Chef Michael Solomonov and his partner Steve Cook were playing the part of bakers one recent morning, so were up with the sun, flour dust covering their aprons.
The pair, one of the city's top restaurant partnerships, were mixing and weighing ingredients, tasting sugar and spice combinations, and tweaking the doughnut recipe for their latest project, Federal Donuts, set to open next month.
The doughnuts are the final hurdle in the trio of takeout offerings for their new shop. The other two items - Korean fried chicken and coffee - already have been perfected.
An odd combo? Maybe. The two chefs had been brainstorming about what was missing from the city's food scene, and fried chicken and doughnuts kept coming up. They decided, why not put them together?
Actually, the idea falls right in line with how these two create new eateries. Decisions are based on passions and talents, rather than a five-year plan. That's how they've come to own a barbecue restaurant, Percy Street, and a critically acclaimed Israeli restaurant, Zahav.
Federal Donuts would be no different. "We wanted to do something we knew we could handle," says Cook. Translation: a creative concept that lacks the high costs and hair-pulling that opening a full-service restaurant does.
And this concept just might be peculiar enough to be a smashing, easily repeatable, success. ("There's been whispers," says one partner, when asked about the possibility of more than one location.)
The coffee comes courtesy of Bob Logue and Thomas Henneman, the third and fourth partners in this project, who co-own the crafty Bodhi Coffee in Headhouse Square. Logue, who found the location at Second and Federal Streets, is also responsible for the renovation of the 600-square-foot, mostly takeout space.
As for the fried chicken, savory is what Solomonov knows best, and their test runs have been more than satisfying, capitalizing on the Korean fried chicken trend. The greaseless bird will be served plain or tossed in a sweet glaze.
But the doughnut recipe has proven the most challenging.
"We must have gone through at least 20 versions," says Cook.
Some were too cakey, almost white-bread like. Others, too wet. Ratios were adjusted, something solid started to take shape, warming spices were added for more dimension, and finally, just about six weeks ago, after six months of testing, they nailed it. For the most part, anyway.
They were still tinkering the other morning, using the kitchen of Percy Street, which is quiet and calm during daylight hours, for their R&D session. It was also the first time they were making double batches of the dough, and felt some of the ratios were askew. For this next batch, they upped the yolks, sugar, and butter.
Yet, long before they found their "it" dough, there was a big decision: Yeast or cake?
Yeast doughnuts require more time for proofing and are temperamental, like baguettes and puff-pastry dough. But the payoff can be huge (Krispy Kreme; Dunkin' Donuts). Cake doughnuts are sweet and delicious, and as their name implies, cakier (apple cider doughnuts). And less painstaking: You mix and go. They went with cake.
All the doughnuts will be the same flavor; creativity will come from the toppings. They have some help from the fifth partner in the venture. Felicia D'Ambrosio has held various restaurant service gigs, as well as food-media jobs (City Paper, Grid magazine, Yelp). She'll run the day-to-day operations, and this morning was getting a lesson from Solomonov, a James Beard Award-winning chef, on how to make the dough.
She tosses her hair back in a pony and ties on an apron.
"Mike has the master doughnut recipe," jokes Cook. "If he goes down, it's all over."
Cook turns his attention to prepping the various sugars, custards, and glazes. He recalls recipes from memory. "We've had a million brainstorm sessions and never write anything down," says Cook. He's an accomplished chef on his own, having helmed the kitchens at Salt and Marigold Kitchen. When trekking through uncharted doughnut territory, there can never be too many cooks in the kitchen.
As he completes sugar mixtures, he sprinkles a little in everyone's palms so they can have a taste. Some, like the vanilla-lavender, are spot-on. Others, like the spicy cinnamon, need a little more sweet. He adjusts and moves on to the next batch.
They will offer the doughnuts two ways. The first will be made-to-order, pulled hot from the fryer and tossed in the sugars. All the sugars have a thought-provoking touch, like the cocoa concoction, which has a special blend of clove and orange blossom from their spice guy in New York.
The other option is filled with custards and topped with glazes. They will be made a few times a day and kept on display. The one filled with coffee custard and chocolate-Tahini glaze is topped with roasted peanuts. A coconut filling comes with orange-blossom icing. The doughnuts with pink pomegranate glaze and topped with pistachios are so pretty, they may cause more than a few impulse buys.
The doughnuts are cooked in a Donut Robot, a 31/2-foot long tabletop machine that delicately drops the dough into the fat in perfect little rings. The rings get picked up by a conveyor belt, and they bob along in their Crisco bath, flipping halfway through. The whole process takes about a minute.
When pulled fresh from the fryer and sugared, the doughnuts are delicious. Buoyant and airy, but with a bite. (Unlike yeast doughnuts, you can't eat nine of these in one sitting.) The real culinary challenge is fighting against time. Making the custard-filled treats as delicious as the ones that are pulled from the fryer is no small feat.
The trio quickly sugar and glaze their first batch, making them picture perfect and wrapping them in a box.
This first box is more than just a test; it could be their first sale. It will be dropped off with a local coffee shop owner in hopes for a wholesale order, a potentially lucrative part of the business.
These two days of testing taught them a lot. They figured out why some doughnuts were coming out as "C's" instead of "O's" (not enough fryer fat). They realized that sugars with moisture (like from fresh lime zest) don't stick to the doughnuts. They upped the yolks and butter on the double batch. And the custard needs more starch to stay firm.
With opening day looming, Cook is finally taking notes, adjusting the recipes, documenting the perfect combinations in hopes they will be repeated again and again.
Watch a video of Federal Donuts being made on the Donut Robot machine at www.philly.com/food.
Basic Spice Cake Doughnuts
Makes one dozen doughnuts and holes
2 3/4 cups cake flour, plus more for rolling and cutting
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon iodized salt
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons shortening
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
2/3 cup whole milk
Canola oil for frying
1. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the sugar and shortening for 1 minute on low speed, until sandy. Add the egg and egg yolk, then mix for 1 more minute on medium speed, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary, until mixture is a light color and thick.
3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in three separate batches, alternating with the milk, mixing until just combined on low speed each time. The dough will be very sticky. Transfer dough to a clean bowl and refrigerate, covered directly with plastic wrap, for 1 hour (or up to 24 hours).
4. Using a candy thermometer, heat the oil in a large pot or deep fryer until 370 degrees. Gently roll out the chilled dough on a floured surface until about 1/2 inch thick, using more flour as necessary. Using a doughnut cutter, cut as many doughnuts and holes as possible, dipping the cutter into flour before each cut. Fold and gently re-roll the dough to make extra holes.
5. Shake any excess flour off the doughnuts before adding them to the oil, taking care not to crowd them. Once the doughnuts float, fry for about 60 seconds per side. Drain on paper towels. Cool completely before glazing.
Per doughnut: 265 calories, 4 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 206 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Triple Orange Icing
Makes enough for one dozen doughnuts
4 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
11/2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon iodized salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon orange extract
Zest of 1 large orange
1/3 cup, plus 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1. Place the sugar, corn syrup, salt, vanilla, orange extract, orange zest, and orange juice in a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Using a whisk, or with the machine on low speed, blend until mixture is smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. If icing seems too thick, add more orange juice, a teaspoon at a time.
2. To ice, dip one side of each cooled doughnut into the warm icing, and let dry for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Note: You can enhance the color by adding a drop or two each of yellow and red food coloring.
Per doughnut: 182 calories, trace protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 45 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, email@example.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.