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It seems like the Krispy Kreme doughnut craze was just yesterday — but a new wave of novel, artisan doughnuts is tantalizing the nation. Just this month, Saveur magazine explored some of the decadent breakfast food’s wildest incarnations. And now the Boston area is getting into the game.
SOMERVILLE, Mass. — It might be lame, but it's hard not to tease pastry chef Heather Schmidt about Fred, the most iconic doughnut maker of all time.
"Do you know how many times people have said that to me?" she asked with a smile, then mimicked her taunters: "Hey Heather, is it time to make the doughnuts yet?" Her amused but mildly exasperated answer is usually, "Like yeah, yeah... it’s time to make the doughnuts."
Schmidt has been making and selling her version of the trending breakfast food for four weeks. The magic (as she puts it) happens in a shared commercial cooking space in Somerville known as Kitchen, Inc. The name of her operation — Union Square Donuts -- is painted in white on the storefront's glass window and simply stamped in black on the covers of its white bakery boxes. Thursday through Sunday long lines of curious doughnut seekers can be seen snaking down the street.
"There’s something very nostalgic about doughnuts," Schmidt mused. "A lot of the time people come in and say, 'It smells so good in here,' and it just brings back a flurry of memories."
Schmidt, who turned 38 this week, has her own childhood reveries.
"For me, it takes me right back to when I was 7," she recalled. "Every Sunday morning, Dad bringing home the honey dipped, the old fashioned and the chocolate frosted."
Not Your Average Doughnut
But you won’t find those standard-issue flavors in Schmidt’s stable of recipes. In fact, her maple bacon doughnut is attaining a kind of mythic status among area food fans.
"It’s like a pancake breakfast on a doughnut," Schmidt explained. "You’ve got your doughnut part — which is like your pancake — your maple syrup, and your bacon. Your maple syrup always runs into your bacon on your plate, right? Yeah, so just put it all in one spot."
The decadent hybrid is covered in chunks of quality, thick-cut bacon. Schmidt says some customers are skeptical, but it’s the shop's best seller. And at $3.50 each, it's also the most expensive.
Others, like the chocolate chipotle, honey almond and cherry hibiscus are $3. To justify the price Schmidt draws a distinction between her product and the other guy’s.
"What we’re doing, I think, is more like a pastry. The dough is more like a brioche dough. The cherry hibiscus look 'Homer Simpson,' but they are not," Schmidt said with a laugh. "There are no sprinkles on there. That color that you’re seeing in the cherry hibiscus, that is cherry juice and a really strong brewed hibiscus tea, and you get that gorgeous color just from that."
These are artisan products, made with real ingredients and dough that is hand-rolled, hand-shaped and hand-cut. Not all doughnuts contain yeast, but these do, so they’re fluffier. Schmidt has been working with yeasted dough for 15 years. After culinary school she had jobs in pastry at Radius in Boston and Rialto in Cambridge. She was also head pastry chef at Brookline's Clear Flour Bakery. She left that job to create funky-flavored ice pops with Josh Danoff, her business partner and owner of Culinary Cruisers. This past Thanksgiving he sent Schmidt an email after hearing about the rise of artisan doughnuts in New York City and Brooklyn.
"And the email just says, 'I have one word for you: doughnuts,' " she recalled with a laugh. "And I email him back and I said, 'I’m in!' And that’s how we started the business."
'Efficiency And Quality Control'
The business launched quickly with the help of production manager Dawnielle Peck. She used to work with Schmidt at Clear Flour.
"Doughnuts are a huge part of my life. I eat as many here as possible," Peck said with a laugh. But she wasn't joking. "I love the small, weird ones, the funky ones. I’ll gladly take the rejects any day."
On a recent Saturday morning, Peck whisked a sticky, aromatic honey glaze in a large stainless steel bowl. She and the rest of the crew are acutely aware of the looming deadline: only 30 minutes left until they open. Like Schmidt, Peck never expected the little doughnut shop to get so busy, and she said their learning curve has been steep.
"It can be difficult at times to accomplish both efficiency and quality control, but that’s something that’s very, very important to us," Peck said. "We don’t want to just throw out 400 doughnuts that are lackluster, or that don’t taste good."
The team actually makes 600 each day they're open. They usually sell out in just three to four hours.
Hard To Resist
At "go time" — 9 a.m. — Schmidt opened the storefront's squeaky door and greeted a queue of salivating customers. "Hi everybody! Oh my gosh, look at all of you waiting for our doughnuts," she exclaimed. "It's good cause they're warm right now, so you're in luck. Come on in!"
Thirty-six-year-old David Grossman made the pilgrimage to Union Square Donuts from Newton. He was one of the first to politely ramble through the door.
"Everybody loves doughnuts, they’re comfort food," Grossman said before pointing out they can be a nutritionist's nightmare. "I try not to eat them as much as I would like, but I couldn’t resist a maple bacon doughnut on a Saturday morning."
Outside, neighborhood residents Sarah Kulig, 26, and Mark Hengstler, 23, explained they've been to Union Square Donuts two times before, but the store's stock had already sold out. Doughnuts are Hengstler's favorite food, and he waxed thoughtfully about his firm belief in their power to unify.
"I’m from Washington state and Somerville is a really diverse place. There are a lot of people who aren’t from here, and I think something a lot of us have in common — from the hipster stock all the way to people who grew up here — is a real love of the doughnut," Hengstler said as Kulig giggled. "I think it’s very American. It’s very rich in our blood. And even the shape of a lot of doughnuts is a circle."
After placing their order, Kulig and Hengstler clutched their precious pastries and headed back outside. With mouths opening wide — almost in slow motion — they finally get to taste the chocolate chipotle and honey almond. Then — with a blissed-out look in his eyes — Hengstler traveled back in time, remembering how his parents would let him pick out whatever doughnut he wanted at the grocery store each Sunday after church.
"And I’d get the little wrap, and I’d open the case, and I’d get to choose," Hengstler recalled wistfully. "And that was the essence of freedom as a 7-year-old."
"I didn’t have that," Kulig chimed in. "I had to share my doughnut with my sister." Then, in a really cute way she said, "So having my own doughnut today feels really lucky."
The Humble Baker
Back inside the kitchen at Union Square Donuts, Heather Schmidt watches her customers' faces light up as they sink their teeth into her pillowy creations. But she admits this "moment of truth" can make her nervous, too.
"I’ve worked so hard on this dough, and I’ve worked so hard on these recipes that I feel very vulnerable putting my doughnuts out there," Schmidt admitted. "It’s like a little piece of me — and I just want you to like me."
More seriously, though, Schmidt is bent on satisfying the growing demand for her edible art. To do that she needs a larger mixer, larger deep fryer and a larger staff.
"That’s the biggest priority — making more doughnuts. So we can open later and we can open more and not turn anybody away," Schmidt said. "That kills me."
In a way this humble baker's dedication evokes that famous Dunkin' Donuts doughnut maker — which reminded me to ask Schmidt if she sees the juggernaut as competition.
"I mean I grew up eating Dunkin' Donuts," she answered with a smile. Then she admitted, "I still go over to Dunkin' Donuts. Shhhh."
This program aired on March 15, 2013.
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