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March 20, 2007

Mmmmm... donuts: beignets, paczki, zeppole, and malasada

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

gagatka

As a Polish girl keen on sweet I vote for pączki. Absolute delicacy... especially with marmolade inside

Brilynn

I love that you went on a donut quest! And I felt like I was wandering around Toronto with you as I recognized most of the places on your list. I used to discover all sorts of great places when I went running. FOr some reason stopping for a donut seemed wrong while out for a jog...

adrienne

Thanks for such a useful post! I've been looking for good doughnuts in Toronto for a while (my boyfriend has never had anything other than Tim Hortons or Krispy Kreme, and doesn't understand the concept of a really good doughnut..)
I can't wait to try some of these places.

Susan from Food "Blogga"

Rob, it sounds like you embarked on an Odyssean journey for donuts!

Having grown up in Rhode Island (the 2nd most Italian state in the USA), I know zeppole well. In fact, every year of my life, my mother would buy about 3 dozen and deliver them to friends and family. Bakeries were so busy for St. Joseph's Day, that lines wrapped around the buildings hours before they even opened! Baked and fried were both available, but instead of a light pastry cream filling, ours often featured a dense, rich custard that left you starry-eyed after eating it. In fact, I used to eat only the filling and give the extra shell to Jeff (about which he never complained).

Thanks for the delicious post and for letting me walk down my own memory lane.

Gourmet

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!! Rob... ;)
You said zeppole.. and I came!!!
Ciao bacioni da Torino

Craig

Looks delicious, I think I will have to try it (after it warms up).

Jillian

Looking at the pictures makes me a little sad that I didn't eat more donuts on Saturday. Thanks for the awesome Donut Day 2007 and I hope we can do it again in 2008.

Ivonne

Oh,Rob! How I wish I could have joined your and Rachel in the "research" you conducted. It seems that hit all the very right places including the Sweet Boutique, which many Italians feel serves the best zeppole in Toronto at the moment.

I was also interested in your experience at Granowska's. I've been wanting to visit for awhile but haven't made it yet.

At the farmer's market at City Hall every summer, there is one vendor who sells the most incredible Polish doughnuts.

Thanks for the trip!

Freya

Great article and wonderful pictures! I'm really craving donuts in all their incarnations now!!

James

This is my 1st printing of true blasphemey, but I am a native of South Louisiana and can say so.
I had beignets and cafe au lait at a restaurant called Marie Leveau's right outside Charleston, SC that were better than Cafe du Monde last month. I couldn't believe it so I went there 3 more times. They also do an amazing duck confit club sandwich and the "Holy Trinity" of seafood cakes!

aer

It all sounds delicious. I might just have to re-trace most of your steps (especially given that we will soon be living in one of the neighbourhoods that you mentioned!). Also, I think Churros might qualify as the Spanish take on donuts.

Scott at Realepicurean

I'm suitably impressed. I love practically anything Polish.

Phoenikia

Try the loukamades at Athens Pastries on the Danforth, south side....amazingly delicious, especially when they're still when warm....ask for a sprinkling of cinnamon on top.

Also, Leslie's Meat and Delicatessen on Leslie sells a raspberry paczki that looks delicious- haven't tried it yet.

Helen

I have been viewing this post many many times unable to comment...I am drooling! Great writing, great pictures!

venu

Hi,
This is venu.I have gone through the information in your , its in reality remarkable. Here is a website which is pint-sized relevant to yours. Hope it will be helpful for you.pastry chefs

Ari (Baking and Books)

Goodness those photos are mouth watering.

Bron

Mmmmm donuts.....drool
just call me Bron Simpson, hehe

Deborah Dowd

I don't think it is an accident that almost every ethnicity's cuisine includes a version of fried dough. I guess we are more alike than we are different! Thanks for the fried dough tour.

rob

gagatka, my wife and I vote not just for paczki, but for visits to Granowska's that include a plate of their homemade pierogies before enjoying the donut.

Brilynn, I think you've highlighted the major flaw with running: not enough donuts.

adrienne, I'm sorry to hear your boyfriend isn't more understanding. I suppose I'm even luckier than I knew to have the wife that I do. If you really love donuts, try persuading your boyfriend to go to Manhattan to vist Doughnut Plant. Oh my God, that's a donut.

Susan, I'm glad the post triggered such good memories. My wife and visited Riviera this weekend to enjoy a few more zeppole before the end of Easter. I'm really going to miss them.

Gourmet, grazie per aver visitato. Si mangia delle zeppole a Torino per festeggiare S. Giuseppe?

Craig, there's no more time for zeppole, but be sure to try some of the others when (if?) spring finally arrives.

Jillian, the pleasure was all ours. Perhaps we can make plans for next year?

You're welcome for the trip, Ivonne, and thanks for the tip about the paczki vendor at City Hall. We'll have to check that out.

Thanks, Freya. Researching a donut post the sort of burden I'm happy to bear any time.

James, I think my heart skipped a beat when I read "duck confit club." By reputation alone that sounds like perhaps the greatest sandwich ever.

aer, I agree with you about churros. By the way, if you're looking for a good churro in Toronto, look no further than Bymark. They serve a cinnamon sugar dusted churro that is filled with warm dulce de leche. That is unbelievable.

Scott, I hope you're able to try paczki given your love of things Polish. I think you'll be quite pleased.

Phoenikia, thanks for the tips. I'd never even heard of loukamades until you mentioned them. Any other versions of fried dough you'd care to recommend?

Thanks, Helen, that's very sweet of you.

Thanks, venu, I hope your site is a success.

Ari, I'd like to take credit for the photos, but I think the subjects really made the shots. Could we be looking at three contenders for Canada's Next Top Model?

Bron, I believe you may be soulmate. I know for certain that we share an alter ego at the very least.

Deborah, I couldn't agree more. Now if I could just find a way to try every culture's version of fried dough I'd be a much happier man.

Vivian is Virtual

March 19 is coming up again. I hope that I get to follow up on your zeppole suggestions. Any new leads?

Jim

Cafe Tippeneaux at the Farmer's Market in Charleston SC has the best New Orleans Beignets, Muffalettas and Po' Boys I've found in town!

vanessa

i don't know how i missed this last year but i wanted to give a little shout out to the brazilian cafe by dundas and brock for their malasadas. i will though have to get myself to national bakery at some point to see how they compare.

jordan 12

What is the key ingredient of challenging people that enables them to succeed?Why do they endure the hard times when others are overcome by them? Why do they win when other people shed? Why do they soar when other people sink?

Adrian Tippens

If you live in Charleston and you are a fan of Beignets stop by the Charleston Farmer's Market in Marrion Square for Beignets and Cafe Au Lait from Cafe Tippeneaux! Owner Adrian Tippens serves up Beignets and Community Coffee's New Orleans Blend; served hot or cold pressed it's the best in town. For lunch try a Muffaletta, Shrimp / Oyster or Roast Beef PoBoy, Red Beans and Rice or Gumbo. Great food and a great time at the farmer's market.

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