Donut Nation

A Cross-Country Guide to America's Best Artisan Donut Shops


By Ellen Brown

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Donuts are America’s favorite treat and, in Donut Nation, Ellen Brown travels the United States in search of the best donut shops. From beloved mom-and-pop establishments and roadside cafes to innovative boutiques and artisanal restaurants, there are more than seventy hand-crafted donut shops to take you from Maine to Arizona. Perfect for the cross-country explorer or home chef, it also includes mouthwatering recipes for donuts like Orange-Pistachio Cake, Maple Bacon, and Strawberry-Buttermilk. Donut Nation is a one-of-a-kind trip to the heart of an American classic.


Chapter 1


Perhaps it’s because Dunkin’ Donuts started in Massachusetts, but New England tends to boast more donut shops per capita than any other region. Another theory is that the Pilgrims, those folks who set up shop on Plymouth Rock in 1620, might have brought a recipe with them on the Mayflower. Most food historians credit the Dutch with the development of what we call the American donut, and the Pilgrims spent many years, after fleeing England, in Holland. So the theory is more than somewhat plausible.

Cake donuts, especially ones made with local apple cider, are very popular in New England. Maple flavoring is also a regional favorite, with or without bacon applied over the glaze.






















Congdon’s Doughnuts:

Family Restaurant & Bakery

1090 Post Road (U.S. Route 1)

Wells, Maine 04090

(207) 646-4219

While there are extensive menus for both breakfast and lunch, and breakfast is served until the restaurant closes in the late afternoon, what put Congdon’s on the map for natives and tourists alike is the donuts. The recipes remain the original ones formulated by founder Dot (Nana) Congdon in 1945, and while the business has been through some tough times in its seventy-year history, the donuts have remained its mainstay. And they’re still fried in beef tallow the way Nana Congdon did it.

Clint and Dot Congdon moved from New Hampshire to Kennebunk, Maine, and opened a restaurant in 1945. The restaurant thrived, and a few years later they sold it and started a wholesale donut business out of their barn. The current location in Wells, about 100 miles north of Boston, opened in 1955. After a few fires necessitated considerable remodeling more than thirty years ago, the restaurant reached its present winterized configuration. A drive-thru was added in 2002 to ease congestion at the donut counter.

The business has remained in the extended Congdon family. Nana was in business with her son-in-law, Herb Brooks, first and now Brooks’s nephew, Gary Leech, is at the helm.

People don’t trek to Congdon’s for donuts with whimsical names or newfangled combinations. They come for the cornucopia of old-fashioned cake and yeast-raised donuts that are fried fresh all day long; most customers report that the donuts are still somewhat warm in the box. A large repertoire relies on either chocolate or vanilla cake as the base. These are topped with glazes ranging from maple to blueberry, and stuffed with Bavarian cream. The jelly donuts are filled with wild Maine blueberry jam, and local apples go into the apple fritters.

The yeast-raised donuts include the popular sugar twist and original honey-dipped; additionally, Congdon’s makes a number of crullers, which are part of the New England tradition. “Our donuts are like going back to Grandma’s house,” says Gary. “It’s all about nostalgia and comfort food.”

Many first-time diners begin breakfast with a “Bowl of Holes,” which is a way to sample the wide range of flavors. “It’s like an appetizer at breakfast,” says Gary. From this introduction, they decide which donuts they’ll take home. They order them along with breakfast or lunch, and then pick them up on the way out.

The emphasis on quality donuts carries over to the savory food at Congdon’s. The breakfast menu runs the gamut from simple eggs and pancakes to all manner of egg dishes, including eggs Florentine and Benedict.

Lunch features a range of burgers, sandwiches, and entrées with an emphasis on simple favorites, like New England baked beans or old-fashioned pot roast.

This is Maine, so lobster plays a role on the menu, too. There’s a lobster roll at lunch, and lobster Benedict at breakfast. And if that isn’t the ultimate Maine experience, there’s one more. For $499 a group of six can accompany Gary to the docks one afternoon and select eighteen pounds of lobster to be transformed for them the next morning into the deluxe lobster Benedict—a half pound of lobster meat per plate under hollandaise with poached eggs. A dozen donuts are also part of the package.


Makes 12


    REAL CRULLERS are made from the same dough as cream puffs; it’s called pâte a choux in French. What makes them puff up is the sheer power of what eggs can do when heated, which is why soufflés rise too. Along with cake donuts and yeast-raised donuts, these are the true classic of American donuts, especially in New England.


½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, sliced

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract, divided

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

Vegetable oil for frying

2½ cups confectioners’ sugar

3 tablespoons whole milk

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a saucepan with the butter, sugar, salt, and ½ teaspoon of the vanilla. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Take the pan off the heat and add the flour all at once, stirring with a wooden paddle or wide wooden spoon.

Place the pan over high heat and beat the mixture constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it forms a mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan and begins to film the bottom of the pot.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor fitted with the steel blade or to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition and scraping the sides of the work bowl between each addition. The mixture should look glossy and be totally smooth.

Line a sheet pan with 12 (4-inch) squares of parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag with the dough and, using a large star tip, pipe it into a 2½-inch ring on each square of parchment paper. Place the sheet pan in the freezer for 30 minutes to make the rings easier to handle.

Heat at least 2 inches of oil to a temperature of 350°F in a Dutch oven or deep skillet. Place a few layers of paper towels on a baking sheet and top it with a wire cooling rack.

Carefully slide a few donuts into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan and making sure that the donuts do not touch each other. If desired, place them upside down into the oil while still on the parchment paper, and then, after 10 seconds of frying, carefully remove and discard the paper using tongs. Cook, flipping once, for 1½ to 2 minutes per side, or until puffed and golden.

Drain the donuts on the rack, blotting them gently with additional paper towels. Fry the remaining donuts in the same manner.

Combine the confectioners’ sugar, milk, and remaining vanilla in a shallow mixing bowl. Whisk until smooth. Dip the warm donuts into the glaze and return them to the cooling rack. Let the donuts stand for 20 minutes, or until the glaze hardens. Serve as soon as possible.

VARIATION: Substitute rum extract for the vanilla extract and substitute dark rum for the milk in the glaze.



194 Park Avenue

Portland, Maine 04101

(207) 874-7774

7 Exchange Street

Portland, Maine 04101

(207) 775-7776

While Idaho touts its potatoes as a national treasure, you’d better not repeat that boast to the Downeasters of Maine. That state is also proud of its potatoes, and its sweet potatoes, too. And local potatoes are the “secret ingredient” to the success of the two donut shops owned by Leigh Kellis and her father, Allen. She was almost finished with her education to become a Spanish teacher back in 2011 when she was lured by the dream of donuts like the proverbial siren song.

In the two years since the first shop opened in 2012, she’s gone from making ten donuts a day to making more than a thousand donuts a week. Other than now buying local potatoes that have been pre-boiled to her specifications, everything at the Holy Donut is still done by hand—from rolling and frying the potato-laced cake donuts to squeezing the juices for the fruit glazes. In addition to her father, both her mother and sister now work for the business.

Leigh prides herself on the purity of her ingredients and maintains that “donuts can be wholesome and made with healthy ingredients and still be intensely pleasurable and delicious.” Not only are the potatoes local, but so are all the dairy products used also. The flour is milled by King Arthur Flour in nearby Vermont, and the glaze colors come from fruit or vegetable dyes (a combination of pomegranate and beet juices, for example, makes pink glaze). No high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils in this kitchen; Leigh’s sweetener is cane sugar and the donuts are fried in pure canola oil.

In addition to the potato dough, Leigh makes both yeast-raised donuts and gluten-free donuts daily. In a short time the shop has developed a list of signature donuts. The most popular is a dark chocolate donut sprinkled with large crystals of sea salt, and a savory bacon- and cheddar-stuffed donut. Leigh uses high-quality imported cocoa powder and 60 percent cacao chocolate bars in all her chocolate products, some of which have accents ranging from ginger to cinnamon to coconut to vanilla.

Other donuts cycle onto the menu seasonally: the sweet potato ginger and maple-glazed donuts are popular in the fall and winter, while tart cherry and strawberry-glazed bring pastel flavors to spring and summer. And then there’s the period in the summer when she can punctuate her donut dough with wild Maine blueberries, which appeals to locals and tourists alike.

But Leigh is always having fun experimenting. One of her latest concoctions joins her Maine potatoes with the state’s prized crustacean, the lobster. While the dough is slightly sweet, so is the lobster meat, and Leigh fries a big chunk of it inside the dough, complementing the confection with fresh herbs. Perhaps you won’t want to dunk this donut into your coffee, but then you wouldn’t dunk a lobster roll either.


Makes 12


    IN ADDITION TO using Maine’s white potatoes as a key ingredient in her donuts, Leigh Kellis also makes donuts from locally grown sweet potatoes at the Holy Donut in Portland, Maine. The rich flavor is balanced by a bit of sharp ground ginger.


1 pound sweet potatoes

2½ teaspoons active dry yeast

⅔ cup whole milk, heated to 110°F to 115°F

¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar, divided

1 large egg

2 large egg yolks

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground ginger

3½ cups bread flour, plus more for dusting

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Vegetable oil for frying

Prick the sweet potatoes and microwave them on High (100 percent power) for 6 to 8 minutes, or until very tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. When cool enough to handle, peel and mash the sweet potatoes until smooth; you should have 1 cup of sweet potato purée.

Combine the yeast, warm milk, and ¼ cup of the brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix well. Set aside for about 10 minutes while the yeast proofs.

When the yeast looks frothy, add the mashed sweet potato, remaining brown sugar, egg, egg yolks, butter, salt, and ginger. Beat well, then add the flour, and beat at low speed until flour is incorporated to form a soft dough.

Place the dough hook on the mixer, and knead the dough at medium speed for 2 minutes. Raise the speed to high, and knead for an additional 3 to 4 minutes, or until the dough forms a soft ball and is springy. (If kneading by hand, this will take about 10 to 12 minutes.)

Lightly grease the inside of a large mixing bowl with softened butter or vegetable oil. Add the dough, turning it so it is lightly greased all over. Cover the bowl loosely with a sheet of oiled plastic wrap or a damp tea towel, and place it in a warm, draft-free spot. Allow the dough to rise for 1 to 2 hours, or until it has doubled in bulk.

Punch the dough down. Dust a surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll the dough to a thickness of ½ inch. Use a donut cutter dipped in flour to cut out as many donuts as possible; alternatively, use a 2½-inch cookie cutter and then cut out holes with a ½-inch cutter. Transfer the donuts and holes carefully to a baking sheet sprinkled with flour. Reroll the scraps one time to a thickness of ½ inch and cut out more donuts and holes. Cover the baking sheet with a piece of oiled plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Heat at least 2 inches of oil to a temperature of 360°F in a Dutch oven or deep skillet. Place a few layers of paper towels on a baking sheet and top it with a wire cooling rack. Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a shallow bowl, and set aside.

Carefully add a few donuts to the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan and making sure that the donuts do not touch each other. Cook for 1½ to 2 minutes per side, or until golden brown and puffed. Drain the donuts on the rack, blotting them gently with additional paper towels. Fry the remaining donuts in the same manner. Once the donuts are cool enough to handle, dip them in the bowl of cinnamon sugar to coat. Serve as soon as possible.

I love donut holes, but if you want more real donuts and no holes, just add the holes back into the dough you’re going to reroll for a second round. But dough can really only be rolled twice, so get as many donuts as possible by rolling the sheet into an even circle.



54 Maine Street

Brunswick, Maine 04011

(207) 729-4258

45 Main Street

Freeport, Maine 04032

(207) 865-9811

740 Broadway

South Portland, Maine 04106

(207) 699-4444

333 Water Street

Gardiner, Maine 04345

(207) 582-4258

Tourists might think that Frosty’s Donuts was named for the climate of its home state. But the name is that of the first owners: June and Bob Frosty opened the shop in Brunswick in 1965. June passed away in 2011, and soon after Bob closed the shop and then sold it to another married couple, Shelby St. Pierre and Nels Omdal. Both of them grew up in Brunswick and had fond memories of Frosty’s, but neither of them knew how to make donuts.

They certainly caught on quickly. In just three years, Frosty’s has grown from a single shop in Brunswick to a mini-chain of four shops, and there is also a wholesale division that supplies Hannaford supermarkets in the state with donuts daily.

Shelby and Nels have kept many of the donuts invented by June and Bob Frost, including the chocolate coconut and a chocolate glazed. And many of the donuts are made with potato flour, always a hit in the nation’s second-largest potato-producing state. Frosty’s is particularly well known for a yeast-raised twist made with potato dough.

In addition to having added now-popular flavors like maple bacon to the roster, Shelby and Nels also introduced a DIY donut bar at the shops. Children and adults can select a donut base and then top it with anything from crushed Oreo cookies to gummy bears.



The Kennebec Café

166 Main Street

Fairfield, Maine 04937

(207) 453-4478

Central Maine doesn’t have the cachet of the villages on the coast, but the small hamlet of Fairfield, with a population of around six thousand, might be where to find some of the most imaginative cake donuts in the country. Every day Ann Maglaras, who owns the diner with her husband, John, arrives a few hours before the open sign gets lit at 6:00 a.m. to start donut production. Ann is the “donut diva” until the restaurant closes at noon each day.

There’s nothing fancy about the café. The painted sign on the drab gray storefront has the word “Pepsi” larger than the name of the restaurant, and John’s repairs to the modest vinyl booths are done with duct tape. Their daughter, Megan Maglaras-Stevenson, is in charge of the savory side of the kitchen, which is known for its eggs Benedict (and occasionally eggs Warsaw, done with kielbasa instead of ham) and a hash brown potato casserole made with cheese, the recipe for which is a carefully guarded secret.

That leaves Ann to stay by her fryer, producing some of the sixty flavor combinations listed on her donut board in the dining room. The base batter is made with buttermilk; all chocolate donuts contain real bittersweet chocolate; and the chai donuts are made after she has personally steeped a rich batch of tea.

While some of the options are fairly tame, including a basic old-fashioned donut and an aromatic sweet potato option, there are also ones like Olive Oyl at the Beach, tossed with a combination of salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil. Others among Ann’s favorites include the Jamaican Me Crazy, topped with bananas and cornflakes, and the Fatty Arbuckle, which is a whoopie pie donut topped with a peanut butter glaze.

But you have to enjoy them there. Ann can barely keep up with the donut orders from diners, so they do not sell them for takeout.



The Doughnut Dilemma

55 McIntosh Avenue

South Burlington, Vermont 05403

(802) 503-2771

You can select a yeast-raised donut topped with a thick glaze of pure Vermont maple syrup, or you could have the same glaze on a banana cake donut. You could choose a jelly donut, in which the flavor of the homemade jelly changes seasonally. Or the same jelly mixed with natural, homemade peanut butter for a PB&J.

That’s the dilemma confronting customers at the Doughnut Dilemma. So many decisions. Do you want a s’mores donut filled with homemade marshmallow fluff and topped with chocolate ganache and crumbled homemade graham crackers? Or perhaps you want a Funfetti, a vanilla cake donut with sprinkles in the dough and stuck to the top of the vanilla frosting.

The business, which opened in January 2014, is literally a cottage industry. It operates out of partner Michelle Cunningham’s home kitchen. “I wasn’t really much of a cook,” says Michelle. “I thought the kitchen was a bonus room that came with the house.” But all of that has changed.

“In Vermont it’s very easy to be a licensed home bakery,” says Michelle. That means that in Vermont, unlike in many localities, fledgling businesses don’t have to operate out of communal “food incubator” kitchens like the one used by District Doughnut (page 97).

And while the legality is easy, the constraints of a home kitchen are daunting to her partner, Lauren Deitsch, a pastry chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Used to working in commercial kitchens, she now is limited to home equipment. All the donuts are fried in the same sort of electric fryer we home cooks use in our own kitchens; she just has three of them. And the Hobart mixer is of commercial size, but it could conceivably sit on the counter, which is why it’s permissible.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings the pair are up long before dawn to start their production for the day. Orders have to be placed by the evening before, and customers can either pick up their donuts at the house or, if they order a dozen or more, have them delivered. The women drop off donuts on the same days to a select group of wholesale accounts, ranging from the popular Cobblestone Deli to restaurants such as Bleu Northeast Seafood.


  • “I always await with an appetite the next volume from the prolific Ellen Brown, whose topics often seem narrow but whose scope is daunting, even when it comes to an item like the donut. For this is not just a book of recipes--and they are all tempting, with names like “Dutch Monkey,” “Chocolate Stout” and “Zeppole”--it is also a Baedeker to the myriad donut shops all over America, each thoroughly researched and lovingly described. Brown, who was USA Today's first food editor and now is a weekly columnist for the Providence Journal, has enormous affection for American fare and she writes about it with gusto, as when she describes the nurse-like uniforms of Psycho Donuts in San Jose, CA, where the donuts types are scribbled on prescription pads.”
    –John Mariani, Virtual Gourmet

On Sale
May 12, 2015
Page Count
240 pages
Running Press

Ellen Brown

About the Author

Ellen Brown is a versatile and respected author and recipe developer. She gained national limelight more than thirty years ago as the founding food editor of USA Today, and is the author of more than thirty-five cookbooks, including Scoop, Mac & Cheese, Soup of the Day, and Donut Nation. For the last six years she has written a popular weekly column for the Providence Journal, and profiles of her have appeared in the Washington Post, Coastal Living, and the Miami Herald. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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