Growing up, Saturdays meant catching up on chores and errands that had been put off during the work week. This was particularly true for Dad. He could often be seen hauling firewood up to the woodshed, repairing the tractor, or puzzling over a project in the granary. Occasionally, we'd all chip in with bigger projects like chucking wood off the wagon just returned from the woods.
In the lucky case that Dad had caught up on chores or been rained out of the woods, errands became the order of the day. Even the simplest errand required a trip into town. Being a kid who lived on a dirt road (translation: bored), I naturally relished opportunities to help Dad run errands.
I highly doubt that I was of much assistance in the hardware store, but I was certainly helpful (or at least I liked to think so) when it came to choosing our treat. You see, errands always involved some sort of "treat", a form of refined sugar offered in reward for an errand accomplished... or sometimes just an errand attempted. And Saturday morning treats usually meant doughnuts.
Right across the street from the hardware store was the town bakery. The bakery's doughnuts were surpassed only by their famous salt rising bread, so we usually brought home some of both. And, since we were so selflessly bringing treats home for the rest of the family, why not treat ourselves to an extra for the road?
Isn't it funny how food connects us with the past? I often reminisce through food. I miss the local bakery. Even more, I miss Saturdays with family. With home so far away, something about weekend doughnuts feels right, as if I've transcended time and space to reconnect with my loved ones. This one simple thing helps me feel in tune even though I'm miles away.
I don't often attempt homemade doughnuts since I can't seem to get the knack of cooking with all that oil. But I must've been homesick and vulnerable when I came across this recipe because I just couldn't resist trying it.
As goes with most home cooks, I made some small adjustments throughout. First, I decided to halve the original recipe. (Nine doughnuts seemed a bit excessive for just me and the hubs!) And I should warn you that, as with many things Martha Stewart features, this particular recipe is time consuming, so it might not be worth it to you for just 4, or even 9, doughnuts. However, I also must say that the end result was simply divine. Despite my difficulty with both yeast and hot oil, the central components of this recipe, the doughnuts were wonderful: soft; surprisingly crumbly, and addictive. They hardly lasted 24 hours in our house!
Because of its fussiness, I recommend approaching this recipe in three phases.
Phase 1: Prepare the pastry cream and the dough (up until the rising) the night before you plan to actually cook and serve the doughnuts. Both need hours of refrigeration so may as well make your sleeping hours work for you.
Phase 2: Proof the dough. Wake up a little early, pull your dough from the fridge, and get your doughnuts rising. I should warn you that I let mine rise on the front porch... in Texas... in summer. Lesson learned the hard way. Even though they went gloppy on me while rising, they still fried up wonderfully. So, my fellow yeast-challenged bakers, do not be dissuaded! Just don't plan on any bonus points for presentation.
By the way, I'd recommend dusting your cut-outs with flour before covering them to rise. Otherwise they stick to the plastic wrap as mine did, making a waste of those pretty doughnut cut-out efforts.
Phase 3: Fry and fill. After hours of refrigeration and rising, you're now ready for the last challenge--deep frying. Give yourself a big pot to work with and don't skimp on the oil. You want your dough to have enough clearance to buoy back to the top, otherwise it will stick to the bottom and burn. Also give your oil ample time to heat up. For me this meant a good 20 minutes heating the oil over a medium flame. Don't be afraid to drop your flame, either, if you notice the doughnuts cooking too dark, too quick in the hot oil.
After all that hard work, these doughnuts are truly a treat whether your mission was accomplished or even just attempted. And the greatest treat is to in some way connect the past with the present, carrying a piece of home with you on the day ahead.
Vanilla Cream-Filled Doughnuts
adapted from Joanne Chang as featured by Martha Stewart
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cake flour
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup milk, room temperature
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling and dusting
1 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 large eggs
3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
Prepare vanilla cream: Set a fine mesh sieve over a small heatproof bowl and set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat milk over medium-high heat until bubbles just start to form around the edges but milk is not yet boiling. Meanwhile combine sugar, flour, and salt in a small boil. In a mediume bowl, whisk together egg yolks; slowly whisk in flour mixture until thick and pasty.
Remove milk from heat and slowly add to egg mixture, whisking constantly to keep eggs from cooking. Return milk mixture to saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, about 3 minutes. Immediately remove from heat when it comes to a boil, whisking a few seconds longer. (Because I used too big of a saucepan, I couldn't see my mixture boiling and as a result overcooked it. It was already like pudding, no refrigeration necessary! Even though I messed it up, it still tasted delicious and was quickly piled on top in addition to the filling.)
Pour mixture through sieve; stir in vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate overnight. Don't forget to add the heavy whipping cream as described below before using this filling!
Prepare dough: In the bowl of an electric mixer, stir together yeast and milk; let stand until yeast is dissolved, about 1 minute. Add flour, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and eggs; mix on low speed until dough comes together, about 3 minutes. Gradually add butter, mixing and scraping down sides after each addition, until fully incorporated, about 5 minutes or until dough is soft.
Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, pull your dough from the fridge. Lightly flour a large baking sheet and set aside. On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to about 1/2-inch thickness and cut out doughnuts. Transfer cut-outs and scraps to prepared baking sheet. (Don't let any of this dough go to waste--the scraps make interesting shaped fritters and taste every bit as good as the cut-outs.) Dust with flour and loosely cover with plastic wrap; let stand in a warm spot free from drafts until they've doubled in height and feel poufy and pillowy, 2 to 3 hours.
Line another large baking sheet with paper towels and set aside. Fill a cereal bowl with remaining 3/4 cup sugar; set aside. Fill a large heavy-bottomed saucepan with oil about 3 inches deep; heat over medium-high heat. (I used a candy thermometer to get it to 300°.) Working in batches, gently allow dough to plop into the hot oil, taking care not to crowd the pan. Fry until golden on one side, about 2 minutes. Continue frying a few minutes on remaining side until golden. Transfer doughnuts to paper towel-lined sheet. (An Asian-style skimmer or strainer works great for this.) As soon as doughnuts are cool until enough to handle, press them into the bowl of sugar, flipping sides several times and tossing sugar on top to get a good coating. Return doughnuts to paper towel-lined sheet to cool completely, 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, use a mixer to beat 3 tablespoons heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in vanilla cream. Transfer to a sandwich- or quart-size zip-top baggie and squeeze to one quarter near the edge. Carefully snip of a corner for your homemade pastry bag. Altertantively, use a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip; set aside.
Using a pairing knife, pierce into the fattest part of your doughnuts and gently swivel the knife back and forth to open the air pocket. Fill your doughnuts with the vanilla cream and serve immediately. Yield: 4 round doughnuts plus several fritter pieces.