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The Food Hit of a Century - by Ron Skaar


The Food Hit of a Century

by Ron Skaar

Doughnuts have been enjoyed for thousands of years. Ancient Roman chefs were deep frying fruits and pastries, to accompany aristocratic side dishes. Several petrified fried cakes, with holes, were unearthed in pre-historic southwestern Native American caves. 

Beignet, the doughnuts cousin (called “fritter” in French), comes from the early Celtic word which means “to rise”. Deep frying sweet pastry was also an early Islamic culinary tradition. During the Middle Ages, small savory fritters of great variety were sold by both Middle Eastern and European street fry venders. 

Moorish invasions began in Spain around the 8th century. Their influence, thru the cuisine of Andalusia, inspired many Continental chefs. Deep fried balls of airy French choux paste were originally known as “Spanish beignets”. By the 16th century these fritters had become a specialty at the French Mardi Gras celebrations.

Another deep fried confection had early roots in Europe. By the 15th century, Berlin bakers were peddling deep fried pastries, filled with plum jelly. In the 1700’s the city’s population multiplied and the baking industry flourished. To meet demand they began frying the “Berliner Pfannkuchen” over open flames on carts, throughout the city. 

Dutch settlers in North America brought with them a “sweetened cake fried in fat”. This “oil cake” is first mentioned in an 1803 English cookbook appendix on American recipes. Washington Irving writes about doughnut purveyors in his 1809 book “History of New York”. 

By the mid nineteenth century the doughnut resembled our present day confection. A young American sailor, Hanson Gregory, claimed to have invented the ring-shape in 1847. His mother, Elizabeth, made “wicked, deep fried dough” making use of her son’s cinnamon and nutmeg spice cargo. Hanson takes credit for using a small round tin (or he punched it on the ships wheel) to produce the hole, because he disliked the soggy centers.

Donuts are uniquely American, even the “holes” have become a marketing novelty. The cake type is leavened with baking powder, creating a dense, moist interior. The usual flavors and toppings are giving way to maple-bacon, the ice cream sandwich doughnut and (good grief) the hamburger in a doughnut!

The accompanying recipe is a revelation. You’ll devourer these warm and buttery, cinnamon-nutmeg filled gems and appreciate the greaseless, lower fat rendition.



Baked Mini Doughnut Muffins

Have butter, milk, buttermilk and eggs at room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour mini muffin tins*

Sift together:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

In bowl of mixer with paddle attachment cream:

1½ sticks unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

Add: 2 large eggs until combined

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¾ cups whole milk

¼ cup buttermilk

Cinnamon and sugar

With mixer on low speed, add the dry and wet ingredients in three patches. Fill the prepared muffin cups to rim, bake until lightly golden for 13-15 minutes. Let cool in pan for 5 minutes. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon-sugar. Batter will keep 3 days in fridge, tightly covered.

*Makes about 36 mini doughnuts. If you have to have a hole in your donut, you can bake them in mini Bundt pans.