January 22, 2008
American donuts are a beefy, treat for cops and steel workers. They are the most masculine food you can find that comes in a big pink box and is covered in sprinkles.The first donut I recall eating was at a Caterpillar dealership. I was five. The manager, a friend of my dad, had invited me in to “drive” the backhoes, front loaders and excavators. While we searched for a six inch diameter hardhat, I was offered a maple bar and a cup of Folgers. Six years before pubic hair, I was a man.
My family didn’t eat donuts much, but the counter ladies at our local Albertson’s always had donut holes out. I loved these glazed nuggets of joy, and reveled in the binary logic that, as actual donuts were bad for you, the rejected hole must therefore be a healthy, sensible anti-donut.
As I grew up and my palate developed away from junk food, I found that most donuts were over sugared and tasted like corn syrup. I also am not really fond of fried foods that are served cold – I much prefer fries to chips, for instance. I therefore hung up my donut (hard)hat for more sophisticated pastries and the like. I tried Krispy Kreme when they came to town, and hit Voodoo on a couple of bar crawls, but by and large, I was done with donuts – especially after the dangers of transfat consumption were brought to popular attention.
A few months ago, however, I found myself eying a pink box in the break room with a disdain matched only by a coworker’s wrinkled nose. We shared our frustration with the office’s state of donut affairs: how can a deep-fried ball of dough be so unsatisfying? She recommended that for a true donut experience, I should check out a stand that materialized near her house on Sunday mornings. “It’s called Moody’s…they’re the only donuts that don’t make me want to die.”
Not only does Moody’s not make me want to die, it gives me life. The first time I met its proprietor lovingly working a donut machine at least twice his age, I knew I had stumbled onto that kind of Portland artisanal spirit where someone takes one food and hits it out of the park.
These are donuts as they were meant to be – fresh, hot, and flavorful. Their texture is perfect – I’m told a mix of rice flour helps keep the oil on the outside, where it forms a crisp, airy shell protecting an inner, fluffy crumb that tastes like real ingredients, rather than the artificial sugariness that overpowers all other flavors in other donut batters. Moody’s donuts are of a dunkable size from a more modest time…the kind you can easily fit in a mug at one of Edward Hopper’s late-nite coffee shops. I prefer them plain, but they are also stellar rolled in cinnamon and sugar. Other variations include chocolate and vanilla frostings, as well as powdered sugar. Alas, Moody’s is only open Sunday from 9 AM to 2 PM, (behind The Shop at 25th and Belmont), inducing me to travel further afield for donuts outside these limited hours.
As mentioned before, my requirements for donuts are steep. Large volumes of transfats are not worth it to me, nor are they traditional for what we’ve come to know as donuts. Here, then, are the Moody alternatives that are close in and healthier than their hydrogenated counterparts. Unfortunately, none of these establishments serve their donuts hot from the fryer.
I appreciate Voodoo in that they pioneered a local resurgence of donuts and American junk food in Portland. Late-night hipsters frequenting 5,000 venues for mac + cheese and Papst probably started with dessert at Voodoo before these other options existed. The shop today, despite its popularity, remains an icon of Portland spirit: drunkards of all stripes can all rally around the pink boxes of libation-absorbing goodness at any hour of the night.
Voodoo indeed produces great novelties – but I wouldn’t say they make good donuts. The batter is indecipherable underneath the barrage of flavorings. Stripped of their toppings, one can discern a fairly pedestrian donut with some strange inconsistencies – the cake of the vegan chocolate donut, for example, tastes more chocolatey than that of the regular triple chocolate offering with Cocoa Puffs and frosting. Of course, you’re hard pressed to find a more portable combination of maple and bacon in the city. The amusingly eclectic reigns at Voodoo, but those seeking a more essential donut are better off elsewhere.
I was surprised to be recommended to a gelateria for donuts, but low and behold, the East 28th shop makes them on site for sale on Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Options include a plain, a few frosted, and an apple sauce donut. I purchased the plain, as the best indicator of their recipe’s overall donuttiness. The dough is a little sweeter than Moody’s – think of it as a well-executed, slightly tangy version of the standard cake flavor you find everywhere, brighter and with a cleaner finish. The crunchy crust was more substantial than Moody’s, it’s crumb was denser and the size was more modern. It definitely had some heft to it, and would’ve been great served hot.
Fleur de Lis
Although beignets are a traditional donut variant in the Pantheon of French pastries, I was surprised to find new world ring donuts in this accomplished bakery. Their offerings are equally culturally diverse: one of their donuts is yeasted, the other carries a potato base. Both have incredibly unique flavor of batter and served rolled in sugar.
The texture of the yeasted donut is similar to that of a brioche, only with a thinner crust than most (about the same as the Moody’s standard). The crumb is light and wispy with a surprising tang – much more subtle than a sour dough, but enjoyable. The whole affair is so delicate that one can literally peel the feather crust away from the body of the ring.
Stylistic opposite to their yeast offering is Fleur de Lis’ hearty potato donut. This vernacular American treat comes with its own adorable hole resting in its inner crevasse, much like an infant in its mother’s bosom. If food presentation has a bearing on its consumption, this is a deep-fried triumph of emotion. The crumb is much heavier than its yeasted counterpart, while the deep crust surrenders with a very toothsome crunch. If the yeasted donut is one step lighter than Staccato’s, the potato donut is one step more robust. The thickness of the donut is cut on the palette by a reasonable amount of nutmeg that adds an additional dimension to the experience. It is surprisingly colloquial compared to the sophistication of the yeasted donut from the same plate.
All of these donuts have delicious and unique flavor profiles. Regrettably, I find eating a cold donut to be similar to consuming a day-old pastry. Both carry flavors that transcend the necessity of freshness, but ultimately, they could be so much better if made to order. It is therefore without failure that you may find me starting each Sabbath at Moody’s – enjoying donuts as they were meant to be served with a devotion that has come to define to Portland’s food culture.