I take a lot of guff from friends for not having a sweet tooth. It’s true. I’d rather have a cheese plate than pudding any day, and on my birthday, when my husband takes me out to dinner, he always requests that the restaurant bring me a platter of french fries instead of cake. Evidently people find this strange.
Sugar has always been easy to resist. After dinner at a restaurant? Espresso, please. Leftover Halloween candy at work? No, thank you. Cookies on the plane? My seatmate may have my share. This holds true for all sweets, at nearly all times. The exception is doughnuts. As a kid, I ate a lot of doughnuts, since my parents were fond of breakfast pastry, and I’ve always enjoyed the bready puff of a raised doughnut and the lardy-cool cakiness of a golden brown cruller.
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Mobile, Alabama to give a speech, and, after consulting a map, realized that I was a mere two and a half hours from New Orleans. I emailed a friend from southern Mississippi who, thrilled to hear that I would be passing through his hometown of Ocean Springs enroute to Louisiana the next day, immediately responded:
If you’re there tomorrow morning you MUST go to my friend’s donut shop because he makes the BEST hand-made donuts in the world.
…the not-to-be-missed donut shop is the TatoNut Shop in Ocean Springs. Ocean Springs is the cutest town on the Coast (and not just because that’s my home town). A visit to the Walter Anderson art museum is very much worth it. Plus the shops and live oaks on Washington Ave downtown, and the cute harbor (where we always kept our boat), etc.
At 10 the following morning, after leaving the podium, I drove out US-90 to New Orleans via Ocean Springs and stopped for doughnuts. Tato-Nut is a small, square building on Ocean Springs’ main street, tucked between an outdoor equipment shop and the evocatively named Palmetto Place. Its owners, David and Teresa Mohler, produce the finest doughnuts in the world.
As its name suggests, Tato-Nut specializes in potato-based doughnuts. Potato doughnuts aren’t unknown – since the early part of the 20th century, potato doughnut recipes were published as a novel means to use leftover mashed potatoes. Their popularity was so great that, after the Second World War, a chain of potato doughnut shops, called Spudnut, popped up around the country, plying a particularly tender doughnut supposedly inspired by a traditional German yeasted sweet bread. Few Spudnut shops remain, the parent company having been bankrupted in the last days of disco by a fraud scheme involving tax free bonds and the Sacramento River Delta.
The hallmark of the potato doughnut is its tender, meltaway bite. This makes sense, as potato flour, being gluten-free, does not provide the elasticity and chew of wheat flour. Some wheat flour is essential or the doughnuts cannot be shaped – in fact, potato doughnuts still are primarily wheat flour – but the addition of potato flour not only reduces the protein-firmness of the doughnut, but somewhat inhibits gluten development.
Nearly all potato doughnut recipes – in fact, all I found – rely on cooked and mashed or riced potatoes; many used too much egg, and many were cake doughnuts leavened with baking powder rather than yeasted ones. I’ve baked cakes before using riced baked potatoes, and although they were tender enough, I wasn’t sure that riced potato was fine enough to maintain the airiness of a great raised doughnut. Indeed, when I met owner David Mohler during my first visit to Tato-Nut, it was clear that he achieves his supremely tender doughnuts using potato flour and not cooked potatoes. Accordingly, I decided to substitute about 25 percent of the AP flour in my typical raised doughnut recipe with potato flour. The resulting dough is very floppy and not necessarily easy to shape, so I recommend cutting into simple and easy to manage shapes like small circles, which fry into balls, or rectangles, which can be filled with jam or cream.
The potato flour I selected was labeled “potato powder” and came from H Mart. Confusingly, H Mart sells another product, labeled “potato starch,” which appears indistinguishable from the powder. Both are snow white and light like cornstarch, but I believe the powder is simply dehydrated and finely ground potato, not the extracted starch. Your best bet will be to consult the organic foods section in your supermarket and look for Bob’s Red Mill potato flour. Do not use dehydrated mashed potatoes.
400g AP flour
150g potato flour
50g granulated sugar (if you like a sweeter doughnut you may use up to 75g)
7.5 g instant yeast
1 egg yolk (17g)
75g lard or shortening
275g water (up to 300g depending on humidity)
vegetable oil or lard
Sift together all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Combine all the wet ingredients and add to the dry while running the mixer on low. Incorporate until just combined; do not overmix.
Cover the bowl and set in a slightly warm place. Rise for 60 minutes. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface (50/50 AP and potato flour, or all potato flour), and shape into a large rectangle or circle, turning over once or twice to coat in the flour to prevent sticking. The dough will be very soft and fairly floppy and should only take a few turns and a light rolling with a pin. Cover with a clean cloth and proof for another 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of oil about 4″ deep to 365F/185C. When the oil is hot, cut the dough into small shapes just as you are frying (I used a 1.5″ biscuit cutter) and lower into the oil. Do not cut all in advance because the soft dough will spread as it sits and you will lose the leavening when you try to lift it. The doughnuts should almost immediately form airy spheres that float to the surface. Turn constantly using a spider to ensure even cooking. When golden, remove with a spider and drain on a rack lined with paper towels. You can fry the scraps as a cook’s treat; I wouldn’t try to reshape them or they will fall, so expect some irregular shapes.
Roll in granulated or caster sugar, cinnamon sugar (12:1 sugar to cinnamon), or dip in chocolate glaze (recipe below). Cooled doughnuts also may be filled with jelly or pastry cream; use a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip.
1/3 c whole milk
1 tbsp corn syrup
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp butter
1 c confectioner’s sugar
Bring all the ingredients except the chocolate, butter, and sugar to a simmer. Add the chocolate and stir well until satiny. Add the cold butter and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add the confectioner’s sugar and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. When completely dissolved, remove from heat. The mixture should thicken; if it seems too thin, bring it back to a simmer for about 5-10 minutes and cool again.