And the best doughnut in D.C. is ...

June 25, 2013

Our fingers are sticky, we’ve loosened our belts a few notches and our eyes are glazed over. We have tasted and retasted, scored and rescored more than 250 doughnuts weighing more than 50 pounds, all in a quest to crown Washington’s best.

After 13 weeks, it all comes down to . . . a photo finish between exceptional doughnuts by two of the newest fry shops in town. Both of them pair doughnuts and fried chicken, and both have classically trained pastry chefs helming their fryers. But by a mere tenth of a point, the creme brulee doughnut at Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken edged out GBD’s chocolate-pudding-filled yeasted doughnut, scoring 9.0 to 8.9 out of a possible 10.

Both are stellar, but from the sugary crunch of its flame-blasted glaze to the vanilla custard inside and the feathery, fluffy dough, Astro’s square-shaped play on the French dessert is spot-on. As one judge put it, “I love everything about this doughnut.”

Astro’s pastry chef, Jason Gehring, found inspiration while pondering how he could remix an idea for a Boston cream doughnut. “I realized that if I switched out the chocolate glaze for vanilla and put the torch to it, that would emulate creme brulee,” he says. “The tough part was getting the right proportion of cream to doughnut. If there was too much custard, it would overwhelm the pastry.” The shop near Metro Center sells 120 of these winners per day, and 3,700 to 4,000 doughnuts each week overall.

Astro and GBD remained two of the strongest competitors in our Dozen Weeks of Doughnuts (which turned into a baker’s dozen when we added a few reader recommendations). That’s no doubt because Gehring and GBD’s Tiffany Mac­Isaac have honed their recipes for years. Gehring featured doughnuts in some form or another at every restaurant where he has worked, including Fiola, Poste and the Charleston in Baltimore.

Are doughnuts the new cupcakes of DC? The Food section at The Washington Post is ready to name the sweetest treat in the capital. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

MacIsaac, the executive pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, has served them at brunches for the past three years at GBD’s sister operation, Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. She opened GBD (which stands for the kitchen term “golden brown delicious”) in Dupont Circle with doughnuts built from a brioche dough, which the tasting panel of judges tried the first time we visited. But that didn’t last.

“People hated it,” she says, “so I changed the recipe after two weeks. I’m not cooking for myself; I want the customers to be happy.”

The brioche was “super buttery and egg-heavy,” MacIsaac says. Three days of nonstop testing resulted in a new dough: “lighter, sweeter and with a little vanilla in it.”

The judges noticed the upgrade. The original earned a score of 6.9; the new version’s 8.9 landed GBD on the winners’ podium next to Astro.

Both Astro and GBD were partly inspired by Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts, a fried-chicken-and-doughnut shop that opened in late 2011. And when the two D.C. shops opened within a couple weeks of each other this spring, everyone expected them to be bitter rivals. Not so, say both chefs, who have tried and liked the other’s work. MacIsaac is particularly fond of Astro’s banana nut cake doughnut, while Gehring especially likes MacIsaac’s toffee-bacon, which she serves at Birch & Barley brunches.

Astro and GBD both charge a pretty penny for their doughnuts: $2.85 and $2.75, respectively, for the winning varieties. But before you conclude that our judges’ panel liked only expensive doughnuts from fancy newcomers, those doughnuts also had a lot going on, literally: With their fillings and toppings, they were among the heaviest in the lot, making them among the better values. GBD’s doughnut cost 33 cents per ounce, for example, while Krispy Kreme’s original glazed, which judges liked far less, is just 99 cents but featherweight, costing 71 cents per ounce.

And then there’s the Dinosaur glazed from Union Station’s Nothing but Donuts. The gargantuan pastry — 71 / 2 inches in diameter and more than 2 inches thick — was the top-ranking effort from an old-school bakery, earning a 6 at the finale and tying for fourth place overall. Weighing in at more than 11 ounces, it was far and away the heaviest doughnut we sampled. That doesn’t stop plenty of customers from scarfing one down in a single sitting.

“I see it all the time; it’s not rare,” says owner Yune Choi, who sells 12 to 24 of the monsters per day and approximately 48 every Friday, which is the shop’s best day overall for sales.

Judges wanted to know his secret for cooking the doughnut so evenly all the way through, but he played coy. “That’s confidential,” he says with a chuckle. “It took us years to get it right.”

One competitor who got it right from the get-go yet wasn’t a part of the final round was Zeke’s DC Donutz. The shop was shuttered near the end of May due to complaints by neighboring businesses about the frying aroma. Owner Aaron Gordon vows to reopen.

“It will come back in some way, somehow,” he says. “Either in the same location or in a new space. Or I’ll offer the doughnuts through one of my other operations,” which include the Drafting Table and Red Velvet Cupcakery.

It’s too bad, because we fell hard for their Ferrero Rocher doughnut, which mimicked the famous chocolate-hazelnut bonbon. Its 6.7 score stayed at No. 3 for 11 weeks before Zeke’s dropped out of the running. If it had been part of the final tasting, who knows what might have happened?

Another late surprise was District Doughnut. During the 12th round, the delivery outfit’s dulce de leche scored a 7, taking over the No. 3 rank and giving the bakery the No. 2 spot on the leader board. However, when our order arrived for the final tasting, the dulce de leche was unavailable. We tasted District Doughnut’s only selection that day — brown butter — which landed in the middle of the pack with a 5.7.

Through all our tasting sessions, we debated about why doughnuts are having such a renaissance. Fried dough has near universal appeal: Consider Greek loukoumades, Italian bomboloni, Lebanese awamat, French beignets, Indian vada, Portuguese malasadas, Jewish teiglach and Somalian dolcho.

American doughnuts stand apart. Whether you’re talking about a plain glazed, an autumnal cider doughnut or a Boston cream, these are classics now firmly rooted in the States. For better or for worse, doughnuts are one of those desserts — like apple pie, Twinkies and the banana split — that have become intrinsically associated with American cuisine.

Gee, thanks, Homer Simpson.

For his part, Gehring says doughnuts hit a sweet spot for diners — not just at bakeries, of course, but at many area restaurants.

“People are looking for something new and exciting,” he says. (Remember cupcakes, anyone?) “But doughnuts are still classic and have that nostalgic appeal.”

More local doughnuts are on the way, with two notable additions on the horizon. The delivery-only District Doughnut is close to signing a lease for a shop in the city. And the new location of Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street, set for a July opening, will showcase yeast-raised and cake doughnuts by pastry chef Rebecca Albright. Flavors will mirror those of the Pop Tarts offered at its Barracks Row flagship: peanut butter bacon, strawberry, blueberry cheesecake and coconut cream.

Doughnuts are hardly a distinctly D.C. phenom. The Cooking Channel will launch a reality competition show, “Donut Showdown,” on July 3, and several relevant cookbooks will be published later this year, including Stephen Collucci and Elizabeth Gunnison’s “Glazed, Filled, Sugared & Dipped” (Clarkson Potter) and Ashley McLaughlin’s “Baked Doughnuts for Everyone” (Fair Winds Press).

For his part, Gehring didn’t expect such a hot fuss over doughnuts.

“I had no idea that they were going to blow up,” he says. “I was shocked. It’s funny. At first I had reservations about just doing doughnuts, but I am so glad that I decided to go this route.”

Martell, a Washington food writer, is the author of “The Founding Farmers Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, October 2013).

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