Teetering down the steep narrow staircase was a bit like falling through the rabbit hole or stepping through the wardrobe into a different, yet somehow better, world. I wasn't sure what I would find, but I certainly was curious.
What I encountered down there in the recesses, underneath the brick cobbles of old Annapolis, stirred my innermost culinary urges: the constant, gentle hum of the ovens, the electronic whirr of the dishwasher, the roiling simmer of a gigantic soup pot filled to the brim, daring itself to not bubble over onto the floor.
The kitchen at Chick and Ruth's Delly on Main Street is a surprisingly small room, considering the size of the restaurant above it, with every inch of space economically put to use in the pursuit of homemade breakfast and lunch.
It is also, given the number of machines at work, surprisingly quiet, the predominant sound being the voice of the popular shop's owner, Ted Levitt, briskly yet patiently teaching his staff how to form their inaugural batch of hand-turned Kaiser and sub rolls.
Looking around, not daring to interrupt Levitt for a few rolls to practice on, I noticed the walls are decorated with just the sort of treasures a cook and food lover like myself considers thrilling: huge dough hooks, whisks, paddles, spoons, mixing bowls, a cupcake tin the size of my home stove-top, a stock pot approximately the diameter of a cauldron and the depth of a tub (not really, but it was huge) and giant commercial ovens.
I might add that the entire space was immaculately clean. I was trying to focus on Levitt's explanation of the exact thermal formula necessary to ensure successful rise of yeast dough, but all I could think was: "I am in the basement kitchen of an ancient building that is home to a restaurant that has been open more or less all day everyday for decades and I can't find so much as a smudge!"
As much as I wanted to take off my heels, put on an apron and never leave that space for the rest of my natural life, I was on a specific mission. I wanted to learn how to make the perfect doughnut. In all honesty, since I have already tested and ingested my share of goodies this month (bacon and chocolate) I wanted someone else to do the cooking.
I started my search earlier in the week at the Donut Shack in Severna Park. William "Bill" Prevezanos and his wife Stacy have been making doughnuts and pastries at this popular spot on northbound Route 2 since 1986.
Prevezanos arrived in America in the 1960's from Greece with just $20 and a work ethic few could surpass. He works from 8 p.m. until 2 p.m. the following day, every day, and has done so for 28 years -- without a vacation.
"Efficiency, cleanliness, productivity, care and a work ethic: all of these things you have to put together," he says with his heavy accent. "A lot of people don't know the meaning of these words, and a lot of people think I am too particular. But these are what you need to be successful."
A visit to the Donut Shack kitchen reveals Prevezano's values at work. It is spotless, aligned, systematically arranged. Large 80-pound mixers stand at the ready, stainless steel bowls shining and reflectively bright, not a speck of errant flour in sight. The large sink is empty of dishes, not a cloudy water spot to be found. Huge bags of doughnut mix and icing sugar lay in perfect stacks, ready to be heaved into place, poured into the mixer and made into ethereal deliciousness.
Because that is essentially what a doughnut is meant to be: light, airy, each bite a mouthful of barely toothsome crunchiness on the outside, sinful tenderness inside, meltingly sweet on the tongue, with just a hint of flavor from the punch of a good jelly, crème or glaze.
My touchy stomach can't handle those industrial, mass-produced greasy doughnuts that are so decoratively yet unceremoniously topped with saccharine frosting. For me, the injection of sugar, preservatives and fat is a sort of euphoria that shortly leads to nauseous regret. Unrequited love -- it's the stuff of novels and ballads, loving something this much when it can never return my affection.
Prevezano sympathizes with my dilemma and tries to assure me his doughnuts won't have this affect. "We make each doughnut by hand," he says. He walks me past tall racks filled with freshly made doughnuts, each dozen hanging tidily along a metal rod made for holding the doughnuts while glazing. I am aware of how quietly organized and proper each row of doughnuts presents itself.
"These days some of the other guys just open a can or sell par-cooked factory doughnuts that travel from a distribution center," Prevezano says. "But that's just not a doughnut. Here we take time to concentrate on each piece."
Prevezano, together with his wife and nephew Alex, makes about 400 dozen doughnuts each day. The shop is open 24 hours and while the mornings and afternoons are busy, customers continue to trickle through even overnight to choose any one of the 50 to 60 varieties of cake and yeast doughnuts, fritters and muffins the Prevezanos sell.
Chick & Ruth's isn't open 24 hours, and their doughnut business is comparatively new. They started making a few dozen yeast raised doughnuts last spring.
Levitt, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., remembers the doughnuts of yesteryear, when Jonny's Sweet Shop sold "doughnuts the way they were meant to taste."
Levitt insisted on a homemade doughnut for his shop. "We don't use pre-made mixes here," he says. "Everything is made with simple ingredients: flour, yeast, water; the fritters have fresh apples we cut ourselves."
Alan Whitwood was a baker at Jonny's, and an expert at turning out perfect, handmade, from-scratch doughnuts, so Levitt partnered with him to find the perfect recipe for Chick & Ruth's.
And perfect they are, I can assure you! Franklin Garcia, a 14-year employee of the Delly, arrives at 3:30 every morning, mixes the yeast and flour for each doughnut type by hand, proofing, then frying and with the help of another cook, glazing no less than 12 dozen doughnuts -- one dozen each of 10 to 12 different flavors -- each day.
He doesn't mind coming in so early, or the fact that he works until late into the afternoon. "They are good," he says simply. "We put a lot of love into them. This is a privilege and an opportunity for me. And it's fun. I eat a doughnut every day!"
Oh! If only I were to be so lucky!
Making doughnuts at home isn't rocket science, but if you have a particular doughnut experience in mind, it isn't easy either, and that is why I sought Levitt's help.
"Look," he says. "We are making it easy for people. We do the work for you." Levitt started showing me his formula for flour, water and dough temperatures, correlated to weather, the temperature of the kitchen and heat from the friction of the mixing machine, only briefly distracting me from the doughnut case just steps from my seat.
You don't have to worry about these things at home. There, the key is to mix the dough properly (best done in a stand mixer, using the dough hook if you are making yeasted doughnuts), don't use water that is too hot or too cold (about 110 degrees, or tap water, lest the yeast fails to activate), roll the dough to about 1/2-inch thickness, cut with an actual doughnut cutter (about $7 at kitchen stores) then let your dough rise under a consistent, warm temperature.
Use vegetable shortening and aim to maintain the heat of the oil at exactly 375 degrees by using a frying thermometer. Do not cheat and use an electric donut maker. Those are small, round, cakey waffles, not doughnuts.
When all this effort tires you out, just go to Chick & Ruth's or the Donut Shack. Both are sure to please!
Here is a recipe for you to try. Find more at http://www.foragingforflavor.com.
I love the crackly, slightly crunchy exterior and light, cakey interior of a good old fashioned doughnut, the taste made more memorable for being the favorite of my dad and grandma. This recipe is an easy first doughnut recipe. Then move on to yeasted raised, éclairs and bomboloni.
Sour Cream Old-Fashioned Doughnuts
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus 1 cup more for rolling and cutting
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons shortening
2/3 cup sour cream (not reduced fat) or plain, thick yogurt
Shortening for frying
For the glaze:
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1/4 cup warm milk or more as necessary
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.
Mix sugar and shortening in a standing mixer until combined but not creamed, about 1 minute. Add the eggs and mix another minute, then fold in the sour cream.
Add in flour mixture, being sure to combine dough thoroughly. Cover dough and chill for at least 45 minutes and up to overnight.
Roll out dough on a well-floured work surface. Roll out to an even 1/2-inch thick. Use a doughnut cutter to cut out as many doughnuts as you can. Gently knead any remaining dough, re-roll and continue cutting until all the dough is used.
Heat a large, heavy pot with 2 to 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.
Gently slide one doughnut into the oil to test. Once the doughnut floats, fry for about 10 to 20 seconds, then flip and fry until golden and cracked, about 60 to 90 seconds more. Flip back over one more time until golden, 1 more minute.
Continue with other doughnuts, frying 3 or 4 at a time. Be mindful to maintain the 350-degree heat and remember the heat may lower as doughnuts are added. Transfer cooked doughnuts to paper towels and immediately blot any grease.
To glaze the doughnuts, whisk the powdered sugar and extract together, whisking in only enough milk needed to create a smooth spreadable consistency. Dip doughnuts in the glaze while they are still warm. If possible, have one person fry and another person dip. Let rest before serving.
These are an Italian doughnut that can be served with sweet accompaniments such as a simple glaze, caramel, syrup or fruit-flavored sauce or more typically with a marmalade or custard filling and simple dusting of powdered sugar. In Italy bomboloni are sometimes filled with proscioutto, mortadella or cheese.
For this recipe you will need a stand mixer with paddle attachment and a deep-fry/candy thermometer.
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
6 tablespoons warm whole milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1 cup plus 2 tablepsoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
About 2 quarts vegetable oil for frying
Stir together yeast and milk in bowl of mixer and let stand until it appears creamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn't appear creamy, start over with new yeast.)
Mix in 1/2 cup flour at low speed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, about 1 hour.
Mix in egg, butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and remaining 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour at low speed until combined. Increase speed to medium and beat dough until smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes.
Scrape dough into center of bowl and dust with additional flour. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch down dough and turn out onto a well-floured surface (dough will be very sticky.) Cut into 16 equal pieces and form into balls with floured hands. Transfer to a lightly floured baking sheet 1 inch apart.
To fry, heat 2 1/2 inches oil to 350 degrees in a 4- to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Fry bomboloni in batches of 4, turning frequently with tongs for even browning, until puffed and golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per batch.
Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Return oil to 350 degrees between batches.
Cool bomboloni to warm and serve with sauce, or fill a pastry bag with jam or custard, poke a small hole into the top or side of the bomboloni and fill until the pastry fills heavy. Dust with powdered sugar.
Bomboloni can be formed, but not fried, 1 day ahead and chilled on a rimmed sheet pan, loosely covered with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before frying.
Although bomboloni are best freshly made, they can be fried a day ahead, cooled and kept covered with plastic wrap at room temperature. Reheat, uncovered, in a sheet pan on a rack in a 300-degree oven until warm, 4 to 5 minutes. Oil can be cooled to warm, strained through a paper towel-lined sieve and reused once more.