Divorce, Doughnuts, Grammy, and Me

published May 9, 2019
Kitchn Love Letters
Old-Fashioned Cake Doughnuts

These old fashioned cake doughnuts are lightly sweetened and heavily spiced.

Makes24 (3-inch) doughnuts

Prep25 minutes

Cook45 minutes

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Credit: Courtesy of Meghan Splawn
The author (in pink sweatshirt) with Grammy Kittredge.

In many ways, my Grammy Kittredge was an archetype of a grandmother. She kept a Victory Garden-sized vegetable patch in her yard that produced an abundance of beans and tomatoes every summer. She canned most of her garden haul and kept a chest freezer packed with home-rendered lard, Cool Whip, and hand-picked summer berries. In the evenings, she crocheted everything from baby blankets to Barbie doll clothes for her grandchildren.

But she wasn’t the simple, soft-hearted grandmother you might assume from her garden and crochet habits. She swore and had a short temper. Her driving was terrifying. And although it was a source of much nervousness for me, I had to stay with her for two weeks every summer between required visits with my dad. I lived with my single mom, my grandmother’s daughter, the rest of the year.

This was a season of my life bounded by cake donuts, a surprising bridge for me in a life suspended between divorced parents, and a window to my grandmother — a window we nearly shut when she died, and I thought the recipe had been lost forever.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Divorce, Doughnuts, and Grammy

Grammy Kittredge had five children, worked full-time in a furniture mill, and, like I said, was thrifty and skilled at pretty much every homemaking task. She was well known for many things — including her canned beans and homemade pickles — but the thing I remember most from my summers spent with her was her homemade cake doughnuts.

She’d make the dough the night before, and in the morning could be found standing over a hot cast iron skillet filled with what she referred to as “grease.” From that grease emerged the most beautifully burnished cake doughnuts, lightly sweetened and heavily spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. Sometimes she tossed them with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar (shaken in a brown paper bag), but we often ate them plain, warm from the fry oil, or split and toasted with a generous smear of butter the next day.

When I stayed with my grandmother between my required visits with my dad, she weirdly made a big fuss about making extra doughnuts — she’d stuff dozens into multiple freezer bags — to send with me for “Greg,” my dad. Even when her arthritis hindered her from making the donuts herself, she outsourced the recipe to a family friend, and we’d drive by and pick up the doughnuts en route to meet my dad. As a kid, I could not understand this rigamarole. I thought my grandmother loathed my dad — he had knocked up my mother their senior year of high school and gone on to be a lousy husband and father of two before my parents divorced — all facts my grandmother was happy to recite again at a moment’s notice.

“I think she was heartbroken about the whole thing,” my mom recently told me over a cup of coffee and a batch of these doughnuts. “She wasn’t very good at showing her emotions, but she probably didn’t want any of it — the divorce, you kids living without a dad — and the doughnuts were probably as much for her as they were for your dad.” Whatever feelings my grandmother had about my dad, my parents’ divorce, and us kids, she articulated them best through her cake doughnuts. And now I, as an adult, see that she was making sure I had comfort food at my dad’s house during those summers.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

A Recipe Lost and Found Again

My grandmother died just a few years after her husband, and her children (including my mom) worked to dissolve their estate. Her cookbooks went off to children and grandchildren who lived closer than I did, and somewhere during that time, any clear records of her cake doughnut recipe went missing. When I became a mom myself, I desperately needed that recipe to share with my daughter — a bridge between my own history and my new little family’s. My mom had a few scrap papers with different ingredient amounts and notes collected over the years, so we tinkered with those, and I put out a call on Facebook tagging my aunts and cousins. We took more notes and tested them again.

The recipe below is the closest we’ve gotten — a crowd-sourced collection of steps and ingredients compiled with the best practices of my own professional training. My grandmother almost always made her dough the night before and you can, too, though they are just as good made the same day. The flour is added in two parts because you want a tender and somewhat sticky dough, and flours can vary in their hardiness.

Most of my mothers’ family agreed on the “grease.” These were likely fried in lard during their childhood, and shifted to shortening later on, but I personally fry these in peanut oil for ease and flavor. You can sub butter for the shortening in the batter, but the donuts will go stale more quickly — the shortening keeps them tender for days after frying, perfect for splitting, toasting, and eating with peanut butter — which is how my dad always served them to me during those awkward summer vacations, each doughnut disappearing one by one, until they were gone and it was time to go home again to my mother.

Old-Fashioned Cake Doughnuts

These old fashioned cake doughnuts are lightly sweetened and heavily spiced.

Prep time 25 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes

Makes 24 (3-inch) doughnuts

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 3 cups

    all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for the work surface

  • 1 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1 tablespoon

    baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    fine salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    freshly grated nutmeg

  • 3/4 cup

    whole milk

  • 2 tablespoons

    shortening or lard

  • 2 quarts

    peanut oil, for deep frying

  • Cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place 2 cups of the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add the milk and shortening and combine on low speed with an electric hand mixer. Add the remaining 1 cup flour and beat on medium speed into a thick but sticky dough, about 2 minutes.

  2. Generously flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Sprinkle the dough with more flour, then use a rolling pin to gently roll it out to about 3/8-inch thick. Using a doughnut cutter, cut out as many doughnuts as you can, or use 3-inch round cutter and then a 1-inch round cutter to cut out the doughnuts. Transfer the doughnuts to a baking sheet. If you like doughnut holes, transfer those to the baking sheet also, otherwise gather the dough scraps into a ball, reroll, and cut out more doughnuts.

  3. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat to 375ºF. Fry 3 doughnuts at a time: Use a wide, flat spatula (I love a fish spatula for this) to gently slide them into the hot oil. Flip them as they rise to the surface and continue to fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes total. If frying doughnut holes, they need about 2 minutes frying time.

  4. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. While still warm, toss them in cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar if desired, but we always ate them plain with delight. Leftovers were split, toasted, and slathered with peanut butter or topped with Cool Whip and frozen blueberries.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The dough can be made up to 24 hours in advance and refridgerated until ready to use.