Artisanal Donuts – Thinking Outside the Box

Profile and photos by Susan Cornell

While the French have the beignet, the Spanish the churro, and the Germans the bismarck, donuts (or doughnuts) are quintessentially American. However, their history goes back long before the discovery of the New World.

To fill in some of the holes of my donut origin questions, I checked out the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to connect the dots between the Dutch and Manhattan and Maine. The earliest origins of modern doughnuts are generally traced back to Dutch settlers who brought the olykoek (“oil(y) cake”) to Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam). These doughnuts looked like later ones but weren’t ring-shaped.

Hanson Gregory, a Mainer, claimed to have invented the doughnut as we now know it—with a hole—in 1847 aboard a lime-trading ship when he was 16. Gregory didn’t like the greasiness or the raw center and claimed to have used the ship’s tin pepper box to punch a hole in dough’s center and to have later taught the technique to his mother. Smithsonian Magazine states that his mother “made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind,” and “put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through,” and called the food ‘doughnuts.’

The big chains have dominated the doughnut world, but, as artisanal foods continue to grow, specialty shops making handcrafted, homemade doughnuts with atypical combinations are the hot trendy treat. Maple and bacon donuts, cannoli donuts, fried chicken or hamburgers on doughnuts rather than buns; it’s apparent plain and powdered are pretty, well, plain.

The new kid on the street in the Nutmeg State, Blazing Fresh Donuts in Guilford, certainly lives up to its tagline, “They’re a BFD!” You won’t find racks of donuts in this shop. Instead, each confectionary concoction is made-to-order. Secondly, they’re cake batter which is flash-fried. Here’s one of the best parts: You customize your own! Pick the frosting (11 options), the topping (15 variants), and, finally, a drizzle (6 from which to choose). Once the donut is designed, it’s cooked and delivered fresh and warm within minutes. Basically, the Cold Stone concept is applied to donuts. Notes owner Jodi Burns, “There’s no other place in Connecticut where you can walk in and make your own donut combination.”

“We’re taking the concept of the customer is always right to a new level. It’s whatever you want on your donut. If we have it in the store, you can have it on your donut. “

Burns, who left a 23-year career on Wall Street and opened BFD last summer, explains the meaning of an artisan donut. “An artisan donut is any donut that is done in a small batch, handcrafted way.” She adds, “There’s room for those mass-produced donuts out there, but artisan donuts are generally made with a lot of heart and passion . . . in a real hands-on way.”

They’re extra special because “the small batch process allows them to taste a lot different, with more creative ingredients and flavors.” And creative they are! The most popular being French Toast (maple frosting and a dusting of cinnamon and powdered sugar), followed by Death by Chocolate (chocolate frosting, mini M&Ms, chocolate chips and chocolate drizzle), Maple Bacon, Kookie Monster, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and Cereal Killer.

These are considered “Fan Favorites” as the customer does not need to think up the combination . . . but he/she certainly can mix and match flavors. And do they ever!

“We have customers who come in and are attracted to what I would call some odd flavor combinations, but that’s the beauty of this place. We cater to everyone.” The sign in the store asks, “What’s your perfect donut?”

The trend of artisanal donuts, Burns believes, will follow other food trends. “Eventually, when there’s more competition, and people are drawn to the business, we’ll see more artisanal donuts. It’ll be hard to stay ahead of the curve in terms of creativity and value for customers. Not to say it can’t be done, but it’s a challenge faced by a lot of different specialty food companies. Once the category gets saturated, it’s hard to differentiate. We’re years away from that I think for donuts.”

Burns won’t disclose either the number of donuts dunked in the fryer per day or the number of calories per donut (after tasting “a few” I’m fine with that).

But what about the trend of being more health-conscious? She says, “I do think we’re more health-conscious for foods
than we were 20 years ago. Having said that, everything in moderation. Even people who are health conscious will have a treat or splurge.”

Blazing Fresh Donuts are not huge—they’re about three inches so smaller than, say, a Dunkin’ donut. “That’s on purpose because they’re meant to be a snack, not a meal. They’re small enough so you can have one and not feel too guilty and, actually, if you’re having trouble deciding, you can have two and not feel sick.”

At the other end of the donut history spectrum in Connecticut is Beach Donut, which started making donuts during the Great Depression. Beach Donut still uses “all the same process, same secret recipe,” says new owner Asif John Hussaini. “All donuts are cut by hand starting at 2 a.m. (midnight in the summer),” he says, adding, “the donuts are very fresh and hearty but not easy to make.”

While the basic recipe didn’t change over the decades and the Westbrook shop has that basic look to match, the times have meant new flavors. Maple Bacon (sound familiar?); Fruity Pebbles; Pina Colada; Sour Cream; Double Chocolate Cookie; Bacon, Egg, and Cheese on donuts—have joined the perennial favorites of Lemon Sticks, Crullers, and Boston Cream. Beach Donut also makes, get this, giant Donut cakes! Love Strawberry Cream? Or Boston Cream? Would you love it in a size that serves, perhaps, 20?

One key to the years of success, Hussaini says, is butter. “Beach donuts are much heartier than Dunkin’ donuts because we use high quality, 100 percent butter.” Again, no calorie count available.

So, start each batch from scratch, crack every single egg, add butter, stamp each one out by hand, fry, glaze, and repeat hundreds of times before sunrise and certainly not by machine. The operative word here is “handcrafted.”

Fast forward to the world of Instagrammable moments, fun and funky interiors, and wild ingredient combinations. That is the
recipe for a zany donut chain—Donut Crazy, with locations in Branford, Westport, and West Hartford.

Here you’ll find ‘crazies’ such as the Black Hawk (chocolate-glazed cake donut topped with chocolate icing, crushed cookies & cream, and drizzled with more chocolate), Kookie Monster (glazed raised ring topped with blue frosting, dipped in Chips Ahoy cookies, and drizzled with more blue icing), S’Mores (chocolate-dipped yeast shell filled with marshmallow cream, topped with graham cracker crumbs, a house-made caramelized marshmallow, and a mini Hershey), and a Cannoli doughnut. There’s also a Pop-Tart doughnut, in seasonal flavors.

“Customers will continue to look for more variety, even though we offer more than 40 different donuts every day,” according to Caprice Lewis, manager at the Branford location. “They’ll also be looking for even weirder combinations than we offer now.”

“We have really wacky combinations, like Guava Cheese and Blueberry Cornflake, and people love them,” says Lewis. Plans include opening more locations statewide.

Remember the old days (just a few months ago), in the pre-COVID world, bringing a box of donuts to the office or friends? You quickly transformed into a superhero, right? It’s amazing how something so small —just a handful of ounces—can sprinkle so much color and happiness into our day. And now, in a new and different world, this same simple and sweet pleasure is just so much more appreciated and special. Now more than ever, little things mean a lot.

I confess I snarfed quite a few in my research and honestly don’t know what my favorite shop is. I do know you won’t need to travel far in Connecticut to have a sweet experience!