The Federal Donut, hot out of the fryer and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, tasted like self-doubt. Cake-y, crumbly, and pleasingly crisp around the outside, both flavor and texture seemed professional-grade and impossible to replicate.
But that was what I had set out to do. Mike Solomonov and Steven Cook, creators of the chain of doughnut/fried chicken shops that has become a sensation since launching in 2011, will this month release Federal Donuts (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt), a fun little cookbook giving away their secrets, with recipes for the doughnuts, fried chicken, glazes, and spice blends. So, on one recent morning I put it to the test, to try to make doughnuts from scratch, for the first time in my life, it should be noted, following their directions and without fancy tools or expensive ingredients.
The cinnamon-sugar doughnut I bought to serve as a baseline for comparison was close to perfect. I even tasted a hint of salt, which got me thinking how much I always welcome a savory touch in a dessert. (In retrospect, this was a premonition I should have heeded.) The recipe was clearly written and well-photographed, but there were a lot of steps, and I'd never fried anything but an egg. Failure seemed a clear possibility.
Some background: Though I sometimes bake, I'm not a particularly elegant cook, having long ago ceded most of that ground to my husband. However, I can usually follow directions (not on this day, but I'll get to that), and I'm especially fond of Solomonov and Cook's Zahav cookbook, because through those recipes I have managed to replicate the taste of their fabulous hummus and some of their Israeli salads.
So I got to work on the Master Donut Recipe. The only specialty ingredient is a tiny amount of baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend that gives the doughnuts an unusual flavor. The book suggests kalustyans.com, where it's $5.99 for 2 ounces, but I couldn't get this on short notice, so I made my own using a recipe that called for pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. The ingredients cost about $35, though they would have been less had I not bought individual spices.
With the exception of a cast-iron enameled pot borrowed from a friend, I had most of the necessary equipment, including a thermometer for the oil. I didn't have baking rings for cutting dough, but the book suggests using a pint glass and shot glass as substitutes. (And, yeah, I had plenty of those.)
I assembled the dry ingredients, as well as a cinnamon/brown sugar/nutmeg blend with which to toss the doughnuts, and set those bowls aside. I combined eggs, sugar, butter, and buttermilk in my KitchenAid mixer, though a hand mixer would work, too. I added the remaining ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda and powder, spices) and the batter came together, thickening and pulling away from the sides just like it was supposed to.
When I tasted the batter, I was surprised by how flavorful it was. Almost too flavorful. That's when I realized I'd misread a crucial measurement, and accidentally added four times the required amount of the spice blend. But in the immortal words of One Republic, it's too late to apologize. It's too late!
I scraped the batter, which was thick and extremely sticky, onto the surface of my counter, which I'd covered with parchment paper. This required heavy flouring on my hands, the surface, the dough, and the rolling pin, until eventually it rolled out nicely. I shaped it into a rectangle and placed it in the freezer while I started the first round of what would be a multistage cleanup effort. Note: Between the flour, the gluey dough that got everywhere, and, later, the oil, the cleaning inherent in this project felt endless.
When I was almost done, I poured a couple of inches of canola oil into my pot and turned on the flame. When the oil reached 375 degrees, I cut the dough into shapes that I carefully peeled off the sheet, mangling about half of them. This was the hardest step so far, and I have to imagine it might have been easier if I'd used the proper metal baking rings instead of glassware.
For some reason, I'd expected a dramatic effect from dropping the shapes into the oil, but they bubbled and bobbed around peacefully. I flipped over the first one about 90 seconds later and was shocked to see a puffy, beautifully browned coating. As if by magic — a doughnut had happened!
As I added more, the temperature of the oil kept dropping. ("We see that all the time on Chopped," my husband reminded me later that day.) Several times I had to turn off the heat and then reheat the oil, storing the dough in the freezer in the meantime.
The final step was draining the doughnuts on a sheet of parchment paper, then tossing them, still hot, in the cinnamon and sugar. The finished product was surprisingly doughnut-like: warm in the center, crusty around the edges, and despite my best efforts, I hadn't ruined the flavor. About half looked unequivocally like doughnuts. Some, meanwhile, looked like horseshoes, others broke apart and looked like fritters, and one particularly unfortunate blunder resembled a giant hunk of Federal Donuts' fried chicken (which may be my next at-home cooking project!).
Steven Cook, who co-authored the book, confirmed later that using the freezer is key in keeping the dough firm enough to peel off the sheet in a neat ring, and that maintaining the temperature of the oil is one of the hardest steps.
"We don't expect people to make them at home all the time, but we are big proponents of cooking at home in general, because things just taste better," he said. "So we really feel it's our job to make these recipes useful."
In the end, I would recommend the book, not only for the recipes, but for the whimsical artwork and the impressive list of Cook and Solomonov's favorite doughnut shops from California to Nashville.
When my husband got home that evening, I offered him my doughnut along with the original model. "Pretty close," he said, chewing thoughtfully. "It's pretty close." (I knew they weren't quite as good as the originals, but they were good, and he did eat them all.)