An earlier version of this article appeared in Nougat Magazine in May, 2007.
Two of our tall, handsome sons live in Washington, D.C., right in 'the District.' They have learned their city's homey folkways, including the three branches of government, the five Metro line colors, and the precision calculus required to get seats for weekend brunch.
So when we visited recently, four of us sat in a car at 10:40 A.M. on Sunday morning, in a nor'easterly downpour, around the corner from the highly touted (and tiny) Colorado Kitchen. [See update, below.] We watched the dashboard clock and laid plans: who would enter the cold rain at which moment to secure a spot in line before the restaurant opened for brunch at 11:00 A.M.
As we got in the car to drive to the restaurant, I had said I hoped the Colorado Kitchen would have great Huevos Rancheros, my favorite breakfast. Nope, said a son—it's not western or Rocky Mountain food. The name comes from the restaurant's location at 5515 Colorado Avenue NW.
I sat in the Honda's back seat with a 6'4' son, so close I could feel his phone vibrate. The call came from his friend who had suggested we might like the Colorado Kitchen.
'What should we order?'
Now we got serious about getting seats. At 10:50 A.M., two of us took a big umbrella and went to stand in line.
Doughnuts have a special meaning in our family. Mother and Dad—'Mimi and Gramps' to the grandchildren—made homemade yeast doughnuts or cinnamon rolls for family breakfasts every weekend for more than 40 years.
When the doors at the Colorado Kitchen opened at 11:00 A.M., we celebrated our tactical success in securing a scarce table for four by ordering a 'bucket of holes.' Before our real brunch came, we savored seven small, hot, sweetly spiced, powdery cruller-style doughnut balls. Good.
Yes, said a son, but not as good as Mimi and Gramps's doughnuts. 'Mmmmm,' we all said, remembering.
Mother and Dad lived at the end of a two-mile gravel road in Wayne County, seven miles from tiny Monticello. If they wanted good doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, and dinner rolls, they had no Colorado Kitchen option. They cooked such foods from scratch.
Mother made a simple yeast dough each Friday or Saturday night. Dad rolled out and cut the dough early the next morning, and set the uncooked doughnuts to rise. An hour or two later, Mother fried them in her two old black skillets and dipped them in a thin homemade confectioners' sugar glaze. When Mother grew too ill to make the dough herself, Dad learned to carry out all the steps himself.
Homemade doughnuts (or, alternatively, homemade cinnamon rolls made from the same basic dough) took on an unstated significance in our family's life. As a scab-kneed kid on a hard-working farm, I noted my friends' and cousins' reactions to our family doughnuts and woke up enough to notice that -- sometimes, at least -- we had a sweet life. The weekend roll ritual kneaded into my brain a link between self-sufficiency, cooking skills, and the rewards of investing effort in real food.
On the evening after my mother's funeral, on a Saturday in 2002, Dad, then 91, said, "I tell you what I think I'm going to do. We're going to have some hungry people around here in the morning, and I'm going to make some rolls."
So he did. He made the roll dough that evening, and the Sunday doughnuts the next morning smelled like our family's life going on, sweet and enduring. In one gesture in the kitchen, Dad honored Mother's verve and energy, and signaled, "I'm doing all right and I'm going to be fine." And he has been.
I'm not saying it's easy to make homemade doughnuts. I am saying it's worthwhile, and not particularly hard. If you have one of those electric deep-fryers hiding in a corner, even the tricky fry-work becomes easy.
Homemade doughnuts will spoil you. They are hazardous to commercial doughnut chains' bottom line, and I promise not to use the word 'bottom' again in a doughnut story. I will point out, though, that Dad is now 95, so perhaps the health benefits of eating homemade doughnuts once a week will soon be headline news.
The Doughnut Process is all fun home chemistry. Just be smart, and do not start making homemade doughnuts for breakfast if you want to eat in the next hour.
First, you need a batch of Mother and Dad's Saturday Night roll dough - and you need it made at least ten hours before you want to eat the finished doughnuts. Second, you need a doughnut cutter. Aluminum cutters with round wooden knob-handles were staples in the kitchens in beautiful Wayne County when I grew up. All my wonderful cooking aunts had them.
New models still sell for less than $5.00. Type 'doughnut cutter' into your search engine and you will see quite a few options. Even with shipping costs, this essential tool is cheap. You do have to have it ' trust me on this. There is no other way to cut out circular doughnuts with a hole in the middle.
Finally, you need a commitment to pleasure in your own kitchen. The rich fresh oil, the good sturdy flour and the sweetness of each doughnut bite support the sweet, rich, sturdy connections people make around a happy table.
Remember the lesson of the Colorado Kitchen, though. If the smells of homemade doughnuts float into the neighborhood, expect the line to form early. Double the recipe, and enjoy.
12-3-09: Colorado Kitchen is no longer, but Gillian Clark and her partner Robin Smith serve their trademark fine comfort food at the General Store and Post Office Tavern in Silver Spring, Maryland.
5-29-12 It is not clear whether Gillian Clark and Robin Smith have restaurants in action at the moment. I still remember and celebrate what they do.
And one more thing: in spite of the saucy advice to think about doughnuts the night before you want them, be assured you can make non-yeasted beignets from scratch (using the pate a choux method) in less than an hour, and probably homemade crullers (cake doughnuts) as well.