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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Doughnut fallacy

A column by Kathleen Parker in the Post makes a good overall point about the differences between rural and urban life having an effect on people's views on the role of government. But I have to take serious issue with an example she cites of excessively intrusive rules in cities:
You may have heard about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusade against trans fats, which are now banned from restaurant fare in the city. Okay, fine, trans fats are bad for you, and I voluntarily eschew them. Not so the fellow who installed my wireless. "You can't get a good doughnut in the city anymore," he railed. "I have to drive to Jersey to get a decent doughnut."

This is an area where I have some expertise, and I can definitively say that while this man may know how to install WiFi (or may not, based on my experiences with the cable guy), he does not know a doughnut from a bagel. For one thing, trans fats are not the key element in making good doughnuts -- doughnuts were well-recognized as tasty prior to the introduction of partially hydrogenated frying oils. And to even more directly answer his complaint, there are plenty of great doughnuts to be had in New York. Allow me to give you a list. Doughnut Plant, which makes the best doughnuts I've ever had, has always been trans fat free.

(More broadly, this is also a bad example because the case for regulatory intervention is particularly strong on trans fat: It's much worse for public health, but provides little benefit to consumers compared to natural frying oils, and individuals are in a poor position to monitor their intake of trans fats at restaurants or push for alternatives.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Canal Quarters

I had a very nice weekend bike trip to Harpers Ferry and back with Aron and some other folks from work. I brought my camera, but I have no pictures to show because I forgot my memory card at home. D'oh. Justin organized, and he grew up in Harpers Ferry, so with his help we avoided the surprisingly bad food in town and ate at a cool place in nearby Shepherdstown, WV.

Almost the entire bike trip was along the C&O Canal towpath. In order to get from sea level to Cumberland, MD, the canal had 74 locks. Back in the day, someone had to man each lock 24/7, so each lock had a house where the lock keeper and his family lived. They were sturdily built of stone, and many of them are still standing. The C&O Canal Trust has recently renovated a few and made them available for people to stay in under the Canal Quarters program. This seems pretty awesome -- they have period furnishings (only one has plumbing), and the canal tends to feel pretty isolated, even though much of it is quite close to modern development. I think we're going to try to get a group together to spend a weekend at one this winter (one that has heat) or in the spring.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fall heat

It's quite hot, considering it's actually fall now. But I guess it's to be expected that this vicious summer wouldn't go quietly. On my way home yesterday, I stopped on the Mall to fool around with my new camera a bit -- a couple pics are on Flickr.

On a completely unrelated topic, you really need to check out this video that Mike sent me -- it's a remix of an Olsen Twins show that seems pretty similar to what would happen if David Lynch directed an Olsen Twins music video. If you're not mesmerized right away, make sure to at least catch the pizza song at 3:30.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Doughnut Quest 2010: The Best Doughnuts in New York

The last weekend in August, Doug, Alex, and I met in New York for an event that had been in the works for more than a year: Doughnut Quest 2010. Our aim was to settle the question of where to find the best doughnut in New York, both for ourselves and for the benefit of society at large.

All three of us are big doughnut fans. Back when we all lived in Minneapolis, we spent a couple months going to one neighborhood bakery each weekend to try their doughnuts. We debated the merits of the various shops, trying to tease out the characteristics that allowed a simple glazed doughnut to make the leap from tasty to sublime. We developed some clear favorites, though we didn't always completely agree. (Doug and I also had a sharp difference of opinion on chocolate croissants that resulted in raised voices on several occasions, but that's neither here nor there.)

In bringing our doughnut search to New York, we felt it was important that our evaluation be rigorous, so that we could stake future calories on its results. Both Alex and I had places in NYC that we already knew for their great doughnuts, but we also conducted a search of the literature, identifying almost 20 establishments that had been cited as having the "best" doughnuts in New York. We winnowed our sample by eliminating places that were not corroborated in multiple sources, as well as those that had closed. The end result was a list of 10 shops [map], a mix of traditional doughnut shops and places with gourmet ambitions:

- Alpha Donuts
- Cafe Falai
- Cupcake Cafe
- Donut Pub
- Doughnut Plant
- Koryodang
- Mike's Donuts
- Peter Pan Bakery
- Sullivan Street Bakery
- Trois Pommes

At each of these bakeries, all three of us ate a glazed doughnut (when available) as a baseline. Cleansing our palates with iced tea or other beverages in between, we also shared samples of up to three other varieties, for a total sample of 25 different doughnuts. Crucial to ensuring the rigor of our taste test was a uniform scoring sheet with eight criteria, which we each filled out for each doughnut prior to discussing our impressions. Each criteria has relative weight according to its importance, and was judged on a 1 to 10 scale for each doughnut:

  • Dough (taste) - yeastiness, richness, degree of sweetness (Scoring weight: 5)
  • Dough (texture) - body of the doughnut, chewiness, density, mouth feel (3)
  • Fried-ness - extent of frying, texture, flavor (2)
  • Glaze/Topping/Filling - taste, texture (5)
  • Balance of flavors - interplay and balance between dough, glaze/filling, and fried-ness (4)
  • Appearance - physical attractiveness (2)
  • Ambiance of setting - appeal and doughnut-appropriateness of bakery setting (1)
  • Overall doughnut rating - taster's overall rating (10)

Once the data were collected, they were analyzed to determine the score for each doughnut we sampled. This score, the Doughnut Index, represents the percentage of possible points earned by the doughnut. The results listed below are averages across all three tasters; follow the links at the bottom if you're interested in individual ratings.

Sampling 25 different doughnuts over the course of three days was hard work. We trekked around three different boroughs, eating only small meals at breakfast and lunch to keep our hunger up. After each of us had filled out scorecards for each of the doughnuts, we had 600 data points to crunch. (In the interest of transparency, the full data set and some additional charts can be seen in the results spreadsheet on Google Docs. ) Let's take a look at what we found, starting with the five doughnuts scoring the highest Doughnut Index.

Top Five

1) Blackberry Jelly with Vanilla Bean Glaze
Doughnut Plant

This absolutely delicious blackberry jelly doughnut took top honors of all the Doughnut Quest 2010 entrants. It earned high marks from all tasters for dough, filling, and flavor. "Best filling I've ever had," noted Alex on his scoring sheet. "Tartness of blackberries balances well with vanilla bean glaze," wrote Doug, "a nice foil to the fried-ness." I sounded the only note of reservation in the glowing reviews, saying that the filling was "a little too sweet." Completing the package was the fact that, unlike every other bakery in America, Doughnut Plant makes their jelly doughnuts with a hole in the middle. Where does the jelly go? Instead of an ill-distributed glop in the center, this doughnut had jam distributed evenly throughout the interior of its entire circumference, ensuring perfectly-calibrated quantities of doughnut and jam in every bite.

2) Blueberry Glazed
Doughnut Plant

Doughnut Plant's flavors change with the seasons, and we were fortunate to visit during blueberry season. The fresh, light flavor of the blueberry glaze was a surprising but excellent compliment to the substantial, chewy body of the doughnut. "Blueberries + fried taste = SUMMER," wrote Doug, putting his high school algebra to good use. Alex was slightly more reserved, saying that the "flavor is a touch too subtle". I was unreserved in my enthusiasm, but not in the mood for overanalyzing, simply noting on my scorecard that it was "a beautiful union of antioxidants and saturated fat." (Apologies for the out-of-focus picture -- I was clearly more focused on eating than photography.)

3) Vanilla Bean Glazed
Doughnut Plant

This is Doughnut Plant's take on the basic glazed doughnut, and it rounds out their sweep of the top three positions. For me, the texture and taste of the dough make this doughnut -- it's a tad less sweet than you expect it to be, a little bit chewy, and has a nice, subtle, yeasty flavor. Add in the lovely vanilla flavor of the glaze, and you've got something that goes far, far beyond the typical glazed ring.

4) Raspberry-Filled Bomboloni
Sullivan Street Bakery

This is one of two varieties of bomboloni we tried at Sullivan Street Bakery. (Bomboloni are an Italian style of doughnut that are typically small spheres filled with jam or cream.) Their take was more intensely fried than bomboloni or other doughnuts elsewhere, with only a touch of powdered sugar. Inside was a tart, intensely flavorful spoonful of raspberry jam. "Delicious," said Alex. "The texture [of the filling] and the fact that it was so tart worked really well with the crispier-than-average outside," I wrote. "Perfect marks for fried-ness," Doug concurred. "Dough texture, taste, firmness, etc. just about perfect." One of the few caveats was that Doug noted he "would have liked more powdered sugar." Alex concluded by saying that it was "very, very good," but without "the extra, ineffable sparkle" to make it a perfect 10.

5) Chantilly Cream Bomboloni
Cafe Falai

We tried several different varieties of bomboloni at Cafe Falai, but this was the one that stood out. Presented on a plate at a white-tableclothed Soho cafe, the experience of eating it was also quite different than most of the other doughnuts we ate. (It didn't hurt that our server brought out another doughnut on the house when she saw our scoring sheets.) A cut of the doughnut revealed a filling much less dense than other cream centers. "Surprising -- eggy, light filling," I wrote. "Really nice balance of flavors." The flavor had "nice depth," according to Doug. Alex did have some reservations about the lightness of the filling, however, saying that it wasn't quite substantial enough to match up with the dough. Quibbles aside, this was a delicious, well-executed doughnut.

Overall Bakery Ratings
Averaging the Doughnut Index scores of the ten bakeries we visited, the traditional doughnut shops -- Alpha Donuts, Donut Pub, Mike's Donuts, and Peter Pan Bakery tended to underperform.

Doughnut Plant was the clear winner, with an average Doughnut Index of 81.2. Donut Pub, with a score of 44.7, was the only bakery under 50.

Performance of Classic Doughnut Varieties
At the four traditional doughnut shops, trends were apparent in the scores of the basic doughnut varieties -- glazed, jelly, and French cruller. The jelly doughnuts performed poorly, while the French crullers scored well on the Doughnut index, with those from Peter Pan Bakery and Alpha Donuts appearing in the top half of the ratings.

Worst Doughnuts
For the most part, we liked the doughnuts we tasted, it's just that some were better than others. So it's not surprising that almost all doughnuts scored above a 50, meaning they received more than half the points available. Four doughnuts, however, did not pass this threshold:

22) Red Bean-Filled

This Koreatown shop sells many other baked goods alongside a couple types of doughnuts. The Red Bean-Filled doughnut wasn't exactly bad, but it didn't quite win us over. As Alex put it, "It's a doughnut filled with red beans. Hard to judge, as the red bean flavor is so unusual to my palate."

23) French Cruller
Donut Pub

Despite the solid performance of French crullers overall, this one did not go over well. "Blah," declared Doug. "Tasted distressingly like the Glazed," added Alex.

24) Jelly
Mike's Donuts

Mike's is a very typical doughnut shop in outer Brooklyn, and turned in a good performance on the only cake doughnut we tried (Coconut). But the Jelly had "boring, over-sweet filling and little texture in the dough," I wrote. Alex termed it a "crappy jelly doughnut." Doug gave a backhanded compliment, saying that the filling was good "in an artificial, diner-pie sort of way."

25) Jelly Sugar
Donut Pub

Bringing up the rear as the lowest-scorer by more than ten points was the Jelly Sugar at Donut Pub. Unlike the other jelly doughnuts sampled, it was covered with granulated sugar instead of powdered. All three tasters mentioned the "poor distribution of jelly," which Alex remarked "tastes like cough syrup." "If I didn't really like doughnuts," added Doug, "I wouldn't like this."

Additional Info
We said we were going to be rigorous in our approach to this project. If you do not yet have enough doughnut information to satisfy your appetite, you can also read top rankings and concluding thoughts from Alex, Doug, and me.

In addition, pictures of Doughnut Quest 2010 (including one of every doughnut sampled) are posted on Flickr.

Doughnut Quest 2010 Results: Alex

(Alex's individual results and observations -- see the main Doughnut Quest 2010 post for more details.)

Top Five (Doughnut Index)
1) Vanilla Glazed Blackberry Jelly, Doughnut Plant (95)
2) Creme Brulee, Doughnut Plant (91)
3) Glazed, Cupcake Cafe (89)
4) Raspberry-Filled, Trois Pommes (87)
5) Vanilla Glazed, Doughnut Plant (83)

Because we were in New York City, I thought all of the doughnut shops would be very hoity-toity, high-quality bakeries focused solely on doughnuts. This was not the case.

In fact, there was a very clear delineation between the two types of shops we went to. First, there were the traditional, diner-esque doughnut shops with Formica countertops and grubby environs that made almost exclusively doughnuts and fried egg sandwiches. And, second, there were the very fancy, very well-decorated bakeries that served quiches and focaccia bread and wonderful-looking tarts – which also happened to specialize in a bourgeois-type version of a doughnut.

Upon realizing this, I thought I’d enjoy each establishment for different characteristics. But I didn’t, really. Simply put, the regular doughnut shops made inferior doughnuts – not that some weren’t good, but they were never anything transcendent or original. It was more, “Oh, yeah, that’s a pretty good doughnut.” On the other hand, the high-end places were stimulating in their environs and the additional care that went into each aspect of the doughnut was obvious – you’d get a transformative and exciting eating experience. So I preferred those.

The only establishment that didn’t fit this mold was Doughnut Plant, which had a more down-to-earth environment and which served solely doughnuts, but which put an unbelievable amount of care into each doughnut, used top-shelf ingredients, and had an incredible range and variety. It was the hands-down winner.

It’s not that someplace like Sullivan Street Bakery or Trois Pommes couldn’t give Doughnut Plant a run for its money – if they made four or five different types of doughnuts and worked really hard to perfect them, they could. But that wasn’t their mission, and besides, Doughnut Plant has a patent (literally) on square-shaped (with hole in middle) jelly-filled doughnuts, where the jelly-distribution is perfectly even around the whole doughnut and where the dough itself is uncompromised by its proximity to the uncooked jelly. I mean, god, do you know how hard that is?

So I can’t really blame anyone for not wanting to compete – Doughnut Plant is the unquestioned (and well-deserved) king in this realm.

Doughnut Quest 2010 Results: Doug

(Doug's individual results and observations -- see the main Doughnut Quest 2010 post for more details.)

Top Five (Doughnut Index)
1) Blueberry Glazed, Doughnut Plant (85)
2) Vanilla Glazed Blackberry Jelly, Doughnut Plant (85)
3) Raspberry Bomboloni, Sullivan Street Bakery (85)
4) Chantilly Cream Bomboloni, Cafe Falai (83
5) Vanilla Glazed, Doughnut Plant (81)

I have seen the light and it is filled with jelly. I've always thought of myself as a plain-doughnut guy--I appreciate a good filled doughnut, but that extra stuff just seemed like overkill, as though the baker were trying to compensate for an inferior dough, unwilling to pull off the fine art of doing the simple thing right. But now I know the possibilities, the bliss that can be found when the right filling is paired with the right dough. (Is it a stretch to compare these flavor pairings with that of a fine wine and a finer cheese? I think not.)

My favorite doughnut, hands down, was the blackberry-filled raised doughnut at The Doughnut Plant. The fresh blackberries make all the difference, and the clean, fresh flavors paired perfectly with slightly yeasty dough and the subtle vanilla zing of the glaze. Forget ice cream or pie; this, to me, is the quintessential taste of summer: berries plus fried-ness, gooey and messy, with just enough grease to make you feel guilty and flavors that capture the glorious, evanescent spirit of the season.

I had similar feelings about (if just slightly less enthusiasm for) the blueberry-glazed doughnut at The Doughnut Plant and the raspberry bomboloni at Sullivan Street. And right up there with those berry-intensive offerings at the top of my list, I'd also have to include the Chantilly cream bomboloni at Cafe Falai (which, by the way, is totally the SoHo cafe of my imagination: sleek and white and effortlessly hip). If I'm going to continue the season metaphor, this was a fall doughnut, its flavors more grounded and slightly more savory; there was an eggy flavor to the filling that I found startling at first, but my surprise soon gave way to delight as I sopped up the runny filling with what remained of my doughnut (using a fork--it was that kind of place).

I was surprised that the old-school doughnut shops didn't fare too well, at least not taste-wise. Not that they were bad; they just weren't as good as their more upscale counterparts. What they did have was ambiance--aesthetic character and real-life characters. Peter Pan was packed with regulars and wise-cracking servers; Mike's had a genial mailman who entered to cheers and lively banter; Alpha had a world-weary counterman who assured us, "We make the best doughnuts"--and then paused for a moment and hedged, "Well, at least, we try to." That camaraderie, that sense of community and place found in the old-school bakeries, is every bit as fulfilling and delightful as the delicate glazes and sensuous fillings of the gourmet bake shops--and, in their own way, all the more impressive, because no amount of culinary schooling can train you to conjure community from nothing. Maybe it's good, though, that no bakeries had that ideal balance of great doughnuts and great character--if I'd found that, I'm not sure I'd have ever left.

Doughnut Quest 2010 Results: Teague

(My individual results and observations -- see the main Doughnut Quest 2010 post for more details.)

Top Five (Doughnut Index)
1) Blueberry Glazed, Doughnut Plant (86)
2) Vanilla Bean Glazed, Doughnut Plant (83)
3) Raspberry-Filled, Trois Pommes (82)
4) Raspberry Bomboloni, Sullivan Street Bakery (79)
5) French Cruller, Alpha Donuts (74)

Three days of singular focus on eating and evaluating doughnuts certainly made for a memorable weekend. I felt like I might be going into diabetic shock sometime around doughnut #8 on the first day, but I enjoyed trying so many different varieties in quick succession.

I've been going to Doughnut Plant for almost 10 years now, so I may not be the most unbiased judge, but I think it's pretty clear that they are the all-around champion here. Everything about their doughnuts is carefully executed, as we saw in the four varieties we sampled. The dough, in particular, has taste and texture that are unmatched.

The Raspberry-Filled doughnut at Trois Pommes also bears mentioning. It didn't look like much, but upon biting into it you find that it has very strong and complex flavors -- probably the most adventurous of the doughnuts we tried. The doughnut is dense and yeasty, and the raspberry filling initially hits with a strong note of brandy before mellowing into a deep, complex fresh raspberry flavor. It couldn't quite match the perfectly balanced doughnut essence of Doughnut Plant's best, but it was still a truly excellent doughnut. (It was also the most controversial -- Doug absolutely hated it, and ranked it dead last.)

A few other quick observations:
- Jelly doughnuts are a bit manic -- when they're good, they're really good, but they can also easily be really bad. Our overall top-rated doughnut was a jelly, as was our last-place doughnut. A good jelly doughnut is quite difficult to make, but there's a big payoff.
- I should eat French crullers more often -- I liked all three that we tried, and the Alpha Donuts cruller showed up in my top five. Even at shops where that weren't good overall, I still liked the cruller. When available, a good escape hatch for bad doughnut situations.
- Although their doughnuts weren't notable for the most part, New York's classic doughnut shops are great places. The banter at the Peter Pan Bakery counter could have been put straight into a screenplay, and appeared to be entirely genuine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dictionary of the Near-Future

An op-ed column entitled A Dictionary of the Near Future is on the NYT most-emailed list. It proposes new coinages for a variety of phenomena; an advantage of this format is that it allows the author to stuff his chance at a Times op-ed with observations/opinions on a wide range of contemporary social phenomena. But some of them are pretty good:
OMNISCIENCE FATIGUE The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.

Reading this list reminds me of a phrase from Beck's "Loser" that I've appropriated over the years (in my interior monologue, anyway):

GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEEZ WHIZ To be overzealous, especially in relation to that which is tacky, tasteless, or frivolous. (-Did you notice that the neighbors bought 16-inch spinner rims for Bobby's Power Wheels? -Yeah, they're really going crazy with the Cheez Whiz.)

(Employing some of my omniscience, I see that the Cheez Whiz website has not been updated since 2004. But that sort of fits the overall vibe of the product, so I guess it works...)

NYC photos

I'll have the Doughnut Quest 2010 rundown posted by the end of the week, but in the meantime, here are some other
photos I took in New York.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Phoenix - 1901
> Automato - The Single
> Modest Mouse - Autumn Beds
> Band of Horses - Ode to LRC
> Frightened Rabbit - Living in Colour
> Caribou - Bowls
> Calexico and Iron & Wine - History of Lovers

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Janes Island

I went camping over Labor Day weekend with Aron, Alex, Dave, and Colleen at Janes Island State Park* in Crisfield, MD. It's way down the Chesapeake side of Maryland's Eastern Shore, about 3.5 hours from DC.

It was a great trip -- the park has canoe and kayak rentals, with miles of water trails through the marshlands. Even better, you can paddle out to a really nice beach on the Chesapeake with almost nobody on it. The whole gang was there for two days, and Aron and I stayed through Tuesday to do some cycling on the flat and empty roads of the Eastern Shore. The whole area feels (culturally) like it's about 500 miles further south than it actually is.

Check out some pics on Flickr.

* The lack of an apostrophe makes me twitch every time, but that's how the name is spelled. I guess there were several Janes on this particular island.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Vacation pics

I've belatedly finished posting pictures from my trip on Flickr, so you can peruse them if you wish.

Off to the Eastern Shore for some camping and bike day-tripping at Janes Island State Park this weekend, with Aron and company.