By RALPH GARDNER JR.
Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal
An arrangement of doughnuts at the Doughnut Plant
I’ll bet this has never happened to you: You’re on your way to Brooklyn to visit a donut shop whose donuts Tina Fey has compared to sex when, of all things, you receive an email from Tracey Zabar, a cookbook author and member of the first family of gourmet epicureanism, praising the donuts at the Doughnut Plant in Chelsea and suggesting a visit be scheduled as soon as possible. “Just make sure you eat the crème brulee donuts upside down!”
What’s going on here? When did donuts become the darlings of the food world? And a crème brulee donut? What’s next: caviar and crème fraiche?
I don’t want anybody to think I don’t like donuts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m a connoisseur. Aren’t we all? That’s the beauty of them: It doesn’t take an advanced degree from the French Culinary Institute to know you’re doing something right when a honey-dipped fresh out of the oven—or fryer, or wherever donuts are given birth—hits your taste buds.
I have a lousy memory. If somebody asks me what yesterday’s column was about I couldn’t say. However, I vividly recall a still-piping glazed Dunkin Donut I had around midnight in Burlington, Vt., one day in the fall of 1972.
I relayed that experience to the owner of the Doughnut Plant, Mark Isreal, when I made it to his West 23rd Street shop a few days later. I thought of it as similar to presenting your credentials at the Court of St. James.
“If a donut has to be hot to be good,” he sniffed, “you’re just eating greasy sugar.”
Duh! I thought that was the whole point. The glory of donuts is that they have absolutely no redeeming social value. They’re the last bastion of carefree cardiac self-indulgence. It’s the pleasure centers of your brain giving the finger to, in no particular order, exercise, political correctness, sophistication and taste. To quote the bard: “I got nothing, ma, to live up to.”
Rob Bennett for The Wall Street Journal
The Black & White doughnut at Baked By Butterfield
But before I go further, a word about Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint, my destination when that Zabar email hit my inbox. I went there with my kids and we sampled the Bavarian crème, coffee cake, apple crumb, honey dip and chocolate cake donuts. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge their product fairly because we arrived around 4 p.m., when the shelves were three-quarters empty and the donuts seem to have been made hours earlier.
That’s the thing about donuts: They’re like mayflies or catching lightning in a bottle. The window of peak freshness is quite small. If you were serious about it, you’d probably camp out overnight on an air mattress to make certain you received them at their best. I’d go so far as to say there are few things on Earth as disappointing as stale donuts.
The terror is that you generally can’t tell until you bite in. Sitting on the shelf, behind the cashier, a chocolate-frosted donut (the money donut, as far as I’m concerned) that’s so stale and lifeless that you toss it in the trash after one bite, and only resist demanding your money back because you can’t see through your tears, and also because it’s your own damn fault for buying a donut beyond noon—that donut appears no different than one so fresh and tasty it triggers visions of puppies and rainbows and running through fields of wild flowers.
Before I made it to the Doughnut Plant, I also visited Baked by Butterfield, a new donut shop on the Upper East Side that’s part of the estimable Butterfield Market, a few doors up the street on Lexington Avenue in the 70s. Butterfield definitely has its presentation down pat. One resists the temptation to describe pieces of fried dough as objects of beauty, but their Black & White, and the Caramel with Sea Salt—the color of the Sahara at sunset—come close.
There’s only one problem with them: They’re baked, not fried. They’re more like cakes in circular form. “That’s like a cupcake in a different shape,” Mr. Isreal stated when I reported on my visit. I’d have to agree. And I’ve got nothing against cake: All in our 50s, my brothers and I will still come to blows over the piece of birthday cake with the flower on it. But the true magic of a first-class donut is that it’s counterintuitive. It’s lighter and fluffier than it appears. It’s playing hide and seek with your senses. It’s like biting into a cloud, second cousin to cotton candy.
Dustin Drankoski/The Wall Street Journal
The exterior of Peter Pan Donut
I can’t dismiss Baked by Butterfield outright. Indeed, I’ve since been back. But it’s playing in a different league than makers of authentic donuts. Which brings me back to the Doughnut Plant and Mr. Isreal. He started making donuts in the basement of his Lower East Side apartment building 18 years ago, and selling to the likes of Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s and Zabar’s, delivering them on his mountain bike. These days, he has two locations in Manhattan—the one in Chelsea that I visited and another on Grand Street where the donuts are manufactured. He also has a shop in Tokyo and grand ambitions. He said he sells 3,000 donuts a day.
“I was interested in taking the donut and elevating it with my own ideas,” he explained. “I was also interested in making it as healthy as possible.”
Elevating it? Making it healthy? He was already starting to lose me.
“We mix the finest fruits and nuts in our glazes,” he went on. “That was my idea. No one had ever done that before. I’d buy the fresh fruit from the farmer’s market. We make our own peanut butter and jam. I buy the peanuts straight from the farm and roast them. I learned how to break open fresh coconuts fast from some Indian guys working for me.”
Mr. Isreal also invented the square donut, he contends, and the crème brulee. “If you see a crème brulee anywhere else, it didn’t exist before we made it.”
Enough already, let’s try them. Mr. Isreal produced the crème brulee. I forgot Ms. Zabar’s admonition to eat them upside down. They still tasted delightful, though I’ve never quite understood the fuss over jelly donuts, or donuts with any filling at all. I find the filling a distraction. A great donut should be able to stand on its own.
The peanut butter and jam was also excellent, as was any and everything else I tasted at the Doughnut Plant. The problem is that excellent isn’t good enough when it comes to donuts. You want an experience that forces you momentarily to lose consciousness, that overloads the senses rather than flatters them.
I’m not saying I won’t be back. But it’s not that I saw blinding light after biting into his crème brulee and never plan to buy another Krispy Kreme donut at Penn Station again.
Now there’s a donut: Its Chocolate Iced are the way donuts were meant to be! I’d say they’re maybe too sweet, except all that sugar coating seals in freshness and, in a pinch, allows them to remain highly edible the next day.
A version of this article appeared April 17, 2012, on page A18 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Many Beauties of Fried Dough