How I Learned to Cook, long-lost Part 3—or, Time to make the doughnuts

I haven’t written about my home cooking in many months, and probably won’t again for a while (since I won’t be home till January, but that’s another story). But as you’ll see, this doughnut thing—I need to write about it for closure.

Years ago, I wrote a couple of posts about how I learned to cook (here and here), and had always meant to write a third one about Cook’s Illustrated.

Cook’s Illustrated is the world’s most boring magazine. But damn, its plodding, exhaustive articles have taught me so much. I first subscribed in 1996, when I was in grad school. And except for a couple years in the middle when I got disgusted by how low-brow the recipes had gotten (school-lunch-style tacos), the magazine has shown up at my door every two months since.

Turns out I could’ve quit early on, because the March/April 1997 issue has been the single handiest one ever. It covered Irish soda bread, corned beef, chicken and dumplings, crepes and quick-braised lamb shoulder chops. This last thing I lived on, with endless variations, for the first few years of freelancing in New York, and the general techniques behind all of these recipes have been essential.

So retro!

Oh, and it has a killer recipe for key lime pie. I use it to this day. As you can see from the nasty stickiness all over the pages.

Mmm, sticky.

The one thing in the issue I have never cooked is the buttermilk doughnuts. Every year or so I have occasion to pick up this issue, and I always pass the doughnut article with regret. Sure, I could whip up 15 doughnuts in 45 minutes—but when would I ever have occasion to do that? I’m not shy about deep-frying, but it has to be a special occasion, and there are pretty much never special occasions before noon in my life.

But then we got this weather. Hurricane Irene, hell-bent on the eastern seaboard, and Peter and I housebound for the whole weekend. Our friend Katie had just come back from Maine with two enormous tubs of wild blueberries she’d harvested. We froze one and devoured the other almost, and there were about two handfuls of berries that needed to be eaten, stat.

And our fridge happened to be full of lard that needed to be kicked before we left. Who leaves a housesitter with a quart of lard and nothing else?

I was going to try to avoid saying this, but what the hell: It was the perfect storm of downtime, odd special occasion and ingredients just begging to be used.

As promised, the recipe was indeed easy. I made half the quantity, because it wasn’t special occasion enough to make myself violently ill by eating 10 doughnuts or so by myself, which I just might, given the opportunity. We got a yield of about eight doughnuts, which was fine by us.

They fried up beautifully and popped to the surface of the fat, just like they’re supposed to. We fried in lard, despite Cook’s Illustrated‘s warnings: Its panel decided lard’s flavor was “too meaty”—killjoys! This article was from 1997, remember, so the Cook’s Ill crew unapologetically embraced Crisco as the optimal frying medium, while sneering at lard for its unhealthiness as well.

(Let the record show that I have been on the side of lard since 1972.)

In fact, lard worked wonderfully, and the abstractly meaty flavor made these the perfect brunch doughnut, solving that timeless dilemma of sweet or savory.

I also made up a little glaze—milk and cornstarch—and drizzled it over. The problem with this glaze is that

  • 1) I have not seen the Krispy Kreme glaze waterfall with my own eyes in years, so I couldn’t remember what viscosity I was shooting for, and
  • 2) to get the proper crunch with the glaze, you have to give it time to harden up.

But there was no time! These doughnuts had to be rushed to our mouths instantly! My god—how could that glaze not understand?

No, we don't own a doughnut cutter. Why do you ask?

I think all we ate that day until about 9pm, when the hurricane was pretty thoroughly gone and the sun had set in churning orange clouds, was blueberry doughnuts.

2 P.M.
3 P.M.

During the hurricane, our power didn’t go out, our basement didn’t flood, no trees fell down on our house. In fact, we slept right through the storm. Frankly, it was a tiny bit of a letdown—but these doughnuts made the day special.

Blueberry Buttermilk Doughnuts to Weather a Storm
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
Makes about 8 doughnuts

I used cake flour because that’s all we had, but I think this made the doughnuts actually a little too tender and cakey. If you’re not making a glaze, then add more sugar to the recipe–it’s not a very sweet doughnut.

1 3/4 cups flour (2 cups if you’re using cake flour)
Large handful wild (small) blueberries)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
Zest from one lemon
1/3 cup buttermilk*
2 T butter, melted
1 egg
Lard for frying

Topping:
Confectioners sugar
Milk
Or
Cinnamon
Sugar

Toss the blueberries with a couple of tablespoons of flour just to coat; set aside. Mix all the remaining dry ingredients together.

Mix egg, buttermilk and melted butter together, then pour this into the dry ingredients and mix well. You’ll end up with this very gloopy batter. You might have to add some more flour to get something you can cut into doughnut shapes.

Very heavily flour a cutting board or counter, then lay the batter/dough out. Scatter flour over the top. Gently nudge it into a round about half an inch thick. (Cook’s Ill says to use a rolling pin, but I can’t see how this wouldn’t end in tears, with all the dough stuck to it.) Use a glass with a floured rim to cut out rounds, then use something extra-small to cut out the holes.

Heat up your lard to about 375, and then carefully slide your little doughnuts into the hot fat. Flip once, after a bit less than a minute. They pop to the surface very nicely when cooked through. Fish them out and lay them on paper towels to dry.

For the glaze, combine confectioners sugar and milk till you have a reasonably thick but pourable mix. Drizzle this over the doughnuts, and wait for it to harden if you can. Or just go with cinnamon sugar–this would go nicely with the lemon zest and the blueberries.

*You know the fake buttermilk trick, right? Squeeze about a teaspoon of lemon juice in regular milk, and then let it sit for about 10 minutes, until the mixture thickens up.