Lately, I’ve been doughnut-ing vicariously, via phone calls from Toronto with @beerswithbrahms. Though still on lock-down, Toronto continues to boast some fine doughnut options and last Sunday, I waited to hear what @harryandheelsdonuts was offering. From afar, I contemplated their stellar line-up: buttermilk cruller sticks, cream-filled chocolate glazed and cream-filled original glazed, apple fritters, toasted coconut, maple, Hawaiian, cinnamon sugar, and sprinkle. The color photos posted on the web capture the pillowy, deep-fat fried indulgences in torturous detail. I wanted one of each.
It’s an inherited trait, my love for doughnuts. My father was keen on all varieties; yeast risen, cake-y, cream-filled and dunked in shiny chocolate, plump with jelly or buried under a blizzard of powdered sugar. My dad loved a good cider doughnut crunchy with cinnamon sugar, and a twisted cruller with pockets of vanilla glaze. Luckily, I also share my dad’s penchant for running which ultimately translates in doughnut-speak to ‘calories in, calories out.’
My gene pool is not the sole culprit of my doughnut problem. For years, my Saturday workday began with a circle of fried dough. Just beyond the screen door at Tabora Farms in Bucks County, PA proprietor and gluten-enabler Roger Eatherton religiously commandeered the doughnut machine. On Saturday mornings, Roger methodically dispensed cider doughnut batter out of a depositer into a hot pool of vegetable oil. The air swirling around Roger’s baseball cap was thick with a veil of grease and a cloud of cinnamon sugar. Despite my protestations of “coffee first,” it was impossible to refuse the fresh doughnut Roger clutched in a pair of commercial kitchen tongs. To this day, cinnamon and sugar instantly conjure a baker’s rack overfilled with dangerously hot doughnuts.
While Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons are capable of delivering perfectly agreeable doughnuts, they tend to be a little too sweet for my liking. Admittedly, I’m pretty particular in my quest for a fine doughnut; blame it on my work environment.
Always on the hunt for bakers who turn out doughnuts that surprise, I seek fillings that complement a lofty dough, resonating with fresh, not artificial, flavor. One doughnut that haunts my dreams is the raspberry filled Voodoo Doll from Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo Doughnut. (I can also happily vouch for their bacon-maple bar and their Bavarian cream-filled-chocolate-glazed Portland Cream.) Closer to home, Camden, Maine boasts Ruckus Donuts, with yeasted offerings well worth the eight hour drive, particularly their peach-raspberry pie doughnut.
With little chance of traveling to Toronto or the Pacific Northwest or the coast of Maine this week, I was forced to take doughnut matters into my own hands. A classic brioche-like dough provided the perfect vessel for two springtime fillings; Ottolenghi’s saffron pastry cream (with an added hint of orange zest) and a rhubarb-strawberry compote. Keen on doughnut holes because their diminutive size makes them wonderfully easy to eat, I opted for a classic doughnut, using a cutter from my grandmother Minnie’s collection. The doughnuts pouff up with great abandon once they hit the hot oil, providing ample room for the fillings. Neither Roger nor my father would have approved of a doughnut rolled in cardamom sugar, but I wish they were still around to debate this over a few cups of coffee and a doughnut just out of the fryer.
Following weeks of dashed hopes, Mike-in-Produce and Mr. Sweet as Pie came through; Rhubarb and I have finally been reunited. Earlier this week, upwards of 10 pounds of the elusive pie plant sprawled across my kitchen counter, making itself comfortable while I rearranged my refrigerator in order to accommodate the spring vegetable. Where to begin? What to bake besides pie?
Leafing through old manila recipe files, I came across a number of restaurant menus from my former life in Philadelphia. Rhubarb and I reminisced about those crazy late spring/early summer days, toiling in the relentless heat with the convection ovens blazing. Unable to curtail the momentum of food memory, I found myself tumbling down the rabbit hole of the early 1980s. Rhubarb reminded me of my obsession with the Chipwich ice cream sandwich, and I reminded him of his splashy feature in The Silver Palate Good Times Cook Book, as a rhubarb crisp, in 1985. Rinsing the slender stalks under cool water before drying them on a clean gingham dish towel, I had a dizzying flashback. “Remember how the 1980s were inundated with chocolate and white chocolate? It touched everything sweet; over-sized muffins, airy mousses, cocoa dusted truffles, ridiculous cheesecakes and sublime ganache. Remember the chocolate lava cake? And how it was a topic of molten debate, with Jacques Torres and Jean-Georges Vongerichten each claiming to have invented the dish?” Rhubarb nodded as I continued.
“Even simple bar cookies, classic brownies and butterscotch blondies were given ‘80s make-overs. They were studded with every kind of chip, exotic nuts like macadamias, and chunks that fell under the blade of the mighty Chef’s knife. Brownies couldn’t escape a swirl of cream cheese or an infusion of espresso. We drowned them in dark chocolate ganache, or insipid white chocolate curls. Remember?”
Rhubarb shuddered. “Makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it?”
I had to agree. White chocolate was never my go-to; its one saccharine note paling in comparison to chocolate’s multi-faceted blend of bitter and sweet. I always blamed white chocolate for my aversion to blondies, avoiding their brazen sweetness. That was until I came across Lisa Ludwinski’s recipe for Rhubarb Blondies. Plucking the recipe from the back of a notebook, I checked to see if my bakeware collection included an 8” square pan. Of course it did.
“You’re featured in this brown sugar/white chocolate bar cookie,” I casually mentioned to Rhubarb, combing through the recipe.
“You don’t say?” the pie plant ruminated.
“Shall we give it a go, despite the white chocolate?”
“Just don’t over-bake it,” Rhubarb warned . “And maybe cut back a little on the brown sugar, or bump up the salt. Whatever you do, I don’t want people getting the impression that I’m sweet. I have a reputation, you know.”
“Understood,” I assured the spring vegetable. “I’m not using any old white chocolate. I’m using caramelized white chocolate and hazelnuts.”
Rhubarb shrugged, unimpressed. “Aren’t you fancy? Just promise me one thing. If these rhubarb blondies don’t work out, promise me you won’t turn them into truffles?”
There have been rare sightings of fresh rhubarb in the tri-state area. Repeated calls to my congenial rhubarb supplier, Mike-in-Produce, have proven unsuccessful. “I’m sorry, but it’s unavailable, “ Mike insists. The more he insists, the more I implore. “That’s not possible- can you pleeease check another location?” Mike hits the keyboard of his computer with short, staccato strokes. “Unavailable. Out of stock. Unavailable. I can’t order it because the website tells me it’s unavailable.” Demoralized, I tell him I’ll try again next week but Mike is already gone, replaced by irritating elevator music punctuated by an endless loop of organic grocery specials. Begrudgingly, I paw through the depths of my freezer, emancipating the very last bags of rhubarb. Each bag is inscribed with a date scribbled in Sharpie that reads, Pandemic ’20.
Chipping away at the faded pink and green icecap with an OXO meat tenderizer, exactly three quarters of a pound of rhubarb overfill a fine mesh strainer. The ice crystals are stubborn, clinging to the frozen rhubarb like barnacles on the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.. Waiting for the ice to thaw and the oven to heat, I rummage through the pantry, assembling ingredients for a crumb topping. The Quaker Oats man relinquishes barely one cup of old-fashioned cereal. Hoisting my heaviest cast iron skillet from the bottom of the cabinet to the countertop, the oven beeps slightly off key, indicating it’s ready for business. A simple buttermilk cake batter is quick to mix and sturdy enough to support the still-frozen pie plant. The crumb topping is a little too generous for the batter, bordering on excessive.
Recently fixated by the BBC television series, Great British Menu, I can’t stop thinking about the rhubarb and custard pudding prepared by Edinburgh Chef of the Year, Tony Singh. Singh’s fresh rhubarb pudding, made with locally sourced rhubarb, is served with a custard sauce that teeters on crème brulee. The chef introduces viewers to the chickens responsible for the egg rich custard sauce, as well as the farmer who grows a steady supply of exquisite rhubarb. My oven timer beeps, interrupting my Great British Menu reverie. I’ll wait a few days before trying Mike-in-Produce. This week’s ‘unavailable’ might just be next week’s rhubarb windfall.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm