“No matter what, everybody eats donuts,” laughs Ben Aivati. Ben owns Donut Touch, a donut shop servicing the business strip on Mira Mesa Boulevard. I believe him, and it’s a testament to the attractive power of these rings of fried dough. For there is a popular bias against them, and not just because donuts are often placed in a category with fast food and soda pop. McDonald’s will be with us at the Olympics. Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola. But only Homer Simpson eats donuts. I can’t think of another popular figure who is portrayed as a donut lover, and so we who eat them are left with a lingering sense of pop-culture shame. We are not validated by the mass media. There are no donut shops where TV’s hip gen-Xers meet, no intellectual donut enclaves. But if we can elevate that low-brow icon, the diner, à la Seinfeld, surely we can elevate the donut shop; it will be better than the diner, precisely because it will not be dressed up. The elevation will come from the puff-loving souls of the customers.
A possible example, cinéma vérité. Boy meets girl at donut shop. They both blush, caught in the indulgence of an uncool, uncelebrated passion in an uncool, undecorated environment. But they recover. Hey, donuts are good, darn it, and who cares what the world says?
“We’re young rebels,” the girl proclaims, “and what better way to frustrate the boring and the broken-down than to claim their pastry as our own?”
“I love donuts,” cries the boy, “and what’s more, I love you!”
She brushes the cinnamon from his cheek and kisses him with a mouth sticky with raspberry filling.
Ben, an affable man whose face is just beginning to relax into a comfortable middle age, would surely welcome such an elevation. At Donut Touch, donuts are not junk food, they are pastries, and a donut is not a donut is not a donut. “People are in the hunt for a good donut. You can’t find the damn thing anymore. We do a lot of business with people who come from all over for our donuts. People know the taste. They know donuts. These are the best. The reason is because we do it right. You know, you have to have it, for any kind of job you do. If you don’t have that touch… That’s why we call it Donut Touch, because we have the touch for donuts.”
The making of a perfect donut begins with the mix, which arrives in 50-pound bags from several suppliers. “I buy from Dawn, I buy from Westco, I buy from Lakeside. I can tell the difference between all the mixes in this country because I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I taste the donuts, I can tell. I go for the best of what each supplier has to offer. My cake product, I get from Westco. Raised, I get from Dawn.” For anyone who doesn’t know the difference, raised are the great big puffy ones, and cake are the smaller, denser ones.
Ben doesn’t stop there. “This base, you can mix it to your own needs; you can control it. We have the base; we add a few other things to it to make a different taste — excellent. Our donuts are very good because we have control over that. I don’t care about money. I pay to have the quality product.”
The pursuit of donut excellence at any cost extends even to the shortening in which the donuts are fried. “From Dawn, I buy a shortening they have designed only for frying donuts —100 percent vegetable oil. [A mix of cottonseed and soybean.] Nobody uses lard anymore. Shortening ranges from $15 for a 50-pound box to $22. The reason I’m paying $22 is because it’s got no palm oil, and palm oil is bad. It’s high cholesterol. It burns, it smokes, it adds a subtle aftertaste to your product. So I don’t use that. I use top of the line.”
Finally, we arrive at the donut touch, the touch of the donut maker himself. To plumb these mystic depths, I spent a night watching Jorge, one of the bakers, practice his craft.
Jorge arrives on bicycle at the shop at a quarter to one, unlocks, turns on the lights, parks his bike in the back, and begins work. He is lean and muscular, of medium height, dressed in green pants, white hightops, T-shirt, and teal ball cap, worn backwards and sporting the Donut Touch name.
The kitchen is small — everything is a few steps from everything else. I am pleased by the meeting of utility and attractiveness in the stainless steel and white and coffee-brown tile that dominates the area. A large cutting board lines one wall; a scale stands at the end. Turning to the right, I find the industrial-size mixer; turn right again, and there’s the fryer. Sliding across, I come to the glaze pit, sort of an enlarged paint tray, and a counter for the racks. Beneath this are the trays holding the icings and toppings. The bins that hold the donut mixes are under the cutting board.
Jorge dips into one of these with a large scoop and measures out ten pounds of buttermilk cake mix onto the triple-balance scale. He slides the mix into the mixer, measures out and takes the temperature of a pitcher of water, adds it, and starts the mixer, moving the hand of a clock mounted on the wall next to it. The second hand sweeps around one minute. Jorge ups the speed, adds some water with a squirt bottle to correct the consistency, and sets the mixer for three minutes.
He dredges the glaze, agitating it with quick openings and closings of the jaws of a wide scoop. Pinches up a mass of the stuff — a mix of powdered sugar, starch, honey, vanilla, and water — and drizzles it across the rack above the pit. Adds water to improve the texture, and repeats. White cascades fall from the jaws of the scoop and break into ribbons before sliding through the grill of the rack. He does this often, whenever there is a lull in the activity.
After dredging, there is just time to sift flour over the cutting board before the mixer stops. Jorge hauls the bowl onto the counter, scrapes the blade of the mixer to remove excess, empties the bowl onto the counter, scraping the sides, and starts kneading. Kneads, pats, folds, dusts with flour, then pounds it into a rectangle two inches thick. He seizes a massive rolling pin and rolls the dough to 3/4 of an inch with quick, violent pushes. He then prods the edges with jabs of his fingers, shaping and thickening.
The dough is now ready for the cutter, a rolling pin with slats instead of a roller, which cuts the dough into bars. Jorge cuts, re-kneads the excess, and cuts again, placing the bars on a rack. Using a long, short-bristled brush, he removes most of the flour from the bars and submerges the rack in the fryer. He is careful to make sure that the bars do not go down with the rack but remain floating on the surface, puffing and frying to a tawny gold.
Ben has warned me that many shops are not so careful. “You see that screen with a handle? A lot of bakeries, they close it on top of the donuts. What that does is it pushes the donuts down, forces a lot of shortening into the product. And then they have a greasy product that they put out, and people are afraid of eating donuts. But it’s not bad, if you do it right.”
Two minutes pass, and Jorge flips the bars with two sticks, placing one on either side and twisting. He does this quickly, expertly, so there is no uneven cooking among them. After five minutes, the donuts are ready to be removed. He raises the rack from the bottom of the fryer, scooping the donuts up, and bangs the rack on a sloped metal tray to remove any excess oil. Down go the bars onto the glaze rack, up comes the scoop, down drops the glaze, and up goes the rack, tilted on an angle and held up by a stick. The glaze starts out thick and opaque but soon runs off, leaving the familiar sweet sheen on the bars. Seen from beneath, the rack is hung with icicles of sugar, thawing in the kitchen warmth, the dripping eaves of the gingerbread cottage.
While the bars were frying, Jorge was prepping the old-fashioneds. Though they differ much in appearance, and slightly in make-up, old-fashioneds and cake donuts are prepared in much the same way, the only notable difference being the temperature they are cooked at. Temperature is crucial to good donut making, throughout the process. The dough must be kept between 80 and 85 degrees, says Ben. “Yesterday, I told [my baker], I said, ‘Jorge, these donuts, they’re not good enough. These are excellent donuts, but they’re not outstanding.’ ” He shows me a leftover. “See? It’s too tight inside. It’s supposed to be lighter, more hollow, more air space. The reason is, he told me, he says, ‘Ben, last night was too cold.’ We take the temperature once a week, but all of a sudden, we had a drastic change.”
Cooking temperatures are also important, and Jorge fiddles with the gauge often, but the basic rule is, 330 for buttermilk, 355 for old-fashioneds, and 370 for cake. The batter for the latter two is poured into what I will call a dropper, a bowl suspended above the fryer on a movable arm. When Jorge turns a crank on the side of the bowl’s holder, an arm that reaches over the bowl moves two rods, click CLACK. One rod drops, the other follows slowly. They meet at the bottom and rise together. These rods move parts in a piece fitted onto the bottom of the bowl, parts that extrude a small ring of batter, then pull it back while simultaneously folding another ring around it. At the end of the handle crank, the ring is cut off and drops into the oil. I could watch for hours.
Ben assures me that the height of the drop must be just so, otherwise, the donut will have either too much or too little flight time. The donut expands as it drops. Too much time, and the hole is too big; too little, and there is no hole at all. The level of the shortening must be carefully monitored. The case for the donut touch improves.
The donuts rest for a moment at the bottom of the fryer, then bob to the surface. Jorge cranks out 30 at a time. By the time they finish cooking, they’ve puffed up to cover the entire surface of the oil. Jorge repeats the flipping routine, then takes a moment to prepare the icings and toppings. He pulls out the trays of chocolate, vanilla, and orange icing and the containers of peanuts, coconut, and sprinkles, both rainbow and chocolate. The icing is cold and stiff. He wets it and shooshes it about in the tray with an ice cream scoop, releasing a maddening chocolate smell.
There are two schools of thought on the matter of toppings, and depending on your allegiance, the man who eats unadorned glazed and cake donuts is either a fool or a purist. The first school views the donut as a kind of matter, the basic stuff upon which the toppings, the true object of desire, are placed. Granted, the quality of the matter will influence the overall experience, just as a marble statue is usually deemed more wonderful than a plaster one. Better matter, better end product. But you don’t look at a statue to see the marble, you look to see the shape the artist has imposed upon it. So you don’t eat a donut for the donut; you eat it for the icing, the sprinkles, the peanuts, coconut, cinnamon sugar, creme and jelly fillings…
The second school wants cake. Toppings are merely heralds for the real matter at hand: the wondrous fried dough, which varies shop to shop, promising divine adventures in texture to those willing to pursue its more subtle pleasures. Not so sweet as, say, icing, or as intense as cherry filling, but rich and moving. I like to think of members of this school — which includes me — as the donut elite, privy to an understanding denied those who devote themselves to the more immediate pleasures of rainbow sprinkles. We appreciate toppings the way we appreciate the occasional quirky interpretation of a masterpiece by a virtuoso. It is a pleasant addition but does not obscure the greatness of the work.
Returning to Jorge, I find him making three batches of old-fashioneds and as many of cake. I can’t be sure just how many, since to my eyes there are thousands, all of them calling to me, promising unspeakable joy.
As he goes, he glazes one batch of old-fashioneds and ices another two, pushing the hot donuts into the tray of icing. Not all donut shops do this, as Ben explains. “Other places, they ice them with warm icing. There’s a burner, and they put the icing in these small containers, and they set each one on top of one of these burners, which is constantly on. So that keeps the icing warm. You can use cold donuts and ice them, because the icing is warm. The reason they do this is that they don’t want to waste any icing. They say, ‘Hey, I’ve got all these donuts with chocolate icing on them, and then I have to throw them away [at the end of the day]. I’d rather throw them away plain. Because sugar is expensive, and chocolate is expensive.’
“But the disadvantage is that the icing, because of the heat, will burn. And it loses the flavor. So here, we use cold icing. We use cold icing, hot donuts. It’s harder to do, but we don’t mind hard work to put out a product that is good.”
The difficulty becomes apparent as Jorge removes the donuts. He pulls up, straight and slow, the icing pulling back, unwilling to loose its hold. When it finally lets go, the donut leaves a crater with raised edges. Slowly, the crater rises and the edges sink, and the icing awaits its next visitor.
The cake donuts are gorgeous. There is no oily gloss, just an exquisite brown crust, laced with cracks revealing the soft yellow interior. These are the colors of appetite, and I am getting dizzy with desire. After icing some, Jorge dips them into the trays of toppings. The sprinkles, with their bright pinks, showy reds, and candy greens, seem out of place here. The white of the vanilla is neutral enough to be okay, but you can’t beat the warm tones of yellow, tan, brown, and that shade that is best called chocolate that shows up in a peanut-chocolate iced cake donut. When Jorge notices my greedy gaze and offers me one, I gratefully accept.
For those of you fortunate enough to have eaten a just-made donut before, what follows will be familiar. The crust makes itself felt only in the biting, then melts away, opening into a warm, sweet lightness. The interior is weightless, barely there until the tongue mashes it into the mush it becomes just before swallowing. The peanuts hang suspended in the lightness, surprising bits of crunch amidst the melting. The chocolate comes in around the edges, more a mood than a sensation, and I am once more reminded of the magic of taste, that food can touch my tongue and somehow transfer a complex and powerful quality to my soul. And there is a soul involved. Pleasure cannot be a mere matter of parts touching parts; there is something more, something spiritual. There must be; otherwise, I could not be transported thus. My whole consciousness is shifted to my tongue; I am aware of nothing else. My eyes instinctively close, so as not to distract me. The sounds of the kitchen no doubt continue, but I do not hear them now.
I recover from my swoon in time to watch Jorge prepare a rack of chocolate donuts, and I get a look at the bag the mix comes in. The bag features a picture of a chef’s head and hand, winking and giving the okay sign, smiling approvingly at the buyer. The brown paper is lettered in red, and I read: “Westco Choc-o-Donut Blend, For Superlative Devil’s Food Cake Donuts, Prepared for America’s Finest Bakers.” Fabulous. I am emboldened to brave the list of ingredients. Flour (bleached, enriched, malted) enriched with (niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate and riboflavin), sugar, cocoa, non-fat milk solids, soya oil, corn flour, egg yolk solids, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate), salt, wheat starch, soya flour, sodium caseinate, mono and di-glycerides, corn starch, lecithin and artificial flavor.
The bag finishes with a reminder: “Tested and approved recipes by and for America’s Finest Bakers.” I am aglow.
It is pleasant to watch Jorge because it is pleasant to watch proficiency in any field, and because he is making food. Back and forth he goes, adding shortening in great white dollops to the fryer, keeping the icing moist and supple, fiddling with the temperature, adding water and mix to the mixer as it chugs away. Now washing, now dipping, now cooling, now mixing, and now beginning the crullers.
Crullers require very hot water in the mixing, 120 degrees. The mix is sensitive, and many shops do not carry these miniature snow tires. But Ben prides himself on his staff’s proficiency. Jorge puts a new fitting on the dropper and begins working the batter through. It flowers out, spreading its ridges like petals, then closes as the machine draws it back and folds it over. Finally it drops and sits in the oil, spinning merrily as it fries. Jorge turns them several more times than normal donuts, and they puff high, like a stiff meringue. Even in the cranking, Jorge hesitates for a moment before dropping them, letting them hang in the air to bloom before frying.
The crullers fried, glazed, iced, and topped, he may now turn his attention to the bowl of raised dough, which has been rising for some 30 minutes. He drops the bowl on its side, and the contest is underway. The yeast-quickened dough quivers, spilling out, a reluctantly mobile blob that seeks to spread over the whole board. Wielding a square steel chopper, Jorge lops off a chunk about the size of a loaf of bread. He begins to knead, pinching and punching and folding, and the dough squeaks in protest. The blob of dough holds the sheer face of the cut for a moment, shocked, then begins rounding it out.
Jorge is sure of hand; he adds to what he chops only once. He makes eight loaves, push push PUSH, then takes a loaf and pounds it flat with the heel of his hand, his palm, his fingers. He rolls it, shapes it, and flips it at the edge like a nurse spreading a bedsheet. The dough is cut with a round cutter or a bar cutter, then left in the proofer for 45 minutes to rise. Jorge cuts with a quick twist of the wrist, steadily, until all eight loaves are gone. The first rack is ready by this point, and the rituals of frying and icing are repeated, day in, day out, providing pastry pleasure to the public.
Leaving aside questions of taste and fairness, it may be said that the classic raised donut is the simple chocolate iced. Lest there be any argument on this point, I leave you with this true story of self-recovery.
Ridden with guilt over his failings, shame because of his fears, sorrow because of his anxieties, and melancholy because of his melancholy, Ed pulled into the parking lot in front of Rose Donuts. Here, in the gentle puffery of airy fried sugardough; here, in the goodness of the chocolate icing, he would find refuge. Here there were no abstracted lusts, here no isolation and loneliness, here no doubts, no wonderings, no faith required, just the happy fact, the happy certainty, of the donut, of sweet satisfaction. All desires for the donut were licit and fulfillable, all fears could be eased — the donut could be eaten. It was here, with him, reassuring him that he was loved — how could there not be love where there were donuts? Surely the donut had been made, with love, for him and him alone, because the Donut Maker had heard his cry, had felt his need, and had prepared it just for him. Oh, he was loved, indeed. Donuts were signs of love; donuts were love.
“One chocolate iced, please.” He was nearly breathless. A fine sweat broke out on his forehead, and his underarms and the small of his back were damp. He could see it now — the donut, his donut.
“Just one?” The question gripped his stomach with a cold claw, talons of icy desire ripping through him. He had only 60 cents…
“Yes, just one.” There would be time, time to find a cash machine, later. Now, he had to have that donut. Oh, sweet convulsive anticipation; the round ring of inner peace was lifted, bagged, handed over…
“Thank you.” It was gone in 20 seconds because he made himself eat it slowly.
EPILOGUE: Somewhere out there, someone is wondering, “I read all this and didn’t find out how they fill the filled donuts? Son of a…” As I left at around five in the morning, I interrupted Jorge, who had been all but silent throughout the night, and asked him that very question. The donuts to be filled are first fried, then brought over to a white box with a cone-shaped container of filling on top, two stainless steel tubes protruding from the side. The donuts are slid onto the tubes, a button is pushed, and the filling is injected. Satisfied?
UPDATE: Some 13 years after this article first ran, Ben Aivati continues to own and operate Donut Touch, which currently has a four-star (out of five) rating on Yelp. Their most popular donuts are glazed, apple fritters, and old-fashioned.