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.