From the stacks on a cake plate under a plastic dome in a lowly coffee shop to lines on trays in local bakeries, all the way up to being set on fine china in restaurants with Michelin stars and impossible reservation systems, the humble doughnut finds a place.
At its most basic, it is a simple circle of sweetened dough, deep-fried to golden. Convenient, comforting and infinitely adaptable, it’s a blank slate of a baked good with any complexities coming from flavourings, fillings and adornments.
Its history is hard to trace, given almost every culture has its own version — whether ring-shaped or not. But slowly, over the centuries, doughnuts have become a part of the culinary fabric, a coffee-break staple, a weekend indulgence and, increasingly, a basic treat worthy of experimentation and elevation. “Doughnuts have been around for so long, they’re part of society,” says Arlyn Sturwold, the owner of Destination Doughnuts in Edmonton. “It has always been popular.” And he can back that claim up — his own 50-year career has been bookended by them.
“There’s something very nostalgic about [donuts]. They never go out of style.”
For his first baking job out of school, in Barrhead, Alta. in 1968, Sturwold spent hours in a poorly lit, poorly ventilated back room frying donuts. While the red seal German baker would later work in bakery supply sales, become a pipefitter and then semi-retire, he was drawn back to baking because of those delicious dough rings — opening Destination Doughnuts in 2017. A far cry from those he made decades earlier, Sturwold has created a more gourmet version of the doughnut, upping the ante through bulk fermentation and runs through a sheeter to build flavour before they hit the oil.
With options like strawberry cheesecake, snickerdoodle, matcha, glazed rhubarb fritters, and a lemon meringue complete with torched topping, Sturwold has developed a loyal following for his modern offerings. “This is not a doughnut from the old days,” he says.
Their photogenic nature also makes them much more than straightforward doughnut.
“When [people] say they haven’t been in before and I ask why today, it’s either because someone had doughnuts shared with them or they saw us on Instagram or Facebook,” Sturwold says.
While most are typically made from yeast-raised dough — cake doughnuts are a whole different story — Kayle and Kate Burns turned to brioche for the ones they make for their weekly Donut Club pop-up. It’s a nod to Kayle’s days working under famed chef Daniel Boulud in New York City — another sure sign the doughnut can find a home in kitchens of all levels.
Every Monday, Calgarians scramble to get one of the limited pre-orders for the doughnuts that open at noon for Saturday pickup. The couple brainstorms flavours for the massive filled doughnuts — three each week, along with a ‘plain Jane’ simply dusted with cinnamon and sugar — playing with combinations that either evoke nostalgia (cinnamon raisin toast or cookies and cream) or impress foodies (yuzu, toasted sesame and meringue, and chamomile, honey and peach custard).
Donut Club started as a response to the pandemic, and its quick growth surprised both Kate and Kayle, who is also the chef at Una Pizza and Wine, and Bread and Circus. “At first, I was taking all the orders through Instagram, but I’d have 50 messages by midday,” says Kate. “It became big so quickly that we had to get a website to automate it.” Kayle suspects the never-ending appetite for doughnuts in general is they tick a lot of boxes. “It’s a deep-fried dessert. It hits all the flavour profiles: sweet, salty, fatty, rich.” But, he adds, it’s also that doughnuts are practically in Canadians’ DNA. “It’s in our roots almost.”
While most turn to the doughnut when the craving strikes for a sweet treat, Café Vendome is frying up a version that turns the concept on its head. When chef Alejandro Buzzalino was developing the menu, he told corporate executive chef Matt Batey that he wanted to create a warm potato and salmon doughnut. Batey was skeptical — until he took his first bite.
Now, it’s a signature dish and one of the most Instagrammable on the menu. “They check that box of they’re comfort food enough, the deep fry, the soft and crunchy,” says Batey.
Vendome has even doubled down on doughnuts, now offering a pulled pork sandwich on a glazed doughnut — a nod to carnival food. “This sandwich is dirty,” Batey acknowledges. “The good dirty.”
Next door at Holy Cow, doughnuts are flying off the shelves — and they weren’t even part of the original plan for the gelato shop. Instead, a hiccup in construction, which pushed opening date past the heated days of summer, led to their addition to the menu. It also plays into the shop’s branding, that it’s essentially the opposite of Teatro’s other, more refined, items. “There couldn’t be anything more tongue-in-cheek as a pastry offering than a deep-fried, sprinkled doughnut,” says Batey.
Holy Cow production lead Larissa Costella says no matter what she puts on the doughnut menu, they are quick to sell out. The trained baker and artist — whose artworks often feature baked goods — plays with flavours and concepts, transforming classic desserts into doughnut versions, which keep people coming back for more. “I’m almost always thinking of doughnuts. I have a hard time going to sleep,” she says. Costella appreciates their playfulness, the colours and childlike appeal, and she believes people connect with them because they’re nostalgic fun. “People need fun right now,” she says.
While bakers and restaurateurs continue to push the envelope when it comes to elevating the doughnut, our appetite for them remains rooted in nostalgia. That’s nowhere more evident than Glamorgan Bakery, which has been offering traditional, but no less beloved, versions of doughnuts for nearly 44 years. Here in the glass cases, cookies, cakes and other goodies line up next to jelly doughnuts stuffed with raspberry jam, custard-filled Boston creams, honey-glazed, and chocolate. On the weekends, they add baby Boston creams to the list — bite-sized versions of the classic.
Each week that amounts to bakers frying up nearly 2,000 doughnuts, and customers are eager to snap them up while still warm. “Doughnuts have always been popular,” says owner Jannette Nauta. “All of us like it when they’re fresh and hot.” Nauta believes there’s something about them being sweet and not “all the way good for us” that makes people crave the timeless doughnut. “There’s something very nostalgic about them. They never go out of style.”