer the custard to a plastic baggie and snip off the corner to use like a pastry bag. Use a sharp knife to cut a small hole in one side of the donut. This should expose the hollow interior. Stick the cut end of the bag into the donut and squeeze to fill with custard. The donut exterior is pretty flexible so you can inject the filling and gently close the opening to make it look perfect on the outside, or you can overfill a little bit and have custard poking out for that classic Boston cream look.

After adding the cream, dip the top half of the donut in the chocolate glaze. I dipped the side that had more blemishes because the chocolate covers everything up. Twist as you pull up and out of the glaze to get a smooth coating, then place on a cookie sheet to let the glaze harden while you make the rest of the donuts. The recipe I used makes 16 small or 12 Dunkin-sized donuts from 4 cups of flour.

Each step of the way, I tried to focus on the task at hand: making dough, making custard, making glaze, frying, filling and dipping, instead of trying to hold all the steps in my mind at the same time. Five hours later, when Jay and I finally split that first fresh, homemade donut, it came as something of a pleasant surprise. From runny batter and clumpy egg goop came this final product, so similar to what my friends and I find in boutique pastry stores around the city. A revelation.

There’s probably a bigger life lesson in here somewhere about taking time to do things well. But I was too busy eating donuts to notice.

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For an actual recipe to supplement my semi-autobiographical food narrative, see the New York Times and Chowhound

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