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.