Entremet: Mmmm… Upscale doughnuts.

Long gone are the ubiquitous lines that made Krispy Kreme nationally famous in the early 2000s. The popularity of the once coveted doughnut chain fell as fast as it rose; much like the dotcom era that fueled its success. Blame it on the carbs diets or simply on the end of a passing trend. Either way, lining up for hours to get the sugar coated snack or buying company stock when it was at its peak, turned out to be not such a sweet idea. The stock fell sharply after the hype and, when you think about it, the doughnuts weren’t something to die for after all. They were just hard to get. And, as quickly as we fell for them, we moved on to something else.

Last year will be remembered as the cupcakes’ came back. Magnolia Bakery in NY, Sprinkle’s in LA and Kara’s in San Francisco turned an American standard into coveted high-end treats. Often displayed like jewelry, neatly arranged behind a glass box. The gourmetization of food is nothing we haven’t seen before; chocolate, coffee and frozen yogurt come to mind. But much like fashion often recycles old trends, food can always come back in style. It’s time for a doughnut makeover.

Fine dining doughnuts have been appearing more prominently on restaurant menus. Maverick and Universal Cafe serve them for brunch. Spruce and Town proudly offer them as desserts, albeit under its French pseudonym, beignets. But the fried pastry is claiming its independence.

Dynamo Doughnut is a great example. The small Mission coffee stand serves delicious house-made deep-fried goodies. Their flavors are inventive and, to the less adventurous, maybe even daring. Think Bacon-Apple with Maple Glaze and Chipotle-Cinamon Spiced Chocolate. Like a carefully created restaurant dessert, these doughnuts are to die for.

Dee’s Mini is another favorite. The Marin-based bakery produces miniature fresh hand-dipped organic doughnuts. On its website, the company defines its product as a “Healthy snack”–which when you think about deep-fried dough, it’s pretty much an oxymoron. So I talked to Diana Firmage, who carries the official corporate title of “Doughnut Queen”.

After ending a retail marketing career to embrace baking for the epicurean masses, Diana spent 6 months on daily doughnut R&D. Her kids, the company’s taste testers, didn’t complain. As most doughnuts out there are made from a pre-made mixes, Dee’s make theirs from scratch using local ingredients. Diana says: “To do an organic doughnut, we had to create our own blend. Our ingredients did not follow any of the rules because most doughnuts don't use whole-wheat flour. Most have binders, stabilizers, preservatives, flavorings, etc. Our blend is clean and wholesome.” The result is something hard to resist. Flavors include Meyer lemon glaze, Maple crunch and, coming this holiday season, Choco candy cane. The cake-like dough produces a denser doughnut, which works really well for its miniature size. The size itself is a smart marketing decision as, beyond being more fun to eat, they leave that feeling of somehow being not as bad for you. That of course doesn’t apply if, like me, you eat half a dozen of them.

But to understand what’s behind a good doughnut, I talked to Lauren Shimek, a food scientist in the Bay Area. Having worked on doughnuts for a year and a half, she talks about them with great enthusiasm. If you followed the last Bay to Breakers, you probably saw her dressed up as a giant donut; her costume made the cover of the Chronicle.

Lauren explains that there are 2 general types of donuts: yeast raised (think Krispy Kreme) and cake or chemically leavened (like Dee’s). She prefers the cake type for its denser crumb and goes on to say “I think the key to a great donut is the freshness. The best donuts are right from the fryer- not dripping any oil but still slightly warm.” On the topic of wholesome, her opinion is clear: “There is nothing healthy about a fried donut. It is an indulgence and there is a special place for donuts but I think it is really a stretch to say it is a healthy snack.” But when parading the streets on San Francisco as a donut helself, she realized how universally loved they are, “From excited kids to munchie, drunk people.”

As cupcakes go démodé (Karl Lagerfeld once said “Fashion is ephemeral and unfair”); upscale doughnuts seem to be here to stay–at least until something else takes its place. Until then, enjoy the organic sugar high. And remember, if nothing else, doughnuts are healthy for the mind.

Dynamo doughnuts is at 2760 24th St
Dee's mini doughnuts can be found in Marin and San Francisco, here.


The Editor said...

I absolutely loved this piece. Informative and yet a delight to read. I really liked the fact that you took some time to talk to specialists and included their opinions in your article. And I can’t wait to taste some of the doughnuts you reviewed.

Chef Ben said...

Fascinating piece. I think Dynamo is hit and miss on its flavors, but those Dee's Minis look so darn cute!