Poor Proust had only his madeleines to remind him of “things past,” but I have a feast of foods (albeit an odd feast) that have the power to transport me back in time. The smell of ratatouille cooking (home), the taste of instant mashed potatoes (school), wax lips (weekends), chopped liver on a cracker (one grandmother’s house), raw pie crust dough (my other grandmother’s house), and cake doughnuts. I don’t generally like doughnuts, particularly not the puffy, glazed variety, but there was once a doughnut that I loved.
The doughnuts of fond memory were made by someone named Lila (at least the bags had her name on them), and were purchased during summer vacations in a remote corner of Northeastern Maine called Perry. The doughnuts, purchased at the sort of general store on Southmeadow Road in Perry, were of the cake variety. They were unglazed, un-yeasted, un-frosted and un-sprinkled, and came in four flavors: plain, chocolate, squash and cinnamon-sugar. They were sold, sometimes still warm, in a paper bag that said “Lila’s,” and were so good that they created a pinnacle of doughnut-hood that has never been surpassed in my life. The closest I come to reliving my halcyon doughnut days is at a cider mill we visit in the fall, which sells fresh, hot cake doughnuts along with cider. That’s a maybe-once-a-year proposition, though.
But I digress. My primal doughnut memories were triggered the other night by watching Alton Brown make them on “Good Eats.” They looked like the doughnuts I remembered, and I became obsessed with making my own. I bought a giant quantity of vegetable oil for frying, improvised a “doughnut cutter” using a drinking glass and the mouth of a soda bottle, and made some doughnuts.
(Recipe from Alton Brown, foodnetwork.com)
1 1/2 cups milk
2 1/2 ounces vegetable shortening, approximately 1/3 cup
2 packages instant yeast
1/3 cup warm water (95 to 105 degrees F)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying (1 to 1/2 gallons, depending on fryer)Place the milk in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat just until warm enough to melt the shortening. Place the shortening in a bowl and pour warmed milk over. Set aside.
In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk and shortening mixture, first making sure the milk and shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined. Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well. Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or pastry ring and using a 7/8-inch ring for the center whole. Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 degrees F. Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side. Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired. (Note: Alton made both chocolate and white glaze on the show, and both recipes are provided on the website. I just rolled mine in sugar and cinnamon).
One would think that given all the baking I do, I might have figured out that a recipe involving yeast would not result in cake doughnuts, but in the fluffy, puffy kind that I dislike. I did not figure this out, so I fed most of the air-filled sugar bombs to the family, and found a recipe for unleavened, cake doughnuts that seemed closer to what I wanted. (Alton’s doughnuts were absolutely splendid, by the way; just not what I wanted to eat).
I made the cake doughnuts next. I only have pictures of the “holes” because the actual doughnuts were eaten or given away before I could photograph them.
Cake Doughnut Recipe
(Adapted from Breakfast-and-Brunch Recipes.com)
Cake Doughnuts Prep Time: 15 minutesChill Time: 2 hours
Frying Time: 45 minutes (for all the doughnuts)
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 quart Vegetable Oil for frying
Kitchen Equipment Needed
1 medium mixing bowl
1 large mixing bowl
Deep Fryer or large 12″ deep frying pan or cast iron skillet
2 baking pans (for catching glaze drips)
2 wire racks (for cooling glazed doughnuts)
Step 1: In a medium mixing bowl, sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Step 2: In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter. Add sugar and beat well. Add eggs and beat well.
Step 3: Add milk and vanilla and stir until combined.
Step 4: Slowly add flour mixture and mix until dough holds together. Roll into a ball.
Step 5: Cover and chill 2 hours.
Step 6: On a floured board, roll out doughnut dough to 1/3″ thick and cut with a doughnut hole cutter.
Step 7: Heat vegetable oil in pan or deep fryer to 365 degrees and fry until lightly golden brown.
Step 8: Drain on a plate lined with paper towel. (Note: the recipe came with directions for preparing a glaze, but I chose to roll my doughnuts in either cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar while they were still hot, and let them cool).
The second batch, while not exactly like Lila’s, were pretty darned close. I will continue to experiment and to hunt for recipes, but in the meantime, with my jug of oil and my improvised cutters, I can almost, almost transport myself back to the summer of 1972, the back seat of a station wagon on a dusty, dirt road, driving past a high meadow and eating a Lila’s doughnut out of the bag…..