New York is covered in doughnuts. Most of them are good but basic, while a select few are mind-altering. (And no, we’re not recommending the Cronut)
The doughnut is a testament to American ingenuity. It’s just a very practical snack. Like any finger-food, it can be eaten while you’re transforming history with your great deeds – but unlike many others, the doughnut’s form is perfectly ergonomic.
Compare the doughnut to the burrito, or the popsicle, which both present huge logistical challenges. Falafels are also difficult: It’s physically possible to eat one without getting tahini on your pants but I’ve never seen anyone do it. But a good doughnut doesn’t melt, drip, or fall apart. It keeps it together.
And the finest doughnuts, like the finest a lot of things, are found in New York. Now, you might have heard that you’ve got to try the cronut – or rather, the Cronut (the name is trademarked). Invented at the Dominique Ansel Bakery, the Cronut is a bizarre fusion dessert that swept New York circa 2013, spreading to copycats elsewhere.
Honestly, I can’t figure out why. The Cronut is a hybrid of the croissant and the doughnut and does a disservice to both. Unlike a good croissant, its surface lacks a satisfying crunch. Unlike a good doughnut, it falls completely apart at the slightest touch. It’s a mess. It’s a tasty mess, but so is (in theory) a burger with a milkshake poured all over it.
While I respect the pastry-making knowhow required for the disruptive innovation of deep-frying puff pastry, the results are suspect. (By the way, everything else from Dominique Ansel bakery is excellent.)
You can do better. New York is covered in doughnuts. Most of them are of the standard-model luncheonette kind, which are beautiful like all of the basic, vital things in life. But some of them are more advanced – even mind-altering.
“They’re control freaks, these people. They stop at nothing to achieve the perfect consistency.”
The standard by which all are now judged is the peanut butter and jam doughnut, made by Doughnut Plant (which has three locations, and also provides doughnuts for other businesses). Unlike the Cronut, the peanut butter and jam doughnut is a hybrid that improves upon its parent components. You eat the peanut butter and jam doughnut and you realize that this is what all the peanut butter and jam sandwiches of your youth were trying to achieve but couldn’t.
This masterpiece of a doughnut is the culmination of a lot of effort. The salty, lovely glaze is made from peanuts roasted and blended at the bakery. They’re control freaks, these people. They stop at nothing to achieve the perfect consistency. And the glaze coats a doughnut whose shape is kind of a miracle. It’s a hollow square, injected (somehow, as if by magicians) with a filling of blackberry jam, so that, as in a well-made sandwich, you get jam in every bite. The jam isn’t sickeningly sweet – it’s perfectly tart and fresh – and the pastry itself doesn’t feel greasy, despite the incredible richness of the whole package.
Mmmm. The Doughnut Plant
I strongly believe that there is no better doughnut available. The best place to get one is from the Stumptown Coffee located in the Ace Hotel on West 29th Street. Feel the satisfaction of stuffing doughnut-calories into your face in the shadowy lobby of an immaculately designed hotel while surrounded by beautiful, wealthy travellers who took three hours to get dressed.
(Also, if you’re really in touch with your perverse needs, you can follow doughnut enlightenment with some oysters from the John Dory Oyster Bar, accessible by the very same lobby.)
If, for some reason, you want other options, I will suggest Underwest Donuts, which is located inside a car wash next to the West Side Highway. The convenience is remarkable: You, too, can emerge from Underwest with the satisfaction of a sugar high and the self-esteem boost provided by a clean car.
Also, the doughnuts are good. They’re old-school cake doughnuts: chewy, tender, and compact. Although the flavours tend to be a bit wacky – halva and banana milk are two options among a dozen or so – the pastry is classic. This is a good thing: At a lot of Brooklyn coffee shops you’ll find doughnuts with novel-sounding flavours like “bourbon bacon jasmine apocalypse,” badly executed by people who clearly aren’t pastry chefs. That’s not the case with Underwest doughnuts: Some of the flavours are a bit whimsical, but the craftwork isn’t.
“What’s a dollar each anymore? Nothing. Except this.”
My favourite is the simple cinnamon sugar, which is made to order, as it should be. There’s something inherently wholesome about a fresh, fluffy, fragrant cinnamon doughnut. Mr. Rogers would eat this. Underwest has another location downtown (2 Pennsylvania Plaza), but you can’t wash your car there. Apologies.
If you don’t have automotive hygiene needs, and you’re in Brooklyn, your best bet is Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, which is an eerily pleasant place. I don’t mean it as an insult when I say that the doughnuts aren’t the best thing about Peter Pan. The service is perfect, and the regulars will instantly integrate you into their little doughnut gang. A classic, luncheonette-style, S-shaped counter allows for complicated, loud conversations. It’s always filled with old Polish people and young, smartly-dressed hipsters, who somehow seem to not only not hate each other, but actually like each other.
Also, the doughnuts cost about a dollar each. What’s a dollar each anymore? Nothing. Except this.
Everyone gets the red velvet. In this case, you should be like everyone – even if, like me, you’ve never heard a compelling case for why chocolate cake should be either red or likened to velvet.
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop
The doughnuts here have a charming crunch and simple, bright flavours. And they get even better in the summer, when you can get them with cherry amaretto ice cream. Peter Pan also serves an excellent take on the egg cream, a mysterious old-school carbonated chocolate milkshake containing neither eggs nor cream. This, combined with one of their doughnuts, is a deeply satisfying way to stick it to your dietician on a sunny day in Greenpoint.