After a week of frying up fritters at every chance I could, I then made doughnuts Sunday morning. I am now reverting to my relatively fry-free kitchen habits, but man are homemade doughnuts good. Doughnuts are one of those things that I never really got. Kind of like pizza (a subject about which I once gave an entire talk). They were always presented as big treats that I should be excited about, but as a kid I never found them very exciting or desirable. And then, at some point, as an adult I had really good versions of each of them and finally got it. The strange thing is, having really delicious pizza and doughnuts made me like the mediocre versions more, which is slightly counter-intuitive. My theory is that having had the delicious version, my brain now knows what they tastes like and experiences a bit of memory of it when I have the mediocre version. I still am no fan of thick, sweet American pizza pie or overly sweet or greasy doughnuts, but at least I’m on the same page with society at large – I understand why people are eating them even as I try to avoid them in search of less sweet, more delicate versions.
The extra fun thing about making doughnuts is that day-old doughnuts just aren’t nearly as good. Even no-longer-warm doughnuts lose a lot of their shine. My answer to this is to allow everyone to eat as many warm doughnuts as their hearts desire. Ernest and his friend who slept over could hardly believe their luck as their requests for another doughnut or another doughnut hole were filled and filled and filled again. They ate their fill at breakfast and then wanted some an hour or two later. “Sure!” I answered. They stood in stony silence, hardly believing their luck, wondering what alien had taken over my form.
Ernest has been a bit obsessed with doughnuts and the lack of them in our house ever since we read Farmer Boy last spring. All the ladies in the house know what I’m talking about – it’s part of the Little House series, about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband’s childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York. The thing is wall-to-wall food. They are constantly eating giant farm meals* and the book’s focus on the abundance of food highlights – for the adult reader familiar with the series anyway – how very deprived and not abundant Laura’s own childhood was. Salt pork and corn mush and long winters with not much at all.
With a doughnut-poor early childhood under his own belt, Ernest became fixated on the “doughnut jar” in the farm’s kitchen. Once a week, as part of baking day, the mom would fry up scads of doughnuts and put them in the doughnut jar and then the little boy in the story would just go and have a doughnut whenever he felt peckish. Ernest thought that sounded pretty awesome. I couldn’t help but point out that the little boy in the story did an awful lot of work (which got me thinking about how little most kids are expected to do these days – but that’s another blog entirely that I just don’t have time to write, what with my kid not pulling his weight….). As soon as we wake Ernest in the middle of the night to work until dawn watering the corn to save it from freezing, I will totally get a doughnut jar.
I made the above doughnuts thusly: Let 1 tablespoon of dry active yeast dissolve and foam in 1 cup of warm water. Then used the paddle on a standing mixer to incorporate 1/3 cup sugar, 1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 egg, and 4 tablespoons of softened butter. Once that turned into a dough I worked in about 2 cups of all-purpose flour. I covered the bowl and let it rise for almost 3 hours (I had been planning on 2 but lost track of time watching The Hunt Locker). Then I rolled out the dough to about 1/2-inch thick and used a large round biscuit cutter (a drinking glass works too) to cut circles and the smallest round cutter I have to cut out the holes. I put all of these on floured baking sheets and covered them with plastic wrap. I left them out at room temp because it’s gotten chilly at night and our kitchen gets cold enough so I wasn’t too worried about the dough over-rising. Then I went to sleep.
At about 7:30 we heard the boys playing in Ernest’s room. At 8 they asked us to get down the parking garage from the high shelf so they could build a town. (They were not, I feel the need to note, trudging out into the cold to milk the cows or feed the horses; they were playing all snug and cozy in their jammies in Ernest’s colorful toy-filled room.) At 9 they asked for breakfast so I heated up about an inch or so of lard (vegetable oil or canola oil work just dandy too) in a big heavy pot. Once it was hot enough to make dough sizzle, I started frying. Until brown on one side, flip, let brown on the other side, lift out with tongs onto a cooling rack set over a baking sheet. Get the next batch going and then dip first batch in sugar – the dough itself isn’t terribly sweet, so the coating of sugar makes them just about perfect. Then I started handing them out.
One thing about frying that always astounds me – and I really noticed this time because I saved the lard (strained it to get the flour out) for future frying – is how, if the temperature of the fat is right (usually between 350 and 375), you end up “using” so little of it. The food absorbs hardly any. Get the temp right by using a thermometer or, a cool trick I learned that I use instead of a thermometer now, dipping a piece of bread or the end of a wooden spoon in the oil. If the oil sizzles immediately and steadily around the bread/wood, it’s ready; if it sizzles violently – bubbling up away from the pot, it’s too hot.
Once the doughnuts were all fried I kicked it with a few from the very last batch and a cup of coffee and stared out into the gray fog of this uncharacteristically dreary San Francisco October and swore I’d stop frying. For at least awhile.
* But one example:
There were slabs of tempting cheese, there was a plate of quivering headcheese; there were glass dishes of jams and jellies and preserves, and a tall pitcher of milk, and a steaming pan of baked beans with a crisp but of fat pork in the crumbling brown crust… Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth, He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckbrand of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
After dinner they then often had apples and cider and popcorn.