Fourth of July Doughnuts
I was at least eight before I realized that the fireworks on Fourth of July celebrated a national holiday, rather than my parents’ first date. For us, it was a date to be marked with very particular festivities, conveying as it did the capriciousness of fate: if they hadn’t gone to Spring Valley to see the fireworks that night, none of us would ever have existed. It was a chilling near-miss, a perilous passage safely negotiated. The thrill of almost not being born was assuaged every year with a food sacred to the Fourth: my father’s home-made doughnuts. No-one knows why, or how, this ritual emerged—to me it is primordial, as inexorable as the yams with crushed pineapple and marshmallows on Thanksgiving, or fried chicken and chocolate cake for birthday supper. There may have been Fourths of July without doughnuts, but I remember none.
The ritual always begins early in the morning, when it’s still cool. The kitchen counters are stripped bare, and the table scrubbed. The Woman’s Home Companion Cookbook falls open to the proper page, flour-dusted and water-scarred from years of use. This is not the original cookbook, though: that volume, with its top back corner chewed off by the first of my mother’s tragically ill-fated dogs, was lost in one of our many moves. This one came from a second-hand bookshop in Columbus, Ohio—a triumphant find, but not necessary. After so many years, my father knows the recipe by heart, and only props up the cookbook for the look of the thing.
Early on, when there were nine of us at home, plus neighbors and friends, we quadrupled the recipe: 20 dozen doughnuts and 20 dozen holes. The nutmeg-scented dough rose, billowing like a sail, in an aluminum mixing bowl in which the youngest of us could sit comfortably. Later, as children grew up and drifted off, we fell back to doubling the recipe. There may even have been a year or two when a single batch was enough. But we’re back up to the big numbers now—as many as eight grandchildren and their parents are apt to appear for the Fourth.
Rolling out time is the signal for kids to wash their hands and get floury, helping to stamp out the hundred of doughnuts with the old biscuit cutter, deftly (or not so deftly) pulling the little round holes out of the middle and setting them aside to rise separately. An hour later, the kitchen becomes a no-trespassing zone, and the word goes out around the house: “No kids in the kitchen; the oil is hot.” We watch from the safety of the dining room as my father moves swiftly and surely between two electric frying pans full of Crisco, wielding his tongs and a wooden spoon.
Doughnut holes first, to test the heat of the oil and to season it. Oil fries better after it’s had some food in it, and these holes will vanish so fast that no-one will notice the slightly lower quality of the first batch. Each one is nudged gently over at just the right moment, the pale golden top sliding under as the deeply bronzed bottom rolls up. Then out of the oil and onto swaths of paper toweling. My mother is ready with the paper bag full of sugar. Every year she asks, “Shall I make some chocolate frosting?” and each year she is shouted down by the chorus of “Sugar! We always have sugar!”
“Careful! They’re still hot! Wait till they cool off!” she cautions. My father watches, beaming, as the scalding, sugary balls disappear. “How are they?” he asks, and laughs as we say, as we do each year, “These are the best ones ever. They’re so light! Are there any more?”
Back he goes to the kitchen, to hover over the boiling oil until the last doughnuts—misshapen rings made from the remnants of dough too small to roll out—are fried. Every platter and cookie sheet in the house is full. The kitchen floor is sandy with spilled sugar and slick with a fine vapor of oil. The kids are sneaking doughnut holes out of the big stoneware bowl—strolling past the table and palming a couple with elaborately innocent poker faces. It’s 90 degrees in the kitchen, and 90 degrees outside, and the most any of us should want is a tall glass of iced tea and a soda cracker. But we’re eating doughnuts, as we do each year, and they taste like summer, like the happy ending of a perilous tale. As people once lit bonfires on December 21st, my father fries doughnuts on the Fourth of July, as round and golden as the summer sun, as sweet as the honeysuckle, as fleeting as childhood.
(Recipe follows cut.)
Put on your big-girl apron. This one is not for the kitchen wuss, the user of Bisquick. Be bloody, bold, and resolute.
Makes about 3 dozen doughnuts and (of course) 3 dozen holes.
1 packet yeast (1 T)
1/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 well-beaten eggs
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
3/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t salt
Oil for frying
Sprinkle yeast on water and stir to dissolve. Combine with milk in a large mixing bowl. Add 2 cups of the flour and 2 T of the sugar; beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Cover with a damp cotton dishtowel and let rise about half an hour, when it should be bubbling up nicely.
Stir in the eggs, melted butter, remaining 2 cups of flour, the rest of your 3/4 cup of sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Beat thoroughly (12 minutes or so by hand, or 5 minutes in your Kitchen-Aid).
Pour and scrape into a large buttered mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise about 1 hour, or until doubled.
Turn out on a floured counter and roll out about 1 inch thick. Cut with a doughnut cutter (you should be able to get one for next to nothing at any good dime store. The best ones double as biscuit cutters, because the doughnut hole part twists out–this is also good for making teeny-tiny biscuits, which all children love.). Cover and let rise, right on the counter, or another hour. They will have doubled again, looking plump and lovely, if a trifle pale. There’s always some dough left over–roll it into a ragged snake and make a ring out of it. It’s your prize for doing all this work–the best-tasting and ugliest doughnut of the day.
While the doughnuts are finishing that last rise–say 45 minutes into the hour–get out your electric frying pan. DO NOT attempt to make doughnuts in a Fry Nanny or whatever model of deep fryer you have. It’s all wrong–and it’ll take you all day. Get a good-sized electric fry pan, plug it in, pour in an inch and a half of Crisco oil, and heat it to 350 degrees F. The surface will shimmer dangerously. In fact, this is all as dangerous as hell. One drop of water in that grease, and your kitchen turns into Dante’s Inferno. I’m telling you, BE CAREFUL!
Okay. When the oil is hot and the doughnuts have risen, carefully slide some doughnuts in the oil. Don’t crowd them too much. Fry them for 2-3 minutes, turning them to brown on both sides. Scoop them out and drop onto a cookie sheet lined with paper towels or brown paper. When almost cool enough to handle, drop them into a paper bag with 3 cups of granulated sugar. Give them a good shake and line them up on a platter. Continue this process till all your doughnuts and holes are fried. Eat your fill–which will be many, many more than you think, or are at all good for you.