A new day is dawning for Baltimore doughnuts. Small artisan shops are rising up faster than the puffy rounds of fried dough with gourmet flavors like maple bacon, caramel and Old Bay.
The big companies are holding their own, too. Fractured Prune, which started wooing customers in Ocean City in 1976, has expanded across the country with its made-to-order, hot, hand-dipped doughnuts with glazes like banana, caramel and Key lime.
It recently opened stores in Owings Mills and Crofton, with more to come.
"Everybody loves a doughnut," said Fractured Prune CEO Dan Brinton. "It takes you back to your youth. There's something about the past."
Krispy Kreme is back on track, too, after floundering in the mid-2000s. It flashed on a familiar "Hot Now" sign in Crofton in November, promising other locations soon.
But the new independent shops are the ones going back to hands-on basics and adding their own twists. In a Saveur magazine article, author Michael Krondl declared a "doughnut renaissance." On the heels of mass production, he wrote: "It seemed only natural that a trend would emerge ... the small-batch, upscale doughnut."
B. Doughnuts in Hampden, Diablo Doughnuts in Fells Point and Center Cut Doughnuts at the Hampden Farmers' Market are some of the local bakers who are jumping on a national artisanal bandwagon that has New Yorkers buying $100 doughnuts topped with flakes of gold and standing in line for hours to purchase the wildly popular cronuts.
Brian Chanthapanya of B. Doughnuts is making his own version of the croissant-doughnut hybrid, calling it a "doughssant," in a process that takes him two days.
"It's the folding, chilling and fermentation process," he said, alerting customers that the kitchen can produce only a limited quantity per day.
But cream-filled sugar doughnuts are the house specialty at the business that Chanthapanya operates with his wife, Pin. The Northern Virginia couple travel an hour from their home to a storefront at 3528 Chestnut Ave. to make their products. He tackles the dough; she, the fillings, which include vanilla bean, chocolate cream, strawberry cheesecake and seasonal offerings like s'mores for the month of January.
"We roll each and every doughnut by hand, in small batches, from scratch, using nothing but flour, eggs, water, yeast, salt, sugar and butter," Brian Chanthapanya said.
After mixing and fermenting the dough, he manually cuts it and rolls it, letting the doughnuts rise before frying them in canola oil and tossing them in fine sugar.
"The doughnuts are finally hand-filled with different flavors of cream, also made from scratch," he said.
B. Doughnuts opened in October and is expanding its days from three to five — Wednesdays through Sundays — to meet demand. The doughnuts often sell out before the 1 p.m. closing.
Step into tiny Diablo Doughnuts at 717 S. Broadway, and you're smitten with the aroma and colorful doughnuts lined up in a tiny display case. Customers jockey for space in the narrow room to order from a chest-high counter.
Owner Michael Roslan turned to making doughnuts after a motorcycle accident. If you go in late morning, you might miss out on some of his creations. But with luck — or an early-morning arrival — you'll find clever combos like the Captain Chesapeake caramel with Old Bay and the confetti-like Cap'n Crunch cereal doughnuts.
Fells Point resident Kristin Corsi couldn't believe her good fortune when she discovered the new store's doughnuts in October. "I like the way they taste, and they're beautifully decorated," she said. "They're creative in flavors. They have toppings I haven't seen before."
Corsi, an enrollment adviser at Laureate Education in Harbor East, was impressed when Roslan packed up a dozen doughnuts in a pizza box — Diablo shares space with Hot Tomatoes, a pizzeria, which is open at night — for her to take to work.
"I've been sending people there," she said. "Nobody knows they're there."
Roslan is working on getting the word out by partnering with local restaurants and breweries, either at pop-up events or by providing doughnuts to them. But mostly, he's at Diablo from 1 a.m., when he starts baking, to 1 p.m. during the week and until 3 p.m. on weekends.
He grew up in Fells Point and remembers when there seemed to be a bakery on every corner in the city. "Baltimore lost that," said the 44-year-old. "It's going back to that now."
Roslan gets some complaints from customers about his prices, which start at $2.50 for a doughnut, in line with what the other specialty doughnut makers are charging locally.
"You explain the process to them, that you make everything in-house," he said. "Then they understand."
The process takes about five hours from start to finish, Roslan said. He makes the dough by hand and lets it rise twice before cutting and frying it. He also makes all the toppings himself, pureeing fresh blackberries for a glaze or squeezing oranges for a candied ginger and orange coating.
"We take our time with it," he said. "We use the best ingredients."
Center Cut Doughnuts is another up-and-comer. Josh Kowitz showcases his doughnuts under glass domes at the Hampden Farmers' Market on Saturdays (the market starts up again in May) and other locations he posts on Twitter (@centercutdonuts).
The choices include pistachio rose, white chocolate with peppermint, brown butter and maple-glazed challahnut. His specialty is yeast-risen doughnuts, which take about four hours to make.
"Each one is different due to the hand rolling," he said. "They are a pillow for the soul in a circular, fried form."
The entrepreneur is searching for a permanent location for his baked goods.
"One day in the not-too-distant future, we will open a fun and wacky doughnut shop," he said.
But Baltimore's tried-and-true bakeries like Fenwick Bakery, Herman's Bakery and Hoehn's Bakery are thriving, too. They might not focus on the daring ingredients or designer concoctions, but they deliver marshmallow-filled, cinnamon and sugar doughnuts that never disappoint.
Hoehn's in Highlandtown, for instance, has been bringing in customers since 1927 with its made-from-scratch products. And now, Snake Hill, a new bar and grill in the neighborhood, is featuring the pastries as dessert.
"They're local, and they're delicious," said Snake Hill co-owner Rich Pugh. "I go there, and all my friends who live in Highlandtown go there."
Food scientist and TV personality Alton Brown explains why people are drawn to doughnuts that have been made the same way for decades. "They're an emotional staff of life," he said in a "Chewing the Fat" online video. "When everything else changes, we need some stuff that doesn't."
For that reason, Dyan Ng, the executive pastry chef at Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore and its restaurant, Wit & Wisdom, creates traditional mini doughnuts for banquet guests. She has also featured beignets, the well-known New Orleans yeast pastry, on the menu and plans to do so again.
"There is a fried dough item in every culture," she pointed out. "It's something everyone can relate to."
Center Cut's Kowitz praises what area bakers are doing. But he thinks there is room for more.
"I believe Baltimore is awesome, supportive and quirky enough to support all of us," he said. "I also believe we're all doing different stuff, but it's about time this city has some good doughnuts."