A Short History Of Doughnuts

A short history of doughnuts: A brief look at the favorite morning fried confection.

In every country that makes bread, there arises the question of what to do with the leftover scraps of dough. In England, they dropped the bits into soup or water, and made dumplings. But in Holland and in Germany, cooks dropped the extra into boiling oil, and made fry-cakes, or olie-koecken. The Dutch fancied up their leftovers a bit more by shaping them into decorative knots (dough knots), and rolling in sugar afterwards.

The Puritans found these little cakes a pleasure during their stay in Holland, and took the method with them to the New World. They found a similar dish in the Native American fried bread, a situation that would cause a bit of confusion later on when culinary historians tried to track down the origins of the confection.

Doughnuts have long been associated with holiday festivities. The Dutch and German made them as a Christmas specialty. Later, Europeans would make them an important part of the pre-Lent festivities. Mardi Gras wouldn't be the same without beignets (the French version of the doughnut) or the fastnachtkuches (literally, fasting night cakes-the same dish under a different name) of the Germanic peoples.

Although crullers, maple bars, and twists all have the same basic flavor of a doughnut, it is the latter's distinct shape, with the hole in the middle that really identifies it. How did the shape change from the original diamond? Germanic countries already had cookies and cakes with a hole in the middle, usually referred to as a 'jumble'. (The word developed from a two-finger ring called a gimbel.) So the shape itself was something already familiar to cooks of that area, and many think that the jumble was a strong influence on the hole-in-the-middle-doughnut.

Americans disagree though, especially those in Maine. In a house in Rockport, Maine there is a plaque that recognizes Mason Crockett Gregory with the invention of the doughnut hole, in 1847. The reason why? He hated doughnuts with an uncooked center. (Or perhaps he was just particularly impatient-they cook much quicker without a center) Skeptics point out that Gregory was a sea captain, however, and may well have encountered the jumble version of the confection on his travels, and brought the idea home with him. (This would seem to be the truth behind the legend of a sea captain placing the doughnut on the wheel of his ship for safe-keeping, and then just becoming enamored of the idea.)

Even if Captain Gregory came up with the idea, John Blondell was awarded the patent for the first doughnut cutter in 1872. Blondell's version was made of wood, but an 'improved' tin version with a fluted edge was patented in 1889.

It's interesting to note that they have long been considered more of a snack than a proper breakfast-travelers to New England during the colonial era noted with surprise that farmers there ate them for their morning meal.

In any doughnut case there are yeast style and cake style. The yeast type is closer to its origins as leftover bread. This version is deceptively light, with a good deal of air between the layers. The cake style on the other hand, with a heavy, dense body, was a later development-essentially fried cake dough.

If you are lucky enough to live in area with a Krispy Kreme franchise, you owe it to yourself to try them. Regarded by most connoisseurs as the lightest of yeast doughnuts, the merely glazed are an absolute treat. If you're in the mood for a greater indulgence, try any of their filled ones. Dunkin' Donuts has wider national coverage, and many are fond not only of the Boston-crème filled, but of the coffee as well. This writer would prefer to do without than eat one, though-always too greasy and heavy for my taste. The best place to find a great doughnut is the nearly extinct mom-and-pop bakeries or farmer's markets. Homemade, created with care, these little gems are a taste of nostalgia, and the more delicious for it.

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