I grew up in a doughnut town. As soon as I was capable of grasping a tiger tail, I relished trips to our local doughnut shop. Not just because the mixed aroma of weak coffee, fried dough and sugar was the next best thing to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for a kid, but also because when my mom picked out a dozen doughnuts to take home for the day, I could sense the joyful gravity of this ritual.
Sunday doughnuts were a gift to all, an adult’s admission to her child that yes, bad foods taste good, and we all deserve a bite now and then. And in southern California, doughnut shops – invariably run by immigrants seeking a foothold in local business – were the American intersection of class and craft over Formica tables, pink cardboard boxes and small styrofoam cups. To my faithless eyes, the doughnut counter was a holy place, where people of all colors and car models shared five minutes of small talk as their fingers sauntered from one doughnut to the next.
The newest wave of fancy doughnuts in this town attempts to elevate the doughnut to gourmet status. In the case of Doughnut Plant‘s raised doughnuts, this means plastering gummy, dried-out doughnuts with overwrought glazes. Their “fresh strawberry” is nice enough as a frosting, but in a New York minute it’s revealed as little more than sugar shock. Biting into this one feels like eating a doughnut straight out of an episode of The Simpsons.
The toasted sesame glaze has a more distinctive flavor, but its accompanying doughnut is still clunky, with no spring to its texture and a marked lack of fluffiness. Doughnut Plant’s raised doughnuts exemplify why I used to avoid raised doughnuts altogether, and no measure of inventive topping or filling will change that fact when I’m paying $2-$3 a pop.
Cake doughnuts, however, are Doughnut Plant’s strong suit, and this oatmeal cake is a marvel. Balancing sweet, toasted, nutty and fruity flavors, it’s also texturally complex; between the bits of toasted oat, salt-inflected crust, and morsels of fruit baked into the dough, it’s nothing short of a baker’s masterpiece.
In gaining my respect, Doughnut Plant loses my loyalty. Its best cakes – the chocolate “blackout,” the tres leches, and the creme brulee – stray just far enough from what I connect to as the American doughnut to make me feel awkward using the word “doughnut” to describe them. I like cake, but I have no use for ring-shaped cakes with a doughnut hook when what I really want is a box of crusty old-fashioneds, a mug of coffee, and a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Brooklyn’s Dough makes a much better case for the fancy doughnut. No less gourmet than Doughnut Plant, the $2 raised doughnuts at Dough carry themselves with the same decadent vibe, as evidenced by the ring of grease that turned this sheet of waxed paper into my window to weight gain.
One bite into Dough’s hibiscus raised doughnut reveals something fundamentally different. Far from re-branded cake or dressed-up mediocrity, it’s truly a yeast doughnut on another level: moist yet fluffy, with an almost crisp exterior and just enough spring to make each bite last until it melts onto the tongue. The hibiscus frosting has a bright, fruity flavor that starts with a tart punch, then offers a brief brush of sweetness before receding perfectly into the wonderful, familiar flavor of fried, yeast-raised dough.
Likewise, Dough’s lemon poppy is a pronounced twist on a traditional glazed raised. Not as in-your-face-fruity as the hibiscus doughnut, but essentially following the same approach, its tart lemon flavor rides a wave of sugar with a sense of restraint. The proportion of glaze to doughnut ultimately emphasizes the doughnut, not the glaze, and this substantial tire of a doughnut is good enough on its own for this approach to be a winner.
Dough’s chocolate earl grey drapes a hefty coat of milk chocolate frosting on top of an already hefty doughnut, making this one impossible to imagine as a morning ritual. Still, it’s suitably luscious as a midday dessert. A brush of aromatic earl grey is present in the frosting on its own, but once it merges with the doughnut, subtleties vanish and it becomes an oversized paean to the chocolate frosted rings I would eye from across the counter as a kid.
Dough’s doughnut holes are the best option for those looking to take the greasy edge off of the full-sized rings. Like a good batch of homemade hush puppies, they’re pleasingly irregular, and one of Dough’s homages to the doughnut’s simplicity. Paying $1.00 for four of these might stab at my strip-mall-raised heart, but in a doughnut shop with this much character, I’m more than happy to point at the basket and add a few to my order.
I don’t doubt that fancy doughnuts can be incredibly delicious, but my favorite doughnuts – fancy or not – are still the ones that inspire a sense of common uplift. When things come full fried circle, I’ll remember the doughnuts that elevate not the dough, but the customer – just as they did, dozens at a time, on the shelves of my own Americana.
220 West 23rd St.
New York, NY 10011
305 Franklin Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11205