Unjust Desserts: Deborah Paul Decries Doughnuts

Who is to say which sweets are ”in”?

A fresh batch of doughnut shops has invaded our community. The trend is evidenced by the two locations of Square Donuts, an odd manifestation of the historically circular indulgence, and the buzz around the new “cronut” croissant hybrid (and its local variant, the “doissant”). General American Doughnut Co., stridently named given the delicate merchandise, now makes its home near Fountain Square, along with Rocket 88, a label that reminds me more of a Broad Ripple High School football jersey than the organic ingredients that are the company’s calling card.
Doughnuts are the new cupcakes, I am told, which dismays me. I mean, doughnuts are fine (plain cake or glazed yeast), but I love cupcakes, especially those sold at Gigi’s in three north-suburban locations. I was introduced to the treats by a lovely salesperson at Tiffany, who was taken by my sister’s and my curious tradition of buying each other matching birthday gifts. This annual ritual is born of our close relationship and having birthdays only weeks apart. Hence, we can be seen wearing identical scarves and toting the same handbags.
On that Tiffany visit, a turquoise enamel egg caught our eye. When we came back to pick up our selections, the salesperson had four gorgeous Gigi’s cupcakes waiting for us, either to thank us for our purchase or as pity for our apparent lack of outside friends. We went straight to a table in the food court to indulge. I chose the Wedding Cake, a white confection topped with vanilla buttercream frosting and nonpareils, while she selected the Midnight Magic, devil’s food with chocolate buttercream studded with chocolate chips. For all of our similarities, flavor preference is not one. Either way, we moaned with sheer pleasure over the fresh, sweet cake and silken icing.
I was not consulted regarding cupcakes’ slippage on the dessert continuum. Now, I understand, only pie and macarons top doughnuts. I have a problem with that. I grew up eating not macarons, of the fine pastel variety now in vogue, but macaroons, and then only on the Jewish holiday of Passover, when leavening agents are forbidden. They were molded of chewy shredded coconut and came in a can.
Pie is acceptable, I guess, but what’s new about that? Farmers’ wives have been cooling pies on windowsills since they used wood stoves. My mother made a fresh one daily, which my brother attacked before it was even sliced. I favored lemon meringue, which my father jokingly called “lemon syringe.” This annoyed my mother to no end, given that her every creation was perfection in a pie tin. Ah, the filling was tart and smooth, the meringue a mile high, the crust impossibly flaky with a hint of salt.

Thank goodness chocolate-chip cookies never go out of style, or brownie sundaes.

As to the current status of a confection, who is to say which dessert is “in”? Are people wandering the streets muttering “I wish I had a doughnut,” and a score of doughnut shops appear? Or do the stores come first, and then the baking aroma and display windows fill our senses with desire?
If I had a say, I would suggest the jellyroll as a top contender. Mom taught me to make this fragile creation, and mine are delectable. I bake the golden sponge cake in a pan lined with wax paper, spread a layer of currant jelly, and roll the concoction quickly to prevent cracking. (There are a million other tricks, but Mom kept her baking tips secret, and, more than a decade after her passing, I still honor her wishes.) On her recipe card, after the ingredients and basic instructions, she noted, “Cut off end piece. Eat.” I honor those wishes as well.
I ran into an old family friend a few years ago, who, after briefly greeting me, said, “I still remember your mother’s jellyroll …” I felt at once happy and sad about that, so the next day, I assembled the ingredients, whipped up a jellyroll, looked up his address, and delivered it to his door. Judging by his reaction—something short of falling to his knees in gratitude—he didn’t care what was “in” any more than I did.
Mom’s other baked goods, if mass-produced, could have sold faster than snow cones at a summer fair. Her pecan rolls were wound in loose circles and topped with gooey caramel sauce, her fluffy angel-food cake beaten by hand in a copper bowl and served with a dollop of chocolate whipped cream, her strudel crafted of countless paper-thin layers separated by a light cinnamon-sugar sprinkle and plump golden raisins. I ask you, why are doughnuts, especially those topped with bacon or Red Hots, better than any of that?
Thank goodness chocolate-chip cookies will never go out of style, or brownie sundaes. But other treats have. I recently saw a tower of old-fashioned Mexican wedding cakes at a bridal reception and nearly fell over into the punch bowl. You don’t see people pining for petits fours, which does not diminish their deliciousness. Ethnic specialties have a deep but not wide following, such as sticky-sweet baklava and the Sephardic treat of Taaralikus. When better than now, in this season of holiday indulgence, to appreciate what we might have overlooked?
I do not have the wherewithal or inclination to start a business and then franchise it all over the place, but if I did, I wouldn’t serve doughnuts. I had my fill from the glory days of now-shuttered Roselyn Bakeries—curse those rodent droppings!—and Long’s, which still makes the best in town. A short drive to Lebanon finds Titus Bakery, which serves the perfectly simple glazed confection only until they run out.
My jellyroll store would probably have limited appeal, anyway, given the short shelf life of the delicacy, especially once you’ve sprinkled on the powdered sugar. There, I’ve divulged another secret. If you want to try your own, be sure to stir the jelly to make it easy to spread. And don’t let on you heard it from me.
Email Deborah Paul here.