It’s National Donut Day on June 4th, the perfect excuse to bake (and eat) one of our nation’s favorite hole-in-the-middle cakes. Many of our peanut butters make amazing donuts, but we are especially fond of using Mighty Maple in these decadent Maple Peanut Butter Donuts with Bacon Bits. (Mighty Maple is also great for melting and drizzling over pancakes, or adding to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.) If you prefer a filled donut, grab a jar of Smooth Operator and make a batch of these Vegan Peanut Butter Stuffed Donuts. You really can’t go wrong with a donut; a simple glazed works just as well with a morning coffee as a Maple Peanut Butter with Bacon Bits.
With as popular as donuts have become, especially in America, it’s fun to dig down into their history a bit. The donut has a long and convoluted story that begins in ancient Rome and Greece, where cooks would fry strips of pastry dough and coat them with honey or, umm, fish sauce. In Medieval times, cooks in the Middle East started frying up small portions of unsweetened yeast dough, drenching the plain fried blobs in sugary syrup to sweeten them.
These fritters spread into northern Europe in the 1400’s and became popular throughout England, Germany and the Netherlands. They came to the New World on ships with Dutch settlers under the name of olykoeks--"oily cakes."
But these cakes didn’t resemble the donuts of today; holes were added to the center later on. The story goes that Captain Hanson Gregory, a Dutch sailor whose mother made him a stash of deep-fried dough for his voyage, cleverly using her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. As legend has it, Captain Gregory’s ship hit a sudden storm. To keep his hands free to guide his ship, he impaled the donut on one of the spokes on the steering wheel, driving a hole through its center.
A fun story, but alas, but probably not true. More likely it’s because egg yolks were added to make the dough richer and firmer. But the fritters would then often end up raw in the center after frying; the hole in the center eliminated that problem.
Donuts truly came into their own during World War I when female Salvation Army workers known as “Doughnut Girls” who would fry and distribute donuts to the American soldiers fighting in France. They offered a taste of home to the soldiers, who became known as “Doughboys.” Doughnut Girls were replaced by “Doughnut Dollies” during World War II. When the soldiers came back from the war they had a natural craving for more.
In 1920, the first donut machine was invented in New York City by Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from czarist Russia who began selling fried donuts from his bakery. By the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, donuts were billed as "the food hit of the Century of Progress." Seeing them produced "automatically" somehow made them part of the wave of the future. A donut cost less than a nickel, within reach of most of the Depression's victims. They were beloved as a delicious comforting snack and remain so today—especially on National Donut Day. Happy celebrating!