Goin' Donuts! Artisanal Donut Craze in Vermont
When I became pregnant last year, I got to know the Koffee Kup Bakery well. My sweet tooth, which I can normally keep under control, morphed into something insatiable and nagging. And there were many days in the dead of winter when I could not resist the 7:30am yearning for something sugary and cakey, maybe coated with sweet glaze and a smattering of colored sprinkles. So, I would pull into my local Valero gas station and pick up a donut (or two) to tide me over until actual breakfast. This was my appetizer, and it was delicious. Little did I know, there are many bakers in the state making their own artisanal versions of this tasty donut.
One of the best comes from the Big Picture Café in Waitsfield, whose owners Claudia Becker and Eugene Jarecki keep the secret of their amazing donuts locked up—and away from this prying writer! No matter. Three of the Big Picture’s diminutive beauties (you order them in multiples of three) with a cup of dark roast Vermont Coffee Company make the kind of breakfast you want to keep all to yourself. The donuts are the classic, yeast-raised variety made with local eggs and butter that get a maple glaze using syrup from Hartshorn’s organic farm down the road. The café’s baker, known as Jason the Baker, makes about 160 a day—300 on a busy weekend. It’s no wonder. They are soft and delicate and taste like warm, buttered French toast.
My research led me to a few additional noteworthy donuts, including another yeast-raised maple donut (we are in Vermont, after all) from Guild Fine Meats in Burlington. Guild is the newest outpost from the Farmhouse Tap and Grill folks. Guild’s version is oversized, pleasingly misshapen and coated in a sweet maple glaze. The Farmhouse Group’s pastry chef Samantha Madden makes about two to three dozen every day, and they arrive each morning, still warm. They smell heavenly, like sweet fried dough from a fair, and they’ve got heft, but not too much. There is also the classic cider cake donut. Good versions are available from Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center and Shelburne Orchards in Shelburne.
Then, there are the Red Hen’s “donots,” squares of croissant dough scraps rolled in cinnamon and sugar and baked to crispy, flaky perfection. Randy George, who owns Red Hen, says that he and his team of bakers could not bear to throw out the scraps of dough left over from cutting croissants. So, they started to play around, and out came the donot. “We’ve tried purposely making scrap, but it’s never as good as the real stuff,” says George. “And, we realized, you actually do not want the lamination to be as pretty as in a croissant.” They are a delicious treat with a cup of dark, bitter espresso.
Of course, the true donut connoisseur knows that Poorhouse Pies (see article) peddles some of the best and most inventive donuts (such as chocolate-coconut ladies, maple bacon, lemon-filled pistachio, classic cider and something called a gluten-free dirty angel) from a home-based bakery in Underhill.
Two of my favorites represent opposite ends of the donut spectrum. On one side is the delicate, yeast-raised donut filled with local jam from Wild Flour Vermont Bakery in Brattleboro. On the other, there is the dense, slightly sweet, butternut squash cake donut from Barbara Nedd in Shelburne.
Patricia Austin of Wild Flour Vermont Bakery says that she was raised on “fresh air and donuts.” Austin’s grandmother, Althea, was a kind of jack of all trades who hunted, churned butter, made cheese and was, according to Austin, an amazing baker and cook. Althea was the longtime cook at the Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont, and specialized in classic, hearty New England fare, including nutmeg-spiced cake donuts. Austin’s father, Lloyd, carried on his mother’s tradition and often fried donuts for Austin and her four siblings at night while his wife, Sally, worked the night shift. Austin inherited her familial love of food, though her own culinary interests center on European-style baking.
Austin got her first baking job when she was 17 years old, rolling croissants by hand for seven hours a day at Baguette French Bread, a southern Vermont bakery run by Chuck Hornsby. Next, she worked as the pastry-chef assistant to Certified Master Baker Jeffrey Hamelman (currently the director of the King Arthur Bakery) in Brattleboro. Hamelman exposed Austin to a whole different style of baking, a style that excited her. “I’d go in at about 3am and work until noon,” says Austin. “Then I’d ride my bike home and, many nights, continue to bake until 8 or 9.” Austin then opened a bakery in Keene, New Hampshire, that she ran for seven years with another of Hamelman’s apprentices. She made the pastries and her partner made the bread, but the retail bakery model was too demanding on her time and health. It is what led her to choose her current business model—working out of her home and selling her goods, mostly, at the farmers’ market.
After spending most of the week prepping, Austin wakes up at 2am on Saturday mornings to bake. She’s been vending at the Brattleboro Summer Farmers’ Market for 10 years and at the Winter market for seven. She makes about three dozen of her pillowy, filled donuts every Saturday, in addition to scones, shortbread, cookies, Danish and croissants. Her donuts have developed a following and usually sell out within a couple of hours. She’s been perfecting the recipe—a buttery, brioche-dough base— for years. It’s classic and very French, almost like a beignet, and Austin fills the donuts with locally made jam. One of her favorites is Cherry Hill Farm’s Raspberry Red Currant. She’s also filled the donuts with lemon curd, and she sometimes glazes them. They are magnificent any way—slightly sweet, buttery puffs of dough flavored with a hint of orange blossom water and filled with tart local jam.
What surprised me about Austin is that she has followed a gluten-free lifestyle for years. In fact, she’s currently at work on a gluten-free cookbook in addition to moving her baking operation to a larger space and expanding her business to include online cookie orders. I worried that this would mean the end of the jammy donut, but Austin assured me this is not the case. “I love making donuts, and my weekly farmers’ market customers will keep me on task!”
Barbara Nedd could not have anticipated how popular her squat, spiced butternut squash donuts would be. And I am guessing that she never expected them to be featured in a New York magazine article about the year’s best donuts. Nedd began making the donuts late last year in a kind of casual partnership with Eric Rozendaal of Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro. She liked to bake and he had plenty of organic butternut squash and eggs. Plus, he was looking for something to offer with the maple lemonade that he sold every Saturday at Smorgasburg, the food and flea market, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This spring, Nedd began to make bigger batches of donuts every week to send down to New York with Rozendaal. For the past few months, Nedd has been churning out 750 donuts every week, all by herself. “It’s as old-fashioned as it gets,” she says. She cuts every donut by hand using a single round cutter, then fries the donuts and tosses them by the dozen in sugar. She takes 200 to the Burlington Farmers’ Market, where she usually sells out. Rozendaal takes about 400 to New York City, where he sells out within three hours.
All of this keeps Nedd, an accomplished painter, New England Culinary Institute grad and former head baker at Chef ’s Corner, busy. “We got very popular, very fast,” says Nedd. “The whole season is a bit of a blur. Eric says that if I made 1,000 donuts he could sell 1,000 donuts.” Nedd is up at 2:30am on Friday mornings and arrives at Myer’s Bagel Bakery in Burlington by 3:45am to start cutting and frying. She has to work fast so that she can finish by 7am. Myer’s lets Nedd use its table and fryer for free in exchange for two dozen donuts, which fly off their shelves.
When I met Nedd at the beginning of September, she told me that the donuts were her retirement. When I caught up with her a few weeks later, she was looking at spaces in South Burlington to open up a shop to sell donuts and homemade chicken potpie and soups. In the meantime, she continues to experiment with different flavors, including fresh blueberry, chocolate beet, chocolate-chile, chocolate-zucchini and, even, potato. I asked Nedd where she likes to get donuts, other than from her own kitchen. It took her awhile to answer. She said, with a shy smile, “I don’t want to sound proud, but I like my own.” I have eaten close to one dozen of her donuts over the past month, and I can’t blame her.