BraveTart: Conquering DIY Donettes

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[Photographs and video: Vicky Wasik]

I can't imagine any American snack more stinkin' adorable than a bag of Hostess Donettes. I mean, even their name is charming. Donettes. The word is pure whimsy, covering its mouth with one hand to whisper in a dramatic aside, "They're doughnuts! But, like, really, really small."

Donettes are so tiny, you can cradle a half dozen in the palm of your hand, little rings so plump you can't always see through their holes in the middle. Thanks to a metric ton of powdered sugar, they're as white as fresh-fallen snow; hyper-sweet and cotton-dry, but in a way that's inexplicably fantastic, they demand a frosty glass of milk more than any cookie.

And that's about all the charm a Donette has, because I don't think they taste like much at all. Not butter or vanilla, and definitely not sour cream, despite their unsettling tang. From the egg yolks listed on the back of the bag, I get the impression that Donettes aspire to be a sort of yellow cake, but their true flavor is redolent of despair.

I can never be sure whether these shortcomings are a result of the troubles with bankruptcy that Hostess has endured through the years, or simply the unvarnished truth of adulthood, but what I know for certain is this: The best Donettes are the ones you fry at home.

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There is absolutely nothing in this world like a fresh doughnut, all warm and crisp yet fluffy-soft inside, and when all that gets packed into an incy-wincy Donette...you can kiss those blue and white bags good-bye, and say hello to a sweet supply of your own.

It all starts with coconut oil.

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Like lard or shortening, coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid when warm. That's great for frying doughnuts, because it gives them a creamy rather than greasy texture, like a piece of bread smeared with butter instead of dunked in olive oil. And, if you're wary of animal and artificially hydrogenated fats, you can revel in the knowledge that coconut oil is neither.

In its virgin form, coconut oil is too delicate for deep-frying, but with refinement, it becomes stable at high heat. While there are some health benefits associated with that fact, I'm a pastry chef, not a doctor. So far as I'm concerned, the real payoff is that refined coconut oil produces no odor at high heat, sparing your kitchen the typical fried-food funk.

Knowing I can make my kitchen into a Donette factory without it actually smelling like one is a huge plus, as is my embarrassingly simple technique. No whipping, no creaming, no yeast, no mixer, just a roomy bowl and a flexible spatula to stir and scrape.

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Aside from the usual suspects (sugar, flour, baking powder...), I make Donettes with egg yolks and tangy Greek yogurt, creating a flavor somewhere between a classic sour cream doughnut and yellow cake. Once the golden batter is smooth, I sift in the flour and fold to form a wet and sticky dough.

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Rather than add a fixed quantity of flour to make the dough stiff, I turn it onto a flour-dusted surface and knead until it's soft but easy to roll, which takes only about 30 seconds.

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This approach means that the amount of flour isn't set in stone, but it provides much-needed flexibility in a recipe where the specific makeup of the ingredients—like all-purpose flour and Greek yogurt—can vary wildly from brand to brand.

Kneading also provides structure so the doughnuts don't disintegrate in hot oil (or else slump into a messy shape), while creating a smoother skin, which reduces the surface area of each doughnut to limit its absorption of oil.

Once the dough has been rolled thin, I loosen it with an offset spatula before punching out the individual doughnuts; that way, they're less likely to stick and stretch when you lift them up.

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I also take a moment to brush off excess flour from either side of the dough, a simple step that prevents the Donettes from shedding flour into the coconut oil, where it would sink to the bottom and burn. Not only does that keep the coconut oil's flavor clean and fresh, it allows it to be reused an extra time or two, so you get the most bang for your buck.

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To mimic the wonderfully irregular appearance of a real Donette, I shape mine by firmly poking the center of each, then gently pulling apart the thin membrane of dough. It might seem time-consuming at first, but no more so than individually cutting their centers, gathering up all the scraps, kneading, rerolling, cutting another round of doughnuts and holes, then having to budget time for the overworked dough to relax.

More importantly, this technique captures the homespun look of Hostess's version, which has a laid-back vibe that belies its industrial origin.

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I fry the rings in 365°F oil for about 60 seconds, while using a pair of metal tongs to flip them from time to time, and that's it. The Donettes are ready for snacking! With a digital thermometer, it's really that easy. There's no reason to worry or doubt. Dough goes in, doughnuts come out.

Even so, I always recommend frying up a tester or two so the Donettes can speak for themselves. (They should be saying, "Eat us, we're delicious!")

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Homemade Donettes will be unequivocally light, in terms of both richness and fluff, with a slightly crispy crust and a meltingly tender crumb beneath a laughably thick coat of powdered sugar. If you find anything other than total perfection under their iconic veneer, it only means the rest need a little TLC before you continue to fry. By comparing your test doughnuts to the troubleshooting guide below, you'll have things ironed out in no time flat.

Troubleshooting Donettes

Dense, Cracked Doughnuts

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When the dough is too cold (particularly if it's been refrigerated overnight, in winter months, or when the ingredients haven't been handled as instructed), it creates two problems: First, it drops the temperature of the oil, making it difficult to regulate the heat. Second, cold butter restricts the dough's ability to expand. For those reasons, cold doughs spend more time in the oil and gain less volume, making them oily and dense, with a skin that's cracked in odd places. It's a problem easily solved: Just wait until the dough comes to room temperature, then fry, fry again.

Large, Greasy Doughnuts or Shrunken, Tough Ones

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If the dough is underworked, it will lack the structure needed to hold itself together. In extreme cases, it can totally disintegrate into the hot oil, but more commonly, an underworked dough will ooze into a much larger ring. This increases its overall surface area, allowing the doughnut to absorb way more oil, creating a greasy sponge. Fortunately, you need only to gather up the remaining rings, knead until smooth, then reshape as before.

Conversely, an overworked dough is tight enough to snap, shrinking until the hole in the center all but disappears. While that's not really a problem visually, overworked doughnuts are unpleasantly tough. To fix the dough, all you (and the gluten) need to do is relax. In 15 minutes, the doughnuts will be ready to fry.

Fluffy, Oily Doughnuts or Dark, Dense, Doughy Ones

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Frying doughnuts in oil that's cooler than 350°F causes them to dramatically puff, and, while they may look fluffier, that surge in surface area allows them to sop up more oil. On the flip side, frying doughnuts in screaming-hot oil makes them dark, dense, and doughy, as their middles won't have a chance to cook through by the time their outsides look done.

With a digital thermometer, problems related to temperature generally result from impatience: overcrowding the pot and thus dropping the oil's temperature too much, or excessively cranking up the heat to speed things along. If this happens to you, just slow down. Give yourself some time to practice regulating the oil's temperature by cooking smaller batches, so that the doughnuts never touch.

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Compared to troubleshooting a layer cake, these problems are as easy to identify as they are to avoid, and just as simple to fix. Your bravery will pay off in the sweetest dividend of all: the lightest, fluffiest little doughnuts this side of a cellophane bag. So grab some powdered sugar (organic or otherwise) and jump on in!