I don't have advertisements on my blog, and I've turned down offers to receive money or merchandise for links. But I admit that the following post has an agenda. Over the family email list, we've discovered recently that none of the grandchildren have ever tasted my mother's homemade doughnuts. Ever. This seems to all of us a serious failing. In the past 48 hours, since this shocking discovery was made, I've got no fewer than 30 emails on the topic of doughnuts. So this post is part of a campaign to get my mother to revive the tradition of making doughnuts.
My mother's kitchen was (and still is) painted yellow so it is a sunny place to be on a cold winter day. The kitchen table was where we kids gathered at night to do our homework, or where we played games like Scrabble. The round tin on the top of the refrigerator almost always held homemade cookies. Even to this day, anyone who enters my mother's house sits down right away at the kitchen table, knowing that the tea kettle will soon whistle and the tin of cookies will be opened.
Most winter days when I was a kid, I'd come home from school to find my mother in the kitchen, with an apron tied on over her jeans and turtleneck, baking. Some days she would be making cookies or bread, but often when we were having friends over and she knew she'd have a whole group of hungry people to feed, she made doughnuts.
My mother is very systematic when it comes to baking. The first thing she does is pull out the heavy wooden cutting board to set in the middle of the table. The big board doubles as a game board; it has squares for playing chess on one side and a Scrabble game on the other. My father made that wooden board when he was about Shaggy Hair's age, just about sixty years ago. Next, my mother pulls out all the ingredients and lines them up along the edge of the board. She puts away each bag or bottle or box as soon as she uses it. That way, if she comes to the end of the recipe and something remains on the table, she knows she has left something out.
Back in the doughnut-eating days before people worried about cholesterol and skinny people ate whatever they damned well felt like eating, my mother would make double and triple batches of doughnuts. She would roll the dough out on the wooden cutting board, and then use the little metal doughnut cutter to cut out the round doughnuts. Red-haired Sister claims she can remember when we used to cut out the doughnuts using two different sized glasses – before getting that new-fangled doughnut cutter – but I remember only the metal thingy, which is probably an antique by now. These doughnuts were a bit smaller than the doughnuts you see in bakeries now; desserts had not yet been super-sized.
On the stove, a big pot would be filled with vegetable shortening, which would first melt, and then sizzle. My mother would drop in the first batch of doughnuts, and soon the whole house would be filled with the delicious smell of frying. I loved to peer in and watch the doughnuts plump up as they cooked, my mother flipping them over as they turned a light brown.
On the counter next to the stove, the same counter that held pots of plants and usually a cat staring out at the birdfeeder attached to the window, my mother would place a cookie sheet covered with paper towels. The use of disposable towels indicated the importance of these doughnuts. My mother rarely consents to using something disposable. In her household, a roll of paper towels lasts about six months. An unsuspecting guest once grabbed a handful of paper towels to use frivolously – I think he was drying his hands – and turned to find everyone in the kitchen staring at him in a shocked silence. I have inherited this reluctance to use paper towels; I don't even buy the damned things because I'd feel so guilty using them.
My mother never eats cookies or doughnuts as she makes them. Seriously. She never even so much as tastes a speck of cookie dough. She can make a whole double batch of chocolate chip cookies and never eat one. She will wait until they are all done, and then make herself a cup of tea, and sit down and enjoy the finished product. This trait, inexplicably, has not been passed down to any of her children. My Red-haired Sister and I have been known to buy bulk bags of chocolate chips, which seem so big that no one will notice if you just reach in and grab handfuls of chips as a snack, and we've devoured whole bags without ever making cookies. To be honest, I can probably count the number of times I've made cookies for my kids at all. Much easier just to send them over to their grandmother's house.
Of course, the key to sneaking food while my mother is baking is to volunteer to help. When it came to the doughnuts, I always clamored for the important job of sprinkling cinnamon sugar on the doughnuts. I'd pull over a wooden chair, climb up to make myself tall enough, and stand at the counter, with the shaker filled with cinnamon sugar in my hand. While I waited for the doughnuts, I'd look out at the trees covered with snow, and at the birds in the feeder, just a few feet away. On winter afternoons, the sunlight on the snow gave way quickly to a blue light that signaled the approach of dusk, making me feel lucky to be in a warm kitchen filled with doughnuts.
My mother would pull out the first batch of doughnuts and dump them out on to the paper towels; they'd be plump and brown and sizzling with hot grease. As fast as I could, I'd sprinkle on the sugar so it would stick. And as soon as they were even partially cooled, I'd find one that was a bit misshapen, decree that it was imperfect, and decide it was my duty to eat it.
Few things taste as satisfying as a warm doughnut. And these doughnuts tasted like nothing like the "donuts" sold in stores all over the country now. They were plain, with the texture of bread, and they filled you up wonderfully.
By the time the doughnut making was done, my mother would have two cookie sheets of donuts, cooled and propped into rows, lightly covered with cinnamon sugar. I'd be so full from eating doughnuts that I would be feeling sluggish as I set the table for supper. But that night, we'd all go out skating on the pond in front of the house – my Dad had rigged up a light bulb in the old willow tree so we could skate at night – and after a couple of hours in the cold winter air, playing ice hockey or snap-the-whip, I'd come into the warm house, eager for a cup of hot cocoa and more of those good doughnuts.