I made Federal Donuts at home, and here's what happened

The Federal Donut, hot out of the fryer and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, tasted like self-doubt. Cake-y, crumbly, and pleasingly crisp around the outside, both flavor and texture seemed professional-grade and impossible to replicate.

But that was what I had set out to do. Mike Solomonov and Steven Cook, creators of the chain of doughnut/fried chicken shops that has become a sensation since launching in 2011, will this month release Federal Donuts (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt), a fun little cookbook giving away their secrets, with recipes for the doughnuts, fried chicken, glazes, and spice blends. So, on one recent morning I put it to the test, to try to make doughnuts from scratch, for the first time in my life, it should be noted, following their directions and without fancy tools or expensive ingredients.

The cinnamon-sugar doughnut I bought to serve as a baseline for comparison was close to perfect. I even tasted a hint of salt, which got me thinking how much I always welcome a savory touch in a dessert. (In retrospect, this was a premonition I should have heeded.) The recipe was clearly written and well-photographed, but there were a lot of steps, and I’d never fried anything but an egg. Failure seemed a clear possibility.

Some background: Though I sometimes bake, I’m not a particularly elegant cook, having long ago ceded most of that ground to my husband. However, I can usually follow directions (not on this day, but I’ll get to that), and I’m especially fond of Solomonov and Cook’s Zahav cookbook, because through those recipes I have managed to replicate the taste of their fabulous hummus and some of their Israeli salads.

So I got to work on the Master Donut Recipe. The only specialty ingredient is a tiny amount of baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend that gives the doughnuts an unusual flavor. The book suggests kalustyans.com, where it’s $5.99 for 2 ounces, but I couldn’t get this on short notice, so I made my own using a recipe that called for pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. The ingredients cost about $35, though they would have been less had I not bought individual spices.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Using a pint glass, Allison Steele, cuts into the dough to make the circle for her doughnut.

With the exception of a cast-iron enameled pot borrowed from a friend, I had most of the necessary equipment, including a thermometer for the oil. I didn’t have baking rings for cutting dough, but the book suggests using a pint glass and shot glass as substitutes. (And, yeah, I had plenty of those.)

I assembled the dry ingredients, as well as a cinnamon/brown sugar/nutmeg blend with which to toss the doughnuts, and set those bowls aside. I combined eggs, sugar, butter, and buttermilk in my KitchenAid mixer, though a hand mixer would work, too. I added the remaining ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda and powder, spices) and the batter came together, thickening and pulling away from the sides just like it was supposed to.

When I tasted the batter, I was surprised by how flavorful it was. Almost too flavorful. That’s when I realized I’d misread a crucial measurement, and accidentally added four times the required amount of the spice blend. But in the immortal words of One Republic, it’s too late to apologize. It’s too late!

I scraped the batter, which was thick and extremely sticky, onto the surface of my counter, which I’d covered with parchment paper. This required heavy flouring on my hands, the surface, the dough, and the rolling pin, until eventually it rolled out nicely. I shaped it into a rectangle and placed it in the freezer while I started the first round of what would be a multistage cleanup effort. Note: Between the flour, the gluey dough that got everywhere, and, later, the oil, the cleaning inherent in this project felt endless.

When I was almost done, I poured a couple of inches of canola oil into my pot and turned on the flame. When the oil reached 375 degrees, I cut the dough into shapes that I carefully peeled off the sheet, mangling about half of them. This was the hardest step so far, and I have to imagine it might have been easier if I’d used the proper metal baking rings instead of glassware.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Two doughnuts and two doughnut holes gently fry in the pot on the stove.

For some reason, I’d expected a dramatic effect from dropping the shapes into the oil, but they bubbled and bobbed around peacefully. I flipped over the first one about 90 seconds later and was shocked to see a puffy, beautifully browned coating. As if by magic — a doughnut had happened!

As I added more, the temperature of the oil kept dropping. (“We see that all the time on Chopped,” my husband reminded me later that day.) Several times I had to turn off the heat and then reheat the oil, storing the dough in the freezer in the meantime.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Here is what the doughnut looks like after you take it out of the oil, after frying.

The final step was draining the doughnuts on a sheet of parchment paper, then tossing them, still hot, in the cinnamon and sugar. The finished product was surprisingly doughnut-like: warm in the center, crusty around the edges, and despite my best efforts, I hadn’t ruined the flavor. About half looked unequivocally like doughnuts. Some, meanwhile, looked like horseshoes, others broke apart and looked like fritters, and one particularly unfortunate blunder resembled a giant hunk of Federal Donuts’ fried chicken (which may be my next at-home cooking project!).

Steven Cook, who co-authored the book, confirmed later that using the freezer is key in keeping the dough firm enough to peel off the sheet in a neat ring, and that maintaining the temperature of the oil is one of the hardest steps.

“We don’t expect people to make them at home all the time, but we are big proponents of cooking at home in general, because things just taste better,” he said. “So we really feel it’s our job to make these recipes useful.”

In the end, I would recommend the book, not only for the recipes, but for the whimsical artwork and the impressive list of Cook and Solomonov’s favorite doughnut shops from California to Nashville.

Camera icon
And here is the end result: the finished doughnuts Allison Steele made from the recipe in the Federal Donuts cookbook.

When my husband got home that evening, I offered him my doughnut along with the original model. “Pretty close,” he said, chewing thoughtfully. “It’s pretty close.” (I knew they weren’t quite as good as the originals, but they were good, and he did eat them all.)

Would I do it again? I might. I can see this as a fun project with friends, or with older kids, especially if you make a few flavors of the sugar coatings to try. Later in the book, there are recipes for glazed doughnuts with coatings such as “grapefruit brûlée” and “pomegranate Nutella.” But I know my limits.


Federal Donuts’ Master Donut Recipe

Makes 12-18 servings

Here is what the doughnut looks like after you take it out of the oil, after frying.     To celebrate the upcoming release of the Federal Donuts cookbook, Allison Steele  tries making Federal Donuts at home. You&#039;ll never guess what happened next.<br />  MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

INGREDIENTS

12 large egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for rolling and cutting dough
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baharat (kalustyans.com)
Canola or peanut oil, for frying

DIRECTIONS

1. To make the dough, combine the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. You can certainly use a hand mixer, or even a sturdy whisk, instead.
2. Mix on low speed until ribbons start to form in the mixture and the color lightens, about 3 minutes. Slowly stream in the melted butter until just incorporated, about 30 seconds.
3. Add the buttermilk all at once. Mix again just to combine, about 5 seconds.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the 3½ cups flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and baharat. Add to the mixer all at once and mix on low speed until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix again on medium-low until the dough looks smooth and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, 20 to 30 seconds.
5. To roll the dough, prepare a counter work space by fastening a large piece of parchment paper with tape at the corners. Have the 1 cup of flour nearby to use as needed. Generously flour the work surface.
6. Scrape down the paddle attachment and turn all the batter out onto the floured surface. Dust the top of the dough with more flour, sprinkling the edges as well. Flour your hands well, too.
7. With a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a ½-inch-thick rectangle, about 10 by 14½ inches. Add more flour to prevent sticking. Brush the excess flour off the dough and parchment paper with a pastry brush. Transfer the dough on the paper to the back of a baking sheet and slide it into the freezer for up to 30 minutes.
8. To cut the donuts, use two sizes of ring cutters to make the donut shapes: a larger one about 2¾-inches in diameter, and a 1-inch cutter for the holes. (Feel free to use a drinking glass and a shot glass.) Flour the cutters well and often to prevent sticking. Begin with the large cutter, then cut out the smaller holes. Return the baking sheet with the dough rings to the freezer until ready to fry. (At this point, the frozen rings can by wrapped in plastic and stored in the freezer for up to 2 days. Let thaw slightly before frying.)
9. The dough scraps can be gathered together and rerolled, or cut into small, irregular shapes and fried as they are.
10. To fry the donuts, clip a candy or deep-frying thermometer onto one side of a big enameled cast-iron pot and add 2 to 3 inches canola or peanut oil. Heat over medium-low until the oil reaches 375 degrees.
11. Carefully lift the dough rings with a spatula and slide them into the oil, about 4 at a time, depending on the size of your pot. After about 90 seconds, the edges will begin to brown; flip the donuts with a slotted spoon. Fry for another 90 seconds until golden brown and delightfully puffy. (Donut holes take 60 to 90 seconds and tend to flip themselves.) With a slotted spoon, transfer the donuts on a rack set over a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Reheat the oil to 375 degrees before cooking the next batch.
12. Toss hot donuts in cinnamon-brown sugar mix (see note).

Note: To make the cinnamon brown sugar mix, whisk together 1 cup granulated sugar, ¼ cup light brown sugar, 1½ tablespoons ground cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a large bowl until combined, breaking up any clumps of brown sugar with a fork. Toss the hot donuts int he sugar mixture with your fingertips and turn to coat well.
Have your sugar mixture ready before frying your donuts.

From Federal Donuts: 25 Easy Recipes For Making Donutes At Home, Fried Chicken, Too!, by Mike Solomonov and Steven Cook (Rux Martin, 2017)

Per serving (based on 18): 334 calories, 6 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 149 milligrams cholesterol, 312 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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