Gina was every little girl’s dream aunt. Fun, girly and pretty, she had an incredible capacity to accept children as they were, even if they were utter spawns of the devil as I was. She was that grown-up – the one that pulls weird faces to make us laugh, plays hide and seek, tickles our tummies or the kind to soothe teary faces after a parental ticking off. My mother’s younger sister’s arrival meant that my mischief-bent mind and hands were safely occupied, while my perpetually harassed, time poor mother got on with the chores. I got my fair shares of smacks on the backside from the elders of the family, unquestionably deserved, but Gina Aunty could get me to do anything, even being good.
She, being a clever woman, had ammunition for getting us in order. They came in a white cardboard box. Rings of sugar coated doughnuts, available only in Dubai. After peeling our arms off her neck and smoothing out her clothes, she handed us the box and man, weren’t those doughnuts just awesome! Every time I see doughnuts, I remember her and her love for us.
Baking books over the last few years seem to feature doughnuts consistently. I haven’t yet eaten a doughnut that rivalled the taste and pleasure of those of childhood bribery but thought that homemade may perhaps get me closer. So, here’s the treat for you. I’ve tested out four recipes, from trustworthy chefs, bakers and food writers based in the UK. This is not a conscious choice of exclusion. I worked with the books I had. I’ll give my observation and you can draw your conclusions. Best get started…
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is an established, pro-nature, pro-season, pro-organic food writer. I enjoy his writing, watched his programmes and admire his enthusiasm. He brought out a series of River Cottage books in collaboration with his team, based on subject, of which Bread is one. His recipe calls for half strong white flour and half all purpose flour. The dough came together easily, but didn’t rise as much as the others. Rolling it into balls was easy as the proved dough was less stickier than the others to work with. The second prove wasn’t massive. Now here is where it all went pear shaped. In the cooking, the heat he specifies – 180degC- is far too hot. The outside crisped up fast but the inside was raw. Also, even at that temperature, the dough absorbed far too much oil, making it the greasiest doughnut out of the bunch. The crumb too was quite close set, dense, undesirable somehow in the case of a doughnut. Am afraid I won’t be giving this another go and didn’t take pictures.
Brilliant Bread – James Morton
Winner of the Great British Bake Off, James Morton has since published a book dedicated to bread. His recipe calls for strong flour, with less eggs and butter than the other recipes. This dough was by far the stickiest. Morton’s technique for wet doughs is similar to Richard Bertinet’s, slap and fold technique. They rose wonderfully smooth though quite delicate to transfer to the pot. His dough balls were cooked at a lower temperature of 160deg and for longer. The result is a seriously deep golden crust with the tell tale pale band across it’s girth. In the eating – this is the most breadlike of all the recipes. There is a bread like chew in the bite, tender but firm. I found myself wishing for a bit more sweetness in the bread itself. Also, his recipe held out in the long term, ie, the crust and doughnut didn’t soften but stayed that way for the rest of the day which was rather impressive. For all that it’s a deep fried treat, there’s a sense of restraint here somehow, a sense of thriftiness in the bread, pared down to its bare basics. If you like a straightforward, unfussy, bread like doughnut that eats as you find it, this is the recipe for you.
Dough – Richard Bertinet
This French baker has an ceaseless love of baking, nurtured in his father’s Bourgoiun bakery. I watched him make doughnuts on Rachel Allen’s series Bake. His fabulous technique, demonstrated in this video, was totally new to me. He endeared himself when he made the collected and reserved Rachel Allen guffaw at his comparison of perfectly rolled bread dough balls to silicone breast implants. It’s a great way to guesstimate the feeling of a properly worked dough! Here, he used a dough which was a combination of a brioche (with eggs and sugar) and white bread, using milk as the liquid component. His all strong-flour dough recipe is quite wet, intimidatingly so, but using his particular technique of lifting, slapping and folding over the dough, you can feel it change and come together as a cohesive whole. His hands on, detailed orientated recipe takes the prize for being the most time consuming and labour intensive, but I found the whole experience incredibly pleasurable and wouldn’t scoff at doing it again. The dough rose beautifully, evenly and took the shortest time to cook. I found this one prone to browning a lot quicker, so I had to adjust the temperature to find the right pace. I loved the rich flavour and tender texture here. Soft, but with a chew, just like a proper doughnut should be. With a squeeze of jam, these were heavenly, a perfect all-round result. Definitely a do-again recipe, when time and mood propel me.
This folks, this, was exquisite. The patisserie doughnut. James Gellatly was the pastry chef of the renowned St. John’s restaurant. His doughnuts are legendary. It’s based on that alone that I purchased the book and find myself surprised by it. His love of pastry lies deeply embedded in traditional baking, classic, well loved British bakes. I was expecting more, well, cheffiness. I was charmed by his book, but I am bowled over by his doughnuts, especially since he majestically overthrew all my assumptions of what constituted a proper doughnut.
The dough is similar to Bertinet’s, an enriched dough, but he uses water instead of milk along with lemon zest. The dough is made entirely by using a heavy duty food mixer. From the get go, this dough acts differently; when elasticity is mentioned in bread baking, this is the dough being referred to. It had a snapback quality to it which was eventually beaten into submission to become incredibly elastic, smooth and glossy, which stretched willingly resembling translucent satin sheets. It’s the work of 10 minutes. The worked dough, after the first long prove is then left in the fridge for a slow rise overnight where the lemon zest perfumes the dough deeply. A simple, on-the-counter-rise will not give the same result. The next day, the cold dough is simply rolled into balls- no fancy folding- and left to prove for 4 hours. By far the least labour intensive dough of the lot. Check out this video to watch the man himself at work making doughnuts
I left the house at this point and returned 3.5 hours later to find the most dramatically risen, voluptuously smooth, light-as-air balls of dough I’ve ever produced. My excitement was growing. The dough was also easier to transfer to the hot oil, but you still had to be gentle. When it hit the hot oil, it puffed magnificently and on turning, puffed again, with the largest width of the pale band of all the recipes here. The eggs in the recipe lend a rich orange tinged golden brown colour to the doughnuts. It was the fastest to cook too, a mere two minutes a side at 180 deg and it was true to time. I was ecstatic!
When it came to rolling the drained doughnuts, I found them to be quite soft, the crust softer than the others too, and the doughnut crinkled in the pale band. Crushed could not begin to describe what I felt. My ideas on doughnut to date, was that it had some weight to it. These were like clouds they were so light! I assumed the crust should be firm and breadlike. This was softer and submitted willingly to the pressure of your fingers on it. On tearing one open however, the texture was so tender, so soft, so airy, perfumed with lemon, it could not fail to please. Know too, that once these doughnuts are filled, the crinkle expands as the doughnut accommodates the filling and the doughnuts get rounder; like the expansion zip on your suitcase! Get the recipe here.
For me, without question, Gellatly’s doughnuts were ahead by miles. I know that this may not fulfil everyone’s idea of a proper doughnut and it sure didn’t mine, but on the first soft mouthful, I couldn’t argue. I just couldn’t argue. At the very least, you will have to admit that it is a fine specimen of a doughnut, one of the finest you will come across. And then go back and try a doughnut you loved before. Game over.