Mmmmm... donuts: beignets, paczki, zeppole, and malasada
My most vivid memory of my first and only trip to New Orleans is of visiting a strip club in the French Quarter with my grandparents. If I've ever had a more Fellini-esque moment in my life, I don't know what it might be. There I was, seventeen years old, drink in hand, with my adorable, five-foot tall grandmother by my side watching half-naked women wrestle. I wasn't sure whose eyes to cover, hers or mine. Thankfully, the great state of Louisiana had the common sense to protect the wrestlers' modesty and the crowd's decency by mandating covered nipples. In this dive that meant a pair of Band-Aids. Voilà! Innocence preserved Big Easy style.
My second most vivid memory was my first plate of beignets smothered in icing sugar at Cafe du Monde. Those beignets opened my eyes. Up to that point in my life fried dough had meant only one thing: donuts from Tim Hortons, Country Style, or one of the independent donut joints that were ubiquitous in the days before Starbucks. From that point forward, I recognized that the standard North American donut is really just the tip of a delicious, glazed iceberg, a mere johnny-come-lately of fried dough.
Cultures around the world, from South Korea to Argentina and dozens of points in between, celebrate homegrown variants of the donut. In Okinawa, Japan, for example, they serve sata andagi, whereas in South Africa the fried dough of choice is a koeksuster. Some cultures even use fried dough in savoury cooking. Any lover of congee, Asian rice porridge, is probably familiar with youtiao, the dish's typical salted donut accompaniment. Having a place in so many cuisines is the greatest testament to the universal appeal of fried dough. The appeal extends into modern cuisine, as well: donut soup is one of the most recent incarnations of the beloved treat.
Living in multicural Toronto means not always having to travel the globe to taste regional delicacies. Fried dough is no different. I read last year that a Toronto bakery specializes in zeppole, an Italian donut traditionally eaten to celebrate St. Joseph's Day, March 19. So what better way to celebrate the patron saint of Canada and confectioners than an expedition to sample a stomachful of donuts from different countries the weekend before the feast. Our friends Rob and Jill, who writes a knitting blog of her own, joined us. Recruiting people to spend a day eating donuts is, shockingly, not that hard to do. Donut Day 2007 was born.
I stumbled upon our first donut thanks to a fruitful combination of research and dog-walking. Many donuts, including three of the four profiled here, have their origins in Catholic Lenten celebrations. That's how, while researching zeppole, I stumbled upon the malasada (sometimes spelled malassada), a Portuguese donut traditionally eaten for Mardi Gras, for which it is both a delicious treat and an efficient way to use up lard and sugar, rich foods that are traditionally avoided during Lent. In a bizarre twist of culinary fate, the malasada is now also a Hawaiian specialty, having been made so popular by Azorean immigrants to those islands that Mardi Gras there is now known as Malasada Day.
The minute I read about the Azorean connection, I thought I might be able to find malasadas in my neighbourhood. Don't be fooled, just because we live in Little Italy doesn't mean our neighbourhood is Italian. Most of the Italians moved out of the area forty years ago. They were replaced by a wave of Portuguese immigrants from, you guessed it, the Azores.
I had to check but two local bakeries to find malasadas. National Portuguese Bakery serves them fresh and hot Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. I'm not sure their version conforms perfectly to tradition -- I'm pretty sure malasadas are supposed to be egg-shaped -- but these irregular discs are so good, I don't care. A perfect light brown, cinnamon sugar-dusted crust hides a sweet, citrus inflected interior. My order was greeted by one of the sweetest phrases in the English language: "You're here at a good time, they're still warm."
After a couple of malasadas close to home, our donut odyssey began in earnest. Our next stop: Granowska's Polish bakery for paczki (roughly pronounced "ponch-key"). These donuts are about as similar to a North American jelly donuts as you can get. Granowska's offers them in four flavours: cheese, poppy seed, plum, and rose. The rose is spectacular. Glazed, fluffy dough envelops a pocket of perfumed, slightly sweet jam. Paczki are usually reserved for Fat Thursday -- yet another ingenious way to use up lard and sugar -- but Granowska's offers them year round.
The suburb of Woodbridge is now home to much of Toronto's massive Italian community, as well as Sweet Boutique, whose zeppole were the inspiration for the entire day. Zeppole differ from other donuts in that they are made from choux pastry, the pastry used to make eclairs and profiteroles, rather than leavened dough. This gives them a decidedly different flavour and lighter texture than other donuts. Though normally fried, they can also be baked. Unfortunately for our fried dough quest, Sweet Boutique offers only the baked version. We ordered some anyway -- voluptuous pastry cream sandwiched between rings of pastry -- but we just weren't feeling it. There's a vast difference between baked goods and fried goods, and no amount of pastry cream could bridge that gap.
I managed to find deep fried zeppole the next day by accident. Having just explained that Little Italy is predominantly Portuguese, I now have qualify that statement by adding there are still many Italian restaurants and shops, including a couple of bakeries, in our neighbourhood. I happened to be visiting one of them, Riviera Bakery, when my eyes fell upon two trays of deep brown dough rings filled with pastry cream. "Are those deep fried zeppole?" I asked. "Yes," answered the woman behind the counter, a note of regret in her voice, "but I'm sorry to say we're out of the baked zeppole."
Out of the baked? Fabulous! I promptly bought one of the "lowly" deep fried zeppole. I then exercised uncommon restraint by waiting to share it with Rachel. This zeppola was fabulous -- more luscious pastry cream, but this time partnered with fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar; it's an eclair on steroids. Sadly, Riviera Bakery actually respects tradition, and only carries them during the Lenten season, so I'll have to return by Easter weekend to sate my appetite until 2008.
Our final stop of the day brought me full circle. Having been introduced to the wider world of donuts at Cafe du Monde, the day's finale was a visit to Cajun Corner to sample the beignets described by NOW Magazine as the best donuts in Toronto. We also took the opportunity to diversify our appetites with a lunch of blackened fish cakes and excellent gumbo. A dozen little pillows of lighter-than-air dough blanketed with icing sugar are an ideal way to finish a bayou-inspired lunch -- and a donut-inspired day.
Ironically, after all our travels, the four of us decided that the very first donut -- the warm malasada we had stumbled upon mere blocks from home -- was our favourite. The moral of this tale? Sometimes you only need to journey a few blocks from your door to experience something new and wonderful. But don't let that stop you from spending a caffeine-fueled day with friends exercising dietary indiscretions on a beautiful weekend. It is, after all, in honour of St. Joseph.