The first doughnuts or donuts (both spellings are correct) I remember were those that I watched my grandmother make. The first reference to them spelled as donuts occurred in 1900 in Peck’s Bad Boy and his Pa by Henry Peck which featured the adventures of a young prankster. Today donuts are a ring-shaped snack which has become an American icon. Made from soft dough, leavened with yeast or baking powder, stamped out, and deep fried, they are often sprinkled with fine sugar or served glazed. Amazingly, they are not as old as one might think.
Their history began in America about the first decade of the 1800s, when Washington Irving wrote a comical description of Dutch settlers in New York who served balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts or köks. These had no holes. Many similar confections were found all over central Europe at that time, particularly found at carnivals, saint’s days, and festivals. It was not until about 1850s that they acquired a hole. A vintage catalogue from 1870 offered the first “equipment” for cutting out the holes, but an American seafarer, Hanson Gregory, claims he invented the donut’s hole in 1847, a year after Fredericksburg’s founding. It seems, Gregory, just 16 years old at the time, was unhappy his ship’s donuts often had an uncooked center. By impaling the dough against the handles of the ship’s steering wheel, he was able to stamp out their centers causing them to fry more evenly. Gregory also hailed from Rockport, Maine which became known as the donut’s birthplace. Gregory recanted his story half a century later in an interview stating that he had used the cap of a pepper shaker to cut out the center — not the ship’s wheel. He was also quoted as saying, perhaps in a tone of voice some remember Popeye using — “the first doughnut hole ever seen by me mortal eyes.” Aye!
Donuts did not come into their own until World War I, when millions of American doughboys were sent to France. “Doughboys,” incidentally, has nothing to do with flour dough. (That name was given to General Zachery Taylor’s men as they marched down the Texas coast in 1846 from Corpus Christi heading to fight in the Mexican War. The clouds of dust they stirred up as the marched covered them from head to toe with fine dust some claimed made them appear like floured dough.) In France, volunteer women served doughnuts to American GIs giving them a taste they demanded more of upon returning home. Shortly after the end of the war to end all wars the first donut machine appeared in New York City. An enterprising refugee from Russia, Adolph Levitt, began selling them at his bakery. The demand grew for making them and people flocked to watch it – it became a public spectacle. Machines gradually became more refined. He began to sell them and was earning $25 million annually by 1931— truly living the American Dream. Prices of donuts plunged to 5 cents making them even more affordable to all!
I can still remember my first introduction to doughnuts at my grandmother’s. She was frying them in a deep pot of grease. We called them Fett Kreppeln — fat puffs of pastry. And, I have never experienced that exact taste ever again. It must have been around 1948! I was just 7 years old. She lived at the home of my aunt and uncle. Her apartment was in the rear addition to the rock home which is today located at the intersection of North Adams and East Schubert streets. Her entrance, which no longer exists, lay along Adams Street. We rarely saw her, and she passed away a year later, but I can remember much about that day.
She had a good amount of flour on her square, kitchen table as I watched her cut out several doughnuts at a time and every so often a strip of dough 8 to 10” in length that she would fold in half and twist each end to form a braid. These were generally larger than the doughnuts and everyone loved them, as well.
With her floured-encased hands she scooped up those she had cut out and dropped them one by one into the boiling fat. They floated to the surface surrounded by hundreds of tiny bubbles. After being browned on one side, she flipped them with her fork to brown the other. Then one by one, she brought them back to her table and dropped them into a large brown paper sack with quite a bit of sugar. Shaking the sack ensured each was thoroughly coated. Dumped onto a large platter they disappeared almost as quickly as she could make them. I am sure they were loaded with fat but that was of no concern to us in those days. We all wanted more. They were particularly delicious dunked into coffee. I don’t remember why my grandmother had started making doughnuts that day, but it must have been about Kaffeeklatsch time. These took place twice a day — once mid-morning and once mid-afternoon. It seemed everyone assembled in kitchens everywhere. It amazes me to this day that one had time for these mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks.
I never found my grandmother’s recipe among my mother’s things, but I found my mother’s hand-written doughnut recipe that she had copied from The Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book, 1948 Edition. It was called Mrs. Richard Maier’s Doughnuts. Five recipes appeared in the 1916 edition, none of which are quite like this one. All recommend frying in hot lard, smoking hot lard, or just deep lard. And the 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook has two more, one of which appeared in the first edition and the second dates to early Fredericksburg.
3 tbsp lard
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
3 cups warm milk
1 cake Fleischmann’s Yeast
8 cups flour
Dissolve yeast in the warm milk.
Combine all ingredients.
Let dough rise for two hours.
Roll out and cut dough, cover.
Let dough rise a second time.
Roll out and using a donut cutter stamp out.
Fry in deep, hot shortening until brown.
Drain on absorbent paper.
Coat in sugar.