It’s January and snowing and my phone rings. My father’s on the line. “Mar, whatcha doing?” he asks. “Are you making doughnuts?”
He doesn’t really need to ask.
I don’t remember how the family tradition of making doughnuts on snowy days started, and I’ve asked my parents and they’re similarly mystified. I do know that over coffee and doughnuts my dad likes to reminisce about his childhood working at Hagel’s Bakery in Fells Point. He and my uncle worked there from age 12 until they graduated from high school, mostly running deliveries and doing odd jobs—but from the way they embellish, you would think they filled every doughnut Hagel’s ever made with cream or raspberry jelly or custard.
When my sister, Kathleen, and I were young, the division of labor in the snow-and-doughnut routine was clear. After we came inside from a morning of sledding, Mom made the dough— either a buttermilk-based recipe called Basin Farm Doughnuts or a yeast-based dough from an old McCalls’ cookbook. As children, we begged for the buttermilk dough because we wouldn’t have to wait for it to rise, though we always ended up liking the yeast doughnuts better.
Once the dough was mixed, Mom rolled while my sister, father and I cut out the doughnut shapes with a metal cutter whose bent and misshapen middle always fell out into the dough. If we were fighting over who got the cutter, one of us used a glass that had been dipped in flour. (Keeping peace in the kitchen was top priority.) Mom fried the doughnuts in an old deep fryer that had a working, if unreliable, thermostat, and my sister and I watched as they bobbed to the surface of the hot oil. Then the real fun started.
You would think that eating the doughnuts— biting into the crusty, nutmeg-y cake doughnuts the buttermilk dough made or sampling the yeast-fragrant, not-too-sweet puffs from the McCalls’ recipe— would be the best part of the routine. But actually it was the shaking that delighted us most. After the doughnuts were fried and had cooled slightly, Mom filled brown paper lunch bags with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Kathleen and I would drop the doughnuts in and shake them like maracas as we spun across the kitchen floor swaying our hips to whatever songs were playing on WCBM, the AM oldies station. Later, when all the doughnuts were powdered, Mom would make hot chocolate, and the four of us would sit and sample. And, of course, Dad would tell us about all the goodies at Hagel’s.
As I grew older, I became the one who insisted we keep the tradition alive, and I’d scour magazines and old cookbooks for new recipes. I made doughnuts that had cream in them, and a batch that featured apple cider. I branched out and made beignets. After attending a Greek festival at a local church, I made loukoumades, wonderful little fried dough balls soaked in honey syrup.
During the blizzard of 1994, when I lived in Morgantown and West Virginia University closed for a week to conserve energy, my boyfriend (now husband) and I hosted a doughnut-making party for my fellow grad students in which I made my first batch of chocolate doughnuts, which turned out to be a little dry and not half as good as their vanilla counterparts.
A few years later, in Chicago, I called on my Polish heritage and made paczkis, the yeast-based, fruit- or raisin-filled doughnuts that Poles like my paternal grandmother traditionally make to mark the beginning of Lent. The paczki dough was sticky and hard to handle, like pulling taffy. But I filled the doughnuts with an easy and heavenly prune filling found in a Julia Child cookbook and zapped in the microwave, and all the messy effort seemed worth it.
So many of my friends know about the snow-and-doughnuts tradition that when I called my friend Katie in Montana who was at the Morgantown snow party to tell her I quit my job to become a full-time writer, her first words were, “Now you can write about the doughnuts.”