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Giving doughnuts their due Let us now praise the lord of the rings

It's a tough time to be a doughnut, or a doughnut fanatic.

The sweet, fried treats are reviled as sinfully unhealthy bundles of trans fats and carbs.

They are dismissed as the province of corpulent cops, hefty hockey referees - have another doughnut, Don Koharski - and the guru of gluttony, Homer Simpson.

We are told not to eat them, or to wallow in guilt if we do.

Enough is enough. Consider this a defense of the humble doughnut, that decadent piece of genuine Americana best served warm with coffee or milk.

Who can resist that wonderful smell when you walk into a bakery, where doughnuts glisten under their glass case and an empty box waits to be filled with a dozen of them?

A doughnut is a treat that's just made to be shared. No one ever brought in a dozen bran muffins for his co-workers.

As Homer Simpson himself once put it: "Doughnuts. Is there anything they can't do?"

So what is this thing we call a doughnut - or donut, to use the modern spelling?

Though most cultures have a fried pastry tradition - the Polish paczki, the French beignet or the Spanish churro - the doughnut as we now know it likely came from the Dutch.

They grew in popularity because they were cheap and easy to make in a standard, appealing way, says John T. Edge, director of the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance and author of "Donuts: An American Passion."

"The appeal of the doughnut is in its simplicity," Edge says. "Also, in the world of food, it's a cheap and tawdry food. It's something you don't have to take so seriously."

The rise of diners and the car culture after World War II made them the breakfast food and snack of choice.

But what makes a doughnut a doughnut, and what makes them so darn good?

Doughnuts are produced with yeast-based dough - for a glazed ring or twist stick - or cake batter, for a peanut or coconut doughnut.

They're typically fried before they're topped - with glazed sugar or chocolate icing - or filled with jelly, custard or sweet cream.

As for that hole? Theories on its provenance abound. "It could be just a matter of physics, in cooking," Edge says. "[Or] aesthetics. It's pleasing to the eye."

In Buffalo, doughnuts remain popular. Though Krispy Kreme has retreated, there's a Tim Horton's seemingly on every suburban corner and Dunkin' Donuts isn't far behind. People must be going to Tim Horton's for more than just the coffee and chili bread bowls, right?

Perhaps this love affair is driven by our proximity to Canada, where doughnuts are as much a part of the national mystique as hockey and the maple leaf.

When I was a kid, my Cub Scout troop sold Freddie's doughnuts door to door to raise money. I'd walk around my neighborhood twice - once to take the order and once a few weeks later to deliver the boxes of glazed or peanut doughnuts.

A few customers told me how much they looked forward to the doughnut deliveries and said they had wondered when I'd be by again.

Sadly, too many of those locally owned bakeries are gone. R.I.P., Freddie's and Jet Doughnuts.

There are a few places still doing things the right way, making the doughnuts fresh every morning.

Richard Roehm, the owner of Famous Doughnuts, makes his doughnuts the same way his father, Teddy, did when he started the shop in the late 1940s.

The bakery has moved a few times, always remaining in the city, and for the past 4 1/2 years has been located at 3043 Main St. in University Heights.

"People that used to come to us on Ferry Street come in and get doughnuts here," says Roehm, who owns the shop with his wife, Pamela. "They grew up with them."

Roehm uses a doughnut cutter to cut and shape the yeast dough, which then goes through a proof box where heat and steam make it swell and rise.

A conveyor belt sends the dough through the fryer, where the pieces float in the bubbling hot pure vegetable shortening.

The glazed doughnuts continue along underneath a waterfall of sweet sugar, while jelly doughnuts wait to be injected with red raspberry filling.

The store makes up to 900 dozen doughnuts a day, with most sold to fund-raising groups.

"My dad always told me, 'You make a good doughnut, everything will be fine,' '' Roehm says.

The workers at Latina's Foodland on Elmwood Avenue also make a good doughnut, and they can go through 27 dozen on a busy Saturday.

Latina's doughnuts are shaped into a large shell so they look as big and inviting as possible, says bakery manager Sue Ulrich, who learned the trade at her grandparents' Genesee Street bakery.

"You've got to give people something worth their money, and the quality has to be there," Ulrich says. "It takes time, and you've got to have TLC with it."

It's that attitude that will help the doughnut survive, even as some cities talk of banning trans fats and Krispy Kreme struggles in some markets.

Some restaurants and bakeries are experimenting with choice ingredients, filling doughnuts with fresh strawberries or peach slices, Edge says.

Edge drove across the country conducting, ahem, research for his book at scores of restaurants, bakeries and diners. The best doughnuts he ate were the ones made with nutmeg and lemon zest at Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich. (see Page 15).

Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago does something more daring. He uses glazed, yeast-based doughnuts as the base for his Doughnut Soup.

It's a dessert soup - a drink, really - that sounds unpleasant but tastes absolutely delicious.

The point is there's a place in this world for the doughnut.

No one's recommending eating a doughnut a day, nor should anyone scarf down a dozen at once. But it's perfectly fine to eat them in moderation, enjoying them as an indulgence.

In the end, a world without doughnuts would just seem to have a big hole in the middle.

News staff reporter Stephen Watson's First Sunday credits include stories on protecting yourself from cutting edge surveillance technology and the appeal of his grandmother's pies.

Moto's doughnut soup

5 glazed yeast doughnuts

1 cup milk

1 cup water

powdered sugar

salt

To make the stock, break up two doughnuts into small pieces and carmelize them (lightly brown them in a dry pan until some sugar has melted in the bottom). Add water and milk. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let it steep for 20 minutes. Strain.

Puree the other three doughnuts in a blender with enough of the stock to get a cream-like consistency. Season to taste with salt and sugar, and run through a fine strainer. Serve warm in demitasse cups. Can be eaten as a soup or served as a drink.

Doughnut snowmen

1 small powdered doughnut (per snowman)

1 powdered doughnut hole

Decorators' gel

Pretzel or potato sticks

Haviland thin mints

Reese's peanut butter cups (miniature)

Place powdered doughnut hole on top of mini powdered doughnut. (For a taller snowman, use a pretzel stick or a potato stick to secure a second doughnut hole atop the first.)

Use decorators' gel to add a face, buttons and a carrot nose. (Try smoothing the powder with a dab of water first if the gel doesn't stick.)

To add a top hat to a shorter snowman, stick a small piece of a pretzel or potato stick through a Haviland Thin Mint and into a Reese's peanut butter cup miniature. Then fix the hat in place on the snowman. (source: FamilyFun.com)

Zingerman's Roadhouse Doughnuts

5 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup vegetable shortening, melted and cooled

1/4 cup molasses

1/2 rounded teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 gallon vegetable oil for frying

1/2 cup muscovado brown sugar for sprinkling (or substitute dark brown sugar)

Sift the flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt together into a large mixing bowl. In another large mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk, eggs, egg yolk, granulated sugar, melted vegetable shortening, molasses and lemon zest.

Gradually add the flour mixture to the wet mixture, stirring gently. Stop stirring as soon as all the ingredients are combined (overstirring makes tough doughnuts). It's OK to see a little flour. (You may use a standing mixer for this process - just be sure to stop mixing as soon as all the flour is added and combined.) Cover the dough with plastic and refrigerate for an hour.

Pour the oil into a cast-iron Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed, deep pot until it reaches a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to 370 degrees.

Knead the dough on a well-floured surface for 1 minute, then roll it out with a rolling pin to half-inch thickness. Cut out rounds using a 3 1/2 -inch pastry cutter, then cut out the centers with a 1 1/2 -inch round cutter. Gather the scraps and reroll as necessary.

Fry only two or three doughnuts at a time. They'll take about 3 to 4 minutes to cook and need to be turned every minute or so. Drop the rings into the hot oil. The doughnuts will float in about 30 seconds or so. Fry them one minute more, then turn them over and fry for another minute. Turn them once again and fry a minute more, until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a kitchen towel and immediately sprinkle with muscovado sugar.

Cover the donuts as you make them and store them in a warm place until they're done. Makes 30 doughnuts.

(from "Donuts" by John T. Edge)

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