Sometime in February, the sign appeared above the old Del's Place on East Broadway: "Treasure State Donuts," proclaimed in a large, officious font. The sign has been viewed by thousands of passing motorists and pedestrians every day, but the store isn't set to open until Friday, April 5, at 6 a.m. The sign's presence alone creates a sort of anticipation not usually found among new storefronts in Missoula.
"People are banging down the door," says co-owner Erin McEwen, and she's hardly exaggerating.
In the weeks since the sign went up and McEwen and her husband, Dmitri Murfin, started prepping the kitchen, and head baker Stephanie Lubrecht worked on perfecting the doughnut recipes, a constant stream of curious would-be customers approached Treasure State's doors. Many saw the "Coming Soon" notice on the front door and turned around, but a determined few continued into the shop. During one recent afternoon, as Lubrecht was being interviewed, there were regular interruptions from people looking for doughnuts, including one pregnant woman. Each time Lubrecht would stop the interview, politely turn to the doughnut seeker and say, "We're not open yet, but we will be soon—sometime in April." Not 15 minutes later, another person was walking in the door.
There's a certain magnetic pull to handmade, freshly fried doughnuts. It's that pull that finally compelled Murfin and McEwen to launch the new business and run it in addition to Bridge Pizza, which they own with McEwen's parents. Murfin says he and Lubrecht, a longtime Bridge manager, have always daydreamed of dishing up doughnuts simply because they love them. Lubrecht takes it one step further, tracing her passion for fried dough treats back to childhood trips with her brother to the old Sugar Shack on Higgins Avenue in the mid-'90s.
Doughnuts have been around for so long—way before the Sugar Shack—that they've become an iconic part of our culture. They're mentioned in the Bible and were a staple during the Great Depression. Over the years, they've evolved from blue-collar mainstay, epitomized by the likes of Homer Simpson and beat cops, to fashionable hipster delicacy as seen with the success of specialty shops like Portland's Voodoo Donuts. A February 2013 Saveur article reported that Americans collectively ate about 216 million doughnuts in 1929. The same article estimates that today we eat about 10 billion each year, or about 33.3 per person.
When it opens, Treasure State will be Missoula's first locally owned, stand-alone doughnut shop in more than a decade, and the first of any kind since Krispy Kreme closed in 2005. It's not like doughnuts are impossible to find in Missoula—they're abundant in supermarkets, small bakeries and farmers market stands already—but a downtown storefront promising hand-dipped, freshly powdered, newly glazed doughnuts is a nod to the past that's impossible not to savor. It's enough to get an eager clientele knocking down the door—and enough to entice a look back at what makes such a simple treat so special.
To discuss doughnuts with any depth, it's important to first understand what it is we're talking about.
The American doughnut family tree has two branches: cake and yeast. Dough for the latter is mixed once, set to rise in a giant ball, rolled out and cut into shapes, set to rise again and then fried. With more air pockets in the dough, yeast doughnuts allow for the injection of jellies or creams.
Cake doughnuts are made with chemical leaveners, like baking soda and baking powder, and mixed into a batter before being dunked in hot oil. These sturdier creations typically call for a simple vanilla or chocolate icing. Old-fashioned doughnuts are like cake doughnuts, but made with sour cream in the batter and flipped twice, which causes them to petal out.
There's no single go-to formula for making a doughnut. While developing their own recipes (which, rest assured, have since been perfected), the Treasure State founders say they've made plenty of bad batches. When asked how something could go wrong, all three groan.
Murfin recounts trying to make a cream-filled French cruller: "It's supposed to be this like, fluffy, hollow, eggy thing, and it was actually, like, this burnt, greasy, egg foam"
"Cracker," says McEwen, finishing the sentence.
Doughnuts rely on many variables, including yeast action, humidity, air temperature and fryer reliability. A difference of eight degrees in frying temperature can make or break a batch.
Lubrecht says no one is precisely sure who cut the first doughnut hole, though it has an obvious functionality. "They fry evenly and have room to expand," she says. Doughnut varieties without them, like Bavarian creams, have to be rolled with a hairbrush-like device to poke small holes in the bottoms to help them cook through.
Variations of the doughnut appear throughout the world—and have for centuries. In Leviticus 7:12, the Lord is offered "cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried." Doughnuts continued to play a part in religion as Christians made doughnuts to use up lard and sweets before Lent, the season of repentance and fasting. Israelis celebrate Hanukkah with jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot.
Almost every culture has some kind of fried dough treat, and the Treasure State founders have done their homework on some global varieties. Lubrecht is a fan of the lumpy, sugar-dusted German schneeballen"I just like to say it," she says—and Murfin rattles off different types including Tuscan custard-filled bomboloni, Indian syrup-soaked gulab jamin and Greek nut-sprinkled loukoumades.
"You know, it's remembering back when oil was precious, doughnuts were a celebratory thing," Murfin says.
Most historians trace the American iteration of the doughnut to Dutch olykoeks, or oily cakes, a spiced, fruit-and-nut studded fried dough ball. In John T. Edge's 2006 book Donuts: An American Passion, he describes what was essentially the first U.S. doughnut shop. In 1796, a Dutch woman named Joralemon offered olykoeks and coffee from her Manhattan store.
From there, doughnuts pop up sporadically in American text, including fiction, like in the 1819 Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where Ichabod Crane finds a Dutch family's tea table set with "the doughy dough nut, the tenderer olykoek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller." In real-life, news accounts talked of lard-fried rings used to cheaply feed men in Colorado and California mining camps through the mid-1850s.
Doughnuts became prevalent following two major developments in the early 20th century. During World War I, volunteer women served up millions of doughnuts to troops, nicknamed doughboys, fighting in the trenches. The fried cakes served as comforting reminders of home for the troops, who came back to the states with a new taste for doughnuts. (Though a Smithsonian magazine article clarifies that "doughboy" derived from a Civil War nickname for foot soldiers, and is unrelated to doughnuts.)
The other development is less romantic, but perhaps a more practical explanation of why doughnuts became so popular. In 1920, Russian-born New Yorker Adolph Levitt invented the first successful automatic doughnut machine, which pressed and fried the dough. Smithsonian says selling the machines to bakeries earned Levitt $25 million a year by the early 1930s.
Watching automatic doughnut machines in operation was part of the draw: A 1931 New Yorker article rhapsodizes about watching Levitt's machine, seeing "doughnuts float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket."
Thanks to the rise of automatic machines and the abundance of flour, oil and sugar—courtesy of advancements in agriculture and U.S. crop subsidies—several small doughnut-and-coffee chains, nicknamed "sinker and suds" joints, sprang up starting in the 1930s. Two would become the biggest chains of today: Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts.
As chains spread, so did pop culture references. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Clark Gable's character instructs Claudette Colbert's heiress how to dunk a doughnut. Today, our most famous doughnut eater is the illustrated Homer Simpson; his Wikipedia picture shows him holding a partly eaten pink doughnut.
The references are not always so cute, however. One theory as to how the stereotype of lazy, doughnut-scarfing police officers came about is that, before fast food restaurants and 24-hour gas stations, street stands and doughnut shops were the most accessible cheap food for cops walking around on late-night patrol. Doughnuts now offer a way to jab at authority, like the "Bad Cop, No Donut" stickers that appeared after the Rodney King riots in 1992.
But sometimes people have fun with the stereotype: The Boston-area company Doughboy Police and Fire Supply started out as a doughnut shop that offered police supplies on the side. It eventually dropped the doughnuts and now strictly deals in safety items and riot gear.
From Ichabod Crane to Homer Simpson, American doughnuts have come a long way since their beginnings as craggy fried dough balls in 18th century Manhattan shops. We still think of doughnuts as special, but they're also commonplace. In many ways, doughnuts are an everyday expression of pure American abundance.
A few years ago, cupcakes were all the culinary rage. Blogs and magazines devoted features to the art of the cupcake and their often jaw-dropping variations. Boutique cupcake chains sprouted up in hip neighborhoods in bigger cities. But the cupcake has since fallen: Slate predicted the end of "The Cupcake Bubble" in a 2009 article.
If inanimate sweets were in a competition for American popularity, doughnuts would be winning. While cupcakes have a physical advantage against doughnuts—they're sturdier, thus perfect for lavish decoration—and are significantly easier to bake in a home kitchen, doughnuts offer a striking cultural advantage: they're gender-neutral.
Cupcakes are perceived as being girly. No matter how many Butch Bakeries or Father's Day-themed sports cupcake recipes there are, no small-town Montana biker is going to walk into a cupcake shop. That small-town Montana biker would, however, feel no threat to his masculinity by pulling up his Harley to a doughnut shop and ordering a maple bar.
Make no mistake: Cupcakes aren't going anywhere. But it's doughnuts commanding attention now, partly thanks to a rise in hipster-friendly novelty shops.
Take Portland's popular Voodoo Donuts. The regional chain—there are two stores in Portland and one in Eugene—is known for its creativity, irreverence and attitude. For example, the menu features a $6 cream-filled "cock and balls" doughnut, and the 24-hour shop is a destination for the downtown Portland bar crowd, as well as daytime tourists.
Voodoo Donuts isn't alone. On the opposite coast, New York's Doughnut Plant is known for its artisanal selections, such as a square doughnut filled with peanut butter and blackberry jam and a matcha-green-tea-glazed cake doughnut.
At Treasure State, Lubrecht isn't yet quite so daring, but she is working on the recipe for an orange-and-pistachio cake doughnut. It tastes like a doughnut, but also provides a combination of flavors not usually associated with fried dough.
It's no wonder that exotic doughnuts have proved profitable. Novelty versions of classic goods tend to satisfy two desires: for the familiar, and for the new. We can be assured that an unusual doughnut will taste a little different, but it's still wrapped up in the same comforting, doughy package.
While novelties are memorable, the most common American doughnuts are mass-produced in a supermarket or chain store. Big chains use premixed flour and yeast brew that are combined in a mixer, proofed and then pushed through an extruder, which cuts out the shapes and drops them onto a conveyor belt that sends them into the fryer.
At Treasure State, Lubrecht scoffs at the chains that use frozen dough. It's even worse if chains use pre-fried frozen doughnuts and reheat them in the destination store's oven. While doughnuts' ubiquity is undoubtedly because they're easier to mass-produce by machine than other kinds of pastries or baked goods, some still insist that they're better the old-fashioned, handmade way.
That's the philosophy at Missoula's Rosauers supermarket, where baker Jennifer Seitz puts in the effort to churn out doughnuts from scratch. At 9:30 on a recent weekday morning, Seitz is just coming back from her lunch break. She wears a smudged white apron and tucks her short straight bob behind her ears. She explains her routine simply.
"I get here at 3:30," she says. "We start the doughnut dough first."
Seitz and two other employees cut the doughnut dough, run it through a roller machine to press the rings to a uniform height, and set it in the proofer. Once the yeast doughnuts are proofed, or the cake batter is mixed, another employee works the fryer.
Seitz started working at the front of the Rosauers bakery counter after high school. In the 12 years since, she's risen to the top of the bakery heapor, in corporate terms, the bakery manufacturing manager. "I'm the youngest [head] baker in the chain," she says.
She says the hours are tough: She has two young kids, and after her husband gets home and the family eats dinner, she hits the hay at 7 p.m.
The hours are tough, but the work is consistent even in an economic downturn. Seitz says Rosauers makes 50 dozen doughnuts every day, from Berliners to Danishes to maple bars, each slathered in rich, buttery icings or filled with pockets of silky cream. And she's willing to put her doughnuts up against anyone's, because handmade doughnuts "just taste better," she says.
Far from the bustle of the Reserve Street supermarket, 40 miles from Missoula in the shadow of the Mission Mountains, a small-town shop offers about 50 doughnuts a day derived from an old family recipe.
Ravalli, population 119, sits on a curve of Highway 93. Just off the west side of the highway is the unassuming, homey front of the Windmill Village bakery. Step inside, and the place smells of yeast and feels like a well-kept, decades-old institution, with a tchotchke-filled kitchen, vinyl-lined tabletops and a suspender-wearing old-timer sipping coffee and staring at newcomers.
The business, started by Nancy and Dave Martin only about a decade ago (they claim to not precisely remember), is becoming a legend in western Montana as having some of the best doughnuts around.
As Nancy Martin works on a batch of doughnuts on a recent afternoon, she needs no coaxing to expound on the glories of her product. She believes firmly, for instance, in freshness, so she makes her doughnuts throughout the day. "You can't beat a warm doughnut," she says. Just then, Martin opens a camping-cooler-sized turkey fryer, lifts out a couple tanned doughnuts and sets them to cool for a moment.
Martin makes her doughnuts based on a recipe passed down by her mother. The end results are enormous, pillowy wonders, teetering and craggy like the mountains visible outside the window. Biting through the chocolate or vanilla glaze reveals tender but substantial dough with a slightly salty, almost pretzel-like flavor. Windmill doughnuts are satisfying, and demand another bite.
"I had to make 'em big," she says. "This is ranch country. Out here we're used to eating a pound of beefsteak, so when you make a doughnut, you make a doughnut."
Martin won't reveal what makes her doughnuts so special. One report outed the secret ingredient as mashed potatoes, but Martin claims there's "another" secret that she won't reveal. Ingredients aside, anyone can see the obvious extra heft to the Windmill's products. It makes a $1.25 vanilla glazed ring more than enough for breakfast. "One time I took a dozen and weighed them out, and they came out to five pounds," Martin says.
Martin, who's from Thompson Falls, says she spent years working in the steel manufacturing industry before she and Dave decided to move to Ravalli to be closer to her aging parents. They bought an undeveloped property and set up tents and ran a farmers market before constructing the building that's now Windmill Village.
Martin says the business started as a farmers market with a small amount of baked goods. The farmers market dwindled after other towns, including Polson and Arlee, started their own. After a few years, she says the bakery made more money than the market.
"At first I had two ovens, this size," she says, outlining a small square with her hands, "And I could fit one pie in each one."
The Martins have since more than doubled the kitchen size, and now offer her doughnuts at the bakery and the Polson farmers market in the summer.
Martin also used to only make one batch of doughnuts in the morning and let them sell out every day. Now, she gets to work around 4 or 5 a.m. and keeps making doughnuts until well after lunchtime.
Martin says she meant for doughnuts to be another side item in the bakery, but people latched on to them with a passion. The Windmill's Facebook page is filled with testimonials, including pleas for them to ship to other states. Martin has some theories of why her business has taken off.
"Getting a warm doughnut reminds you of that cozy home feeling, being secure and loved and ...," she pauses. "It just reminds me of my childhood, I guess."
Consider your first memory of doughnuts. What does it conjure? Do you think of your mother's homemade maple bars, as Martin does? Trips to the Sugar Shack on Higgins with your family, like Lubrecht?
Doughnuts have the power to take us to specific times and places of childhood—often the happiest and most comforting times. Ice cream is the most comparable sweet, but you don't eat ice cream for breakfast. Maybe it's as simple as a Pavlovian reinforcement, the pairing of a sugar high with family and comfort, embedded in our brains.
"Doughnuts are not health food," Lubrecht says. "It's a treat."
Perhaps the people banging down the door at Treasure State are excited because they are drawn to something that they innately know will be comforting and sweet. Whether we're eating a doughnut at our favorite college coffee shop, or grabbing a maple bar out of the box in the office, or stopping at a warm bakery in Ravalli on a rainy-day road trip with friends, we're allowed to go back to being kids for a second. We may not be soldiers, but it's the same feeling that momentarily transported World War I troops back home while stuck in the trenches.
Doughnuts are, no matter how ordinary and abundant, a treat. They're a brief bite of nostalgia before we carry on with our day.