In Pursuit of the Perfect Donut

Fany Gerson doesn’t want to reinvent the donut.

I used to go to a donut place along route I-81 in the middle of the Pennsylvania nowhere with my sister and her husband late at night. We’d sit around and shoot the shit and watch the weird-looking truckers come in and eat the donuts. The goal of the late-night outing wasn’t just to see the weird truckers, but to catch the overweight women behind the counter in the act of changing out their old stale donuts with their new ones. We often mistimed it and got the old stale ones instead; still, even when fresh, the donuts were really just greasy sugar-bombs. It was great.

This kind of donut place, Dough is not. The New York City eatery, centered around the center-less treat, is part of a movement that’s erasing the classic donut’s curse: it’s too delicious for its own good. In other words, it doesn’t seem like a simple deep-fried piece of dough topped with sugar or chocolate or filled with heavy cream requires any improvement.

Fany Gerson is half of a team that disagrees. In 2010, the former pastry chef was invited by her partner to make a new kind of donut. A big one.

“He says, ‘I just want a big donut. Not a heavy donut, but a big donut.’ A sort of celebration.” So Gerson went to work. She spent a couple months testing dough, all day. She knew what she was going for — “It has a bite to it, but it’s not airy”; “it has some seasoning to it — not sweet, it’s not salty, it’s just right” — and when she found it, she knew. “We opened up a few weeks after that,” she tells me, sitting on the window sill of her second storefront, this one in Manhattan.

“Donuts are so quintessentially American,” Gerson says, “and yet so few people making it with the same care and detail as other pastries. It’s like, why not?”

I’ve caught her on her way into the kitchen, hair up in a bandana, white apron on. She’s been working on the donuts at the new shop to get the team running and make sure the dough works in the new location and with the coming of summer heat, which can change consistency. I can see the donuts now, straight through huge windows, behind the glass counter, being dunked into enormous tubs of what looks like fudge by four women, also in bandanas. When the donuts are hauled out of the tubs, fudge sloughs off them in sheets. I catch myself staring.

The obsession with the dough and extra care with her employees is part of a larger plan — alongside fresh ingredients like nutmeg ground in house, and making fresh donuts throughout the day rather than just first thing in the morning — that puts the final product at the center of success. “Donuts are so quintessentially American,” Gerson says, “and yet so few people are making it with the same care and detail as other pastries, from cookies to cupcakes to pies. It’s been around and loved by so many people. It’s like, why not?”

Not that she’s the first to do it. In New York City alone there are half a dozen top-notch bakeries focusing only on the deep-fried reverse bull’s-eye. Stepping up the donut is easy, as is expanding its flavors. Its appeal is wider than that of other pastries because it’s not just a breakfast food or a dessert, like a muffin or a cupcake, respectively. It doesn’t need to be treated with kid gloves. It’s the perfect food-world fixer-upper.

And while I do feel a little ridiculous paying $40 for a dozen of them — chocolate cacao nib, Nutella-filled, lemon poppy seed, and Gerson’s favorite, cinnamon sugar, among others — the feeding frenzy, and subsequent tasting discussion, that follows when I drop them off at the office is testament enough. Then I dive in myself, mowing down big chunks from half a dozen of the flavors, each dangerously easy to down thanks to dough that’s the perfect balance between substantial and airy. Gerson and Dough haven’t reinvented the donut, they’ve just taken their own stab at making it perfect. Theirs might be the closest one yet.

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