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Tales from a Doughnut Queen

I have a very simple history with fried dough. I adore it.

As a 16-year-old, my driver’s license meant I could finally transport myself to Merritt’s Country Café in Boise, Idaho, anytime I pleased to sneak doughnuts behind my mother’s back. Rotund servers ferried heaping plates of fried dough slathered in sugar to tables of rude, hungry teens—no questions asked. Doughnuts represented deliciousness, yes, but also an opportunity to experiment with a type of misbehavior that was far more rebellious, at least to me, than sneaking out to drink.

Fast forward to late last summer, when an editor called looking for a writer to do a baking book about Seattle’s famed Top Pot Doughnuts and its owners, Mark and Michael Klebeck. Apparently she’d heard I could write a mean recipe. The idea of devoting myself and a slice of my career to something so blatantly fattening was exhilarating. And so it happened that I signed a contract to write my first cookbook. The kicker? I had five weeks, instead of the usual 52, to write it.

Let’s do some math: Fifty recipes. Five weeks. That’s about ten doughnut recipes to test per week. But actually, I’d also need time to bring the doughnuts to Top Pot to compare them to Mark and Michael’s versions. I’ll spare you the figures, but that meant making roughly two batches of doughnuts per day for 25 straight days—assuming I got every single recipe pretty much right on the first try.

Like the sensible gal that I am, I refused to panic. Deep-frying doesn’t scare me. I’d done doughnuts before—plenty of times. I’d made and decorated two hundred Halloween-themed orbs with a Mormon friend for her Bible study. I’d tested gorgeous cider-glazed gems for a friend and cookbook author. I’d whipped up batches of beignets when memories of New Orleans haunted me.

I sort of imagined I’d find an inner Doughnut Queen as I wrote the book. So, armed with a Type A personality and a bag of cake flour so hefty I couldn’t lift it alone, I started setting daily doughnut goals. My September 2010 calendar reads something like the diary of a doughnut polygamist. Tuesday: Pink Feather Boas, Valley Girl Lemons, Chocolate Old-Fashioneds. Wednesday: Peppermint Snowdrifts, Orange-Pistachios, Blackberry Fritters, Pershings. You see what I mean. (Hey, you must make the Pershings. You’ve not experienced bliss until you’ve tasted a cinnamon roll made out of raised doughnut dough.)

I began with a few intense trips to Top Pot’s bakery. Peering awkwardly over the pros’ shoulders in my sexy baking jersey, I learned the proper way to fry, flip, and transfer a doughnut. I memorized the difference between icing and glaze. I observed how to drop cake doughnuts into chocolate icing from just the right height. And I fell madly in love with agar, the seaweed-based stabilizer that helps glazes set up nicely—so nicely that doughnuts can be handled without leaving telltale fingerprints.

But not everything a commercial bakery does can be translated to the home kitchen. Top Pot makes upwards of 1.3 million doughnuts each week. A single batch of raised dough at Top Pot roughly resembles the dimensions of my down comforter, except in a far more soothing cream color. Although I was handed a corporate recipe file for reference, I still had my work cut out for me.

I was thrilled by the challenge. Initially, anyway. I couldn’t wait to jackhammer apples into the fritter dough the way the Top Pot bakers did, poofing giant clouds of cinnamon in my kitchen. I ached to stir vats of chocolate icing into smooth submission. I mentally practiced standing over hot oil, holding a wooden chopstick in each hand just like that lithe woman at Top Pot, poised to turn my old fashioneds exactly the right way. Queen of Doughnuts, indeed.

You know that little ditty about how practice makes perfect? Some doughnuts required more practice than others. The first time I fried blackberry fritters—the very fritters whose dough I made rise so nicely with my nifty water-on-the-floor-of-the-oven trick—I failed to account for the extra moisture in the dough from the fruit. I ended up with greasy purple bricks. My earliest maple bars? I picked them up with my hands instead of sliding a spatula underneath them to support their weight as they went into the oil. They looked like oversized, floppy Band-Aids. And Bavarian after Bavarian exploded on me before I figured out that when I stuffed them with cream, I had to hold them in my hand rather than place them on the counter so I could feel exactly when they’d been sufficiently plumped.

I slowly came to understand that “practice,” in terms of doughnut making, actually means “repeating something until every molecule in your home smells like it’s been fried.” My dishtowels reeked of oil. My clothes reeked of oil. My hair reeked of oil. My child’s hair reeked of oil. And as the weeks wore on, as I pulled into the driveway after yet another Costco run for what amounted to, in the end, more than $1,200 worth of doughnut-making necessities—mostly oil—I could smell my entire house reeking of oil.

My poor house. My kitchen is painted a lovely French azure—or was, until the first batch of yeast-raised rings blasted the wall with hot oil until it resembled a Jackson Pollock. This, naturally, led me to obsess about the BP oil spill even weeks after it’d faded from the news. For a while I was convinced I was tainting my neighborhood’s groundwater with oil. (I wasn’t frying with crude, but still.)

Yet I was born under a stubborn star. I tinkered and tweaked and tested and tasted. I lined the kitchen wall where I did the frying with aluminum foil to prevent further acts of errant artistry. I twirled the dough in myriad different ways, again and again, until I had a method that was as easy as it was beautiful. I fashioned chocolate-chili doughnuts with varying degrees of incendiary burn until I found just the right intensity of sweet, gentle heat. And somewhere between dulce de leche and chai-spiced cake doughnuts, I became that Doughnut Queen.

In all my hours of studying and frying and dunking, the only thing I’d never reflected on was just how difficult it might be to demolish ten dozen doughnuts a week.

I assume I’m not the only one who considers it terrible gustatory luck to throw away homemade doughnuts. At first I tried what seemed the obvious solution—I ate them myself. I ate doughnuts at breakfast. I ate doughnuts instead of lunch. Doughnuts pair best with coffee, and my firm limit is six cups a day. So I learned to eat doughnuts alone. My only rule was that I rewarmed and nibbled only the imperfect specimens I didn’t feel comfortable pawning off on anyone else.

The increasingly impressive test results I gave away. I spent hours packaging doughnuts into makeshift boxes folded like origami from grocery bags. I proudly presented doughnuts to my neighbors. I dropped doughnuts off at doctors’ offices. I left them out for the garbage men. I left doughnuts for my mail carrier, even though she’s cranky and undeserving. At some point I started making doughnut bread pudding—and might have forgotten to tell friends what it contained when I served it. And I learned that the nerdy tween siblings across the street cleverly designed a special tasting-notes system specifically for my triweekly visits. They’d also created a doughnut-themed comic book involving squirrels. (Wait. Were they feeding my doughnuts to squirrels?!)

Ironically, just as I got the hang of the different doughs and had begun to twirl and churn out perfectly puffed twists and airy apple fritters, something strange happened. My neighbors stopped wanting doughnuts. My husband stopped eating doughnuts. My nanny stopped eating doughnuts. My child’s playmate’s father’s co-workers stopped eating doughnuts. For the record, people are much more inclined to accept doughnuts if you give the box to your 18-month-old and have him foist it on them with a sweet smile. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I could never quite rid my house of doughnuts.

About a week before the project ended, right after I’d hit a rhythm of four batches a day, I bonked. I didn’t want to fry any more doughnuts. I didn’t want to eat any more doughnuts. I began to hate everything about doughnuts in the exact same way I’d come to hate the girl who wouldn’t let me join the fourth-grade jump rope club. It was as if the doughnuts were out to get me. They snuck flour into the back pockets of my jeans. They smeared dough onto my pigtails. They emerged in my dreams—or should I say, nightmares—jolting me awake in a panic that I’d flipped cake batter the way I was supposed to turn old-fashioned batter or vice versa. They even snuck under my skin, in soft pockets about four inches to each side of my belly button.

Shortly after that iffy era I submitted the manuscript. And suddenly it was all over as quickly as it had begun. The vats of oil on my stove cooled completely for the first time in weeks. I scrubbed the borrowed friolater and returned it. The neighbors stopped ducking me. The only trace of the prior five weeks, besides the indelible mark on my psyche and the pudge around my hips, was that after a lifetime spent snagging doughnuts whenever I possibly could, I proceeded to methodically avoid them for the next six months. Actually, make that a year.

Now the book is on shelves, timed to coincide with National Doughnut Month. And while I’m not sure I’ll be able to ever make doughnuts again, I’m once more okay with eating them. Maybe, to celebrate, I’ll receive a box of assorted doughnuts from Mark Klebeck, because he’s that kind of guy. (I’m hoping he’ll send some Pershings.) I’ll eat one because it’s not every day a girl gets a box of doughnuts delivered to her and because deep down, there isn’t anything I can do about my love for doughnuts—or that little frisson of mischief that still runs up my spine each time I choose a doughnut over a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. In fact, there’s a good chance I’ll eat two.

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