Since the first donut shops began lining the streets of major US cities during the 1920s and ‘30s, the fried donut (which originated from the Dutch name olykoeks, or oily cakes) has served as one of America’s favorite breakfast foods. That is, until today.
The new cream of the crop in the donut world has elevated the humble donut into a gourmet dessert, as evidenced by recent examples like the Crab Rangoon served by Strange Donuts, a 2½ year-old shop based in St. Louis. Each week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Strange Donuts concocts “crazier” versions, which they call “Strangers,” and sells these elaborate donuts for $5 apiece to an ever-growing group of fans. A local chef helped them devise the Crab Rangoon donut, filled with cream cheese and crab, along with sweet and sour sauce.
“We are collaborating with big-time chefs to make our Strangers,” says Jason Bockman, who owns Strange Donuts with business partner Corey Smale. “This helps get the local community talking about us and the chefs we work with.”
Well over half of their sales come after 10 a.m., making Strange Donuts part of the growing movement of donut shops that are profiting from a recent surge in demand for donuts as decadent afternoon and late-night snacks.
It is becoming quite evident that donut shops like Strange Donuts and Firecakes in Chicago are picking up where the cupcake movement left off, by using a bakery item as a platform to create a menu full of fun and interesting tastes. Forget 31 flavors. Strange Donuts makes more than a hundred.
The three-location shop offers vegan and gluten-free options in addition to $1 apiece Classics (glazed, rainbow pony, jelly filled, salted caramel) and $2 apiece Creations (blueberry cheesecake, red velvet, campfire and gooey butter, a St. Louis favorite patterned off gooey butter cake).
Strangers are billed as a meal in itself. Past versions include Chicken & Waffle, Mai Lee Restaurant Pho King Done, Pi Pizza Done, and Bogart’s BBQ Rib Done.
“We offer 12 kinds of donuts a day to keep it simple for the customer,” Bockman says. “But over a year, we create hundreds of donut varieties.”
In Chicago and New York, the race to create the most flavorful donuts has reached new heights with a now annual competition called Donut Fest.
On Sunday, January 31, Firecakes returned as the reigning champion to compete at the 2016 Donut Fest, showcasing their newest creation, the Maple Glazed Candied Peppered Bacon Long John filled with Maple Cream.
Owners Jonathan and Karen Fox started Firecakes Donuts, available at three locations in Chicago, to give customers “the same exhilarating sensory experience that people used to get at the traditional neighborhood donut shop.” Says chef Jonathan Fox: "We use the best traditional donut recipes and apply sophisticated techniques to produce layers of flavor that take our donuts to another level. For example, we don't just roll our coconut donuts in shredded coconut. Rather, we roll them in three different kinds of coconut, each with a different texture, making the experience much more interesting and tasty."
According to event organizers, Donut Fest is a “celebration of the love of fried sugary dough with a competition of yeast, battery, deep-fried treats.” Top restaurants and bakeries in Chicago and New York submit their best cruller, ring or long-john and compete against each other (one competition for each city). The winner earns the coveted title of "Best Donut."
Gurnee Donuts, which opened in 1994 in Gurnee, Illinois, won Chicago’s Donut Fest 2016 with its creative purple yam Ube Donut, a limited-time offering available with options of coconut topped, glazed or vanilla frosted.
The Chicago fan favorite awards went to Stan Donut's Biscoff Banana Pocket donut, filled with Biscoff cookie butter spread and fresh sliced bananas, and Chemshaw 13 Donutz's Fantastic 4 Caramel donut.
In New York City’s Donut Fest 2016, the judge’s choice award went to Glaze Donuts, based in New Milford, New Jersey. Owner Jule Hazou won the grand prize for the family-owned shop’s Cannoli donut, filled with cannoli cream and topped with crumbled cannoli shell pieces. Glaze, which opened in 2014, features dozens of creative varieties like the Bananas Foster, which is filled with Bavarian cream topped with cream, bananas, pecans and caramel drizzle.
The crowd favorite award in this year’s New York City Donut Fest went to The Doughnut Project, a 2-year-old bakery opened by founders Leslie Polizzotto and Troy Neal in the West Village of Manhattan. They make small batch, hand crafted yeast donuts to order.
Varieties at The Doughnut Project include the Bulletproof Tiger (pineapple with habanero stripes), Those Beetz are Dope (beet stuffed with ricotta), the Pumpkin King (cinnamon with roasted pepitas) and the Costanza (salted chocolate with buttered pretzel).