Bomboloni – traditional Italian doughnuts stuffed with strawberry jam

Lately, doughnuts have been on my mind.  I really fancied a nice doughnut with its sugary coating and rich, jam-filled centre with a nice cup of tea. Who doesn’t love doughnuts? (Or ‘donuts’, if that is how you prefer to spell it!) They are one of those bakery delights that just excite the taste-buds, resulting in one never being enough.  However, I must say that my doughnut experience was not quite as I expected.

Indeed, it seems that it is difficult to buy a decent doughnut these days.  When on the hunt for a good, honest doughnut; frankly I struggled. When heading off to two local bakeries I was presented with trays of ring doughnut covered in multi-coloured icing and sickly looking adornments, but no plain jam doughnuts. Following this disappointment I headed to the local supermarket and not surprisingly they were selling things they called ‘jam doughnuts’ but alas upon settling down with my cuppa and one of these rather wet looking doughnuts I conclude they were nothing short of a great disappointment…tasteless dough and not what I would call jam.  It seems that the simple pleasure of a good old fashioned doughnut is now difficult to find, instead pretty coloured ring doughnuts are enjoying the limelight.

I’m strongly of the opinion that there are few problems in life that can’t be solved with a steaming hot cup of tea and a simple, sugary, jam-filled doughnut.  Not for me are the modern fillings of butterscotch, cardamom and pistachio or anything else. Instead give me the simple unpretentious fare of my childhood, generously dusted with granulated sugar and filled to bursting with real strawberry jam. I conclude the secret to a good doughnut is good quality ingredients and a commitment to simplicity…perhaps I’ll make a batch myself. In the meantime I’ll have to settle for a biscuit with my cup of tea and a healthy dose of doughnut history.

It is difficult to define a doughnut, is it a cake, a type of sweet fritter, or a fried confectionary? Essentially the doughnut is all of these things and more. The doughnut is one of those entities that needs no definition, because when you mention its name everyone know what you are talking about and its popularity is multi-generational and timeless; in short the doughnut is an iconic food.

It’s not surprising that the doughnut has achieved iconic food status because it has all the right components. All foods that stand the test of time tend to offer good taste, an element of novelty and their recipes tend to air on the side of simplicity.  They also tend to be of a higher calorific value because generally we enjoy the taste, texture and aroma of fattier foods, this is because our bodies are evolutionarily programmed to prefer them as they give us more energy for a longer period of time. So, it could be said that our love of doughnuts’ is inevitable and natural and if that’s not great excuse to enjoy these luscious treats then I don’t know what is.

It’s easy to think of the doughnut as a modern bakery creation, but this really is a bakery delight that has stood the test of time.  The history of the doughnut goes back centuries, indeed to before the discovery of the New World, but the origin of the doughnut is heavily debated and hard to pin down. The concept of fried dough is not exclusive to one particular country or culture and it is true to say that variations of the doughnut can be seen throughout the history of global cuisine from the filhós of Portugal to the dona of Mexico, from India’s balushai to the lokma of Turkey; to name just a few, it seems every country has its own little version of a fried doughnut, but none of them can be confused with the distinctive all-American doughnut.

In ancient Rome cooks would fry strips of pastry dough known as ‘globi’.  Named for its round shape, it was a pastry made from equal amounts of cheese and flour that was fried in a bronze dish filled with either animal fat or oil that would be served with honey or a mixture of spiced wine and honey.

Later in Medieval times, Middle Eastern cooks started frying up small portions of unsweetened yeast dough, that were then coated in sweet syrup. These fritters spread into northern Europe in the fifteenth century and became popular throughout England, Germany and the Netherlands.

Record shows that the Dutch were making an early form of doughnut known as olykoeks, or “oil cakes,” as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Olykoeks, or oily cakes were fried in pork fat until golden and were formed by dropping dough off the end of a spoon. As Dutch migrants began to settle in the United States, they continued to make their olykoeks, where these early form of doughnuts’ continued to evolve as they took on the American cultural backdrop and adapted and transformed into what we now recognise as a doughnut. Indeed once the concept of the doughnut was presented to the United States it was set to become an American passion.

The name of the doughnut and indeed the hole in the middle are topics of debate amongst historians, but there are some noteworthy theories. Let’s start with that hole; it is widely accepted that the doughnut hole we are familiar with today was born out of baking necessity.  As the doughnut batter mix became enriched with egg yolks, producing a richer and firmer end result also came the issue of the centre remaining raw after frying. The solution came with the creation of a hole in the centre.  Now the matter of who thought up the ingenuity of a hole in the middle of our beloved doughnut is a story that is prone to variation, but it is generally attributed to Hanson Gregory, a New England sea captain. There are many variants of this story, but my favourite version is one that tells the tale of how on June 22nd, 1847, Captain Gregory’s ship hit a sudden storm. He impaled the doughnut on one of the spokes of the steering wheel to keep his hands free. The spoke drove a hole through the raw centre of the doughnut and upon sampling the now holey doughnut Captain Gregory, concluded that he had inadvertently created a work of culinary genius; because a doughnut without the raw centre was by far tastier and so the doughnut hole was born. Yes, it is fair to speculate that this story is probably not steeped in historical fact, but it is fun.

Precisely how the “doughnut” came to be called thus is not surprisingly a subject of some disagreement. According to some sources, the Dutch twisted their dough into knots, hence “dough knots”. Others point out that the olykoeken tended not to cook through in the very middle, so some makers would put nuts in the centre to provide a palatable centre that required no cooking and thus leading to the term ‘dough-nuts’.

Whatever, caused Doughnuts to gain their name or their hole, or exactly which corner of the world can lay an authentic claim to the primary doughnut seed of creation may be uncertain, but it is certain that doughnuts’ have an interesting pedigree and have gripped our taste buds.

So beloved is the doughnut that it even took on a patriotic resonance on the front lines of World War I, when female Salvation Army workers known as “Doughnut Girls” would cook and distribute doughnuts to the American soldiers fighting in France. They offered a taste of home to the soldiers, who became known as “Doughboys.” The Doughnut Girls were replaced by “Doughnut Dollies” during World War II and whilst doughnuts’ are no doubt a tasty treat they are also a great pick-me up, seeing us through good times, wars and even the Great Depression.  In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘’the optimist looks at the donut, the pessimist looks at the hole’’.  Doughnuts are not just a food; they are part of our culture, history and morale defence mechanism.

When you look at the history of the doughnut it is easy to see why it has thrived and when you taste a truly great doughnut it is to see how it has become a classic bakery item of iconic status and why the modern day doughnut is coupled with America!