At the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, donuts weren’t just one of the countless snacks offered to those in attendance—they were billed as “The Hit Food of the Century of Progress.” Popularized in the United States during World War I when nurses would pass out sticky, honeyed doughnuts to servicemen, the classic breakfast treat would see its popularity and potential grow and grow with every new decade.
In the past few years, donuts have transcended their classic qualities — cheap, simple, and commonplace — and become gourmet pastries that beckon everyone from baking scientists looking to play with the formula to Instagram influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers who know a beautiful donut picture will get at least one thousand likes. At the 2017 StarChefs International Chef Congress (ICC), Alex Talbot of Curiosity Doughnuts, Clare Gordon of General Porpoise, and Wylie Dufresne of Du’s Donuts talked dough, fillings, and glazes as audience members bit into pastry cream-filled brioche donuts and glazed milk bread creations. With sugar and dough-filled stomachs and a handful of pictures destined for social media feeds, guests were ultimately left with one main takeaway: donuts are anything but unextraordinary.
“Every single donut I make is a franken-donut,” Talbot said as he mixed together the dough for his super cake donut, which borrows techniques from Japanese milk bread. Talbot has experimented with adding more moisture to his base, which is evidenced in his “Essential Breakfast” donut. With a super moist crumb, the creation is first doused in milk glaze, then finished with drizzles of coffee and banana glazes and white chocolate Cornflakes crumbs. The result: Your morning latte and bowl of cornflakes with sliced banana, condensed into one palm-sized sweet.
While Talbot spoke at lengths about the dough, Gordon and Dufresne discussed two other doughnut components: fillings and glazes. First up was Gordon, whose signature variety is a honey-sweetened, brioche-inspired dough filled with a pastry cream and whipped cream filling. While she likes to “base [her] flavors in nostalgia,” there’s one flavor at General Porpoise that outsells the others: the vanilla.
“We found that people want simple and classic flavors,” she said. “People have certain expectations. For example, the tomato jam didn’t fly.”
Dufresne echoed Gordon, elaborating how the doughnuts he thought wouldn’t sell did, and how those that he thought would be hits never sold. While he thought his creamsicle doughnut would get him press and praise, he ended up taking it off the menu because so few people bought it.
If there was one resounding agreement from the three speakers, though, it was that there is no finish line to donut-making. Though the free have found success, it wasn’t a straightforward path for any of them.
“Figuring out glazing has been a long, slightly painful journey,” Dufresne said, which he found himself on after attempting to create a glaze that was less sweet. For Gordon, her struggle was with the sweetness of the dough.
But at the same time, it isn’t all about the flavor; it’s also about the aesthetic. Not all delicious food is beautiful, but if you want to have a donut that attracts hordes of people, it doesn’t hurt to make yours with beautiful glazes and perfectly-placed toppings that Instagram influencers want to post to their feeds for their thousands of followers to see.
“If [the donut] doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter, it just has to look good,” Talbot joked. “The dough is a canvas.”