I earned my doughnut degree on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. Class was held between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. every weeknight at King Pin University. Professor Kingpin, unbending scholar of fried dough, would deliver his nightly lecture without the burden of words, instead teaching his craft through deft and disciplined hands. Moving deliberately within an enclosure of three square yards, he would roll out the dough, form the rings, shepherd them through a vat of boiling oil and push them through a waterfall of white icing without as much as a smirk at the sheer power he was unleashing upon his sugar-starved students. He would hand a fresh specimen over to one of his lab assistants, who, in exchange for 85 cents, would relinquish it to me for deeper study.
The magical glazed raised. The iconic old fashioned. The behemoth bear claw and appetite absorbing apple fritter. The rich, heavenly buttermilk. I’ve rarely felt as rapt as when King Pin’s doughnut of the night would melt away with each bite, begging my lactose intolerance for just five minutes of mercy.
The more sobering side of my fryer education would surface on weekday afternoons, when I would stop by King Pin to discover that the professor’s late night charms had withered into stale dictations of dry, brittle and bland. I henceforth took my lessons to read:
1. Never buy a raised doughnut unless it’s fresh.
2. Never buy a cake doughnut unless it’s free.
3. Nothing is better than buttermilk.
Years later, my first visit to Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop, a venerable institution in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, marked the start of my re-education. Nary a gruff doughnut master in t-shirt and apron is to be found at Peter Pan’s counter, a historic W-shaped beaut lined with ’70s stools and waited on by a team of Polish girls in starched pastel uniforms. Racks of doughnuts, running the gamut from French cruller to sour cream glazed, line the front window and front counter in a configuration unaltered for at least thirty years. In the far corner of the shop hangs a sign that proudly declares Peter Pan’s use of 100% vegetable shortening. My heart misses a beat every time I see those bolded words, enamored with the standing shelf life of the unapologetically old fashioned.
Partly due to their high shortening quotient, Peter Pan’s doughnuts are good at any time of day. What really brings things around is the amount of care that goes into defining each doughnut’s distinct style. Having gone through life knowing that a raised doughnut is only good for ten minutes after it’s fried, I was forced to abjure before a phalanx of soft, fluffy raised variants that could crush me with their pillowy blows. I have a tough time in particular turning away the white cream raised with chocolate sprinkles, a deceptively light affair that is meant to be inhaled.
A similar revelation lied within the chocolate cake: Rich but not dense, crumbly but not dry and glazed without a slight of sugar shock, it’s the only cake doughnut I’ve ever eaten that actually feels like, well, a slice of cake. Along the same lines is the marble cruller, a denser doughnut that blends chocolate, glaze and old fashioned flavors. Taking up prime real estate on the dessert platter is the apple crumb, dusted with sugar and cinammon and topped with the crumbled carcasses of lesser doughnuts.
On the more mundane side are perfect renditions of the old fashioned doughnut. Showcases of refinement, the old fashioned ring and cruller have perfectly crunchy outer crusts, which crumble softly into rich centers with subtle notes of butter that match beautifully with Peter Pan’s low roasted every coffee. French crullers, their lightweight counterparts, are porous and spongy, offering the benefits of a raised doughnut without its commitment to a mouthful of dough.
Of course, no breakfast counter would be complete without the presence of eggs, and at Peter Pan regulars order off-the-menu breakfast sandwiches every day. As long as there are rolls or bialy in stock, a polite $3.30 will get you your choice of egg, bacon, ham and cheese offered with salt, pepper, ketchup and Tabasco. While you can never go wrong with bacon, my taste buds were given an extra credit lesson in flavor by Peter Pan’s grilled deli ham, which is dark, lean and savory without the hyper-cured flavor I’m used to getting from my least favorite part of the pig. I still haven’t decided if the breakfast sandwich is wasting valuable cruller space, but it’s comforting to know that I can spit at will in the faces of brunch gardens everywhere with the best $5 breakfast that doesn’t involve grits.
While I still consider myself a King Pin graduate, Greenpoint has shown me that in the department of breakfast pastries, no measure is too high. No price is too low. No style is doomed when it comes to fried dough. All you need is 100 points of vegetable shortening, an unbeatable recipe for every doughnut and an aesthetic descended from beehives (respect for Amy Winehouse not included).
Yet, at the end of it all, the old man on Durant is still right about one thing: nothing is better than buttermilk.
Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop
727 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211