If I were the gambling sort, I might well put money on Britain being sick of doughnuts by this time next year. The signs are all there: first there was the Krispy Kreme craze, then the St John Bakery started pushing its much feted custard doughnuts in London's sort-of-swinging Spitalfields, and now the Evening Standard has declared them the number one food trend of the summer.
Doughnuts, one might say if one were given to such pompous pronouncements, are the new cupcakes. Fortunately, the two have little else in common; while the cupcake is nothing more than a sponge in a fancy hat, the doughnut is one of those deep, childish pleasures you never grow out of. OK, it may not be much to look at, but under that lumpen exterior is a rich, yeasty dough with a sweet secret. Locating the jam entry point before biting in is, of course, cheating – the exact location of the well should come as a happy surprise to the eater, a gilding of the deep-fried lily, if you will.
I'm not going to play off the American glazed ring so beloved of Homer Simpson against the Italian zeppole, the Israeli sufganiyah, or any of the other of the myriad permutations of deep-fried joy beloved of peoples around the world. No, here I will be dealing solely with the kind of doughnut you can find in any British high street bakers, dusted with crunchy caster sugar (icing sugar is the mark of an inferior specimen) and grudgingly filled with a parsimonious dab of strawberry or raspberry jam.
While the idea probably came to us via the Netherlands, they were well enough established by the 19th century to be a Shrove Tuesday speciality in parts of the country – Laura Mason notes in the Oxford Companion to Food that, in Baldock, that holiday was known as Doughnut Day in consequence, while on the Isle of Wight they were favoured at Christmas time. And who wouldn't rather have a doughnut than a mince pie?
Paul Hollywood's superstar doughnuts
If anyone should know how to make a good doughnut, it's baker and Great British Bake Off twinkler Paul Hollywood, who claims, in the new spin-off book (the puzzlingly-named How to Turn Everyday Bakes into Showstoppers) that he made his first batch at the age of 11. (Although, in a newspaper interview earlier in the year, he recalled the 1,000 inedible doughnuts he made for his dad's bakery at the age of 13, having mistaken a 10kg bag of salt for sugar.)
Practice clearly makes perfect, because his recipe is pleasingly straightforward, mixing together strong bread flour, caster sugar, butter, dried yeast, eggs, milk and water to make a firm dough, then kneading it until smooth. I'm not sure whether I made a mistake akin to his, but I find I need to add far more flour than the ingredients list calls for: the initial dough is so soft and sticky I can't wrest it from my hands to knead it. The results, however, are indeed showstopping: the lightest of all the doughnuts tested, they're rich in savoury flavour too.
Channel 4's (presumably not self-proclaimed) Fabulous Baker Brothers, otherwise known as Tom and Henry Herbert, declare in their book that "if there is anything better than a doughnut, it's a home-made one" – and indeed, their version is a close runner-up in this particular bake-off. It involves making an initial starter of yeast, flour and water "to get the dough working before the sugar is added", which means that it takes a bit longer, and adds butter last of all, beating it into the kneaded dough, which is much firmer and tighter than Paul's. The 6 egg yolks and a mix of plain and strong flour help to give the dough a melting richness, and although I prefer Paul's lighter versions it does have a strikingly good flavour.
Richard Bertinet's beignets
Inspired by the memory of his grandmother's beignets, Brittany-born Bertinet makes a milk-rich, brioche style dough with strong flour, fresh yeast, butter, sugar and eggs. His distinctive fast kneading process cuts the work down nicely, and his tips for rolling the dough into neat little balls comes in very handy – his certainly win the beauty prize. Taste-wise, however, they're too rich for me: I prefer something lighter and breadier to contrast with the jam.
Elizabeth David's disdainful doughnuts
I'm unsurprised, somehow, to discover that David is not a doughnut fan: in her ridiculously comprehensive English Bread and Yeast Cookery she writes that "frankly, doughnuts are not for me. I have never made them, and haven't eaten them since schooldays". Not a very heartening preface to Florence Jack's recipe, from her 1914 work Cookery for Every Household, but I warm to it nevertheless, mostly because it's so very quick. Unlike the others I try, there is no proofing time – once the dough has risen once, it's ready to go.
To make it, I mash fresh yeast with a little sugar, before pouring on a mixture of lukewarm milk and melted butter. This is then stirred into plain flour along with 2 eggs plus a yolk to create "a nice light dough". The recipe suggests resting it for 1½ to 2 hours, but after an hour it's bulging out of the bowl, so I roll it out to just under an inch thick and cut 10 rounds from it. Half are topped with "red jam" and half with beaten egg, and then the two are sandwiched together to make a whole. This creates quite alarmingly large specimens, especially given the doughnut's propensity to puff up further in the pan.
Annoyingly, in my eagerness to whip them out before they turn from golden to mahogany, I undercook the centres: the area around the jam is distinctly doughy, and I wonder whether introducing extra liquid in the form of egg and jam has slowed down the cooking process. The bits I can eat are nice, but even the cooked dough is slightly dense as well as underseasoned – perhaps proofing has a point after all.
Just when I think I've tested every doughnut permutation out there, I happen across a recipe from US blog 101 Cookbooks, which is notable principally for the fact the doughnuts are baked in a 190C oven, rather than fried.
As I've patriotically refused to cut a hole in the centre, mine come out looking unnervingly like doughballs, but any health worries are quickly allayed by the dunking in butter and rolling in sugar and cinnamon that follows. (Heidi, the author, also adds a little nutmeg to the dough itself, but I'll be keeping mine plain to provide a blank canvas for the jam.) They're nice, but lack crispness, and are heavier than I'd like. Really, where's the joy in a baked doughnut?
Perfect jam doughnuts
I've based my recipe on Paul's, using strong white flour for a lighter crumb, but increased the ratio of this to liquid slightly, and reduced the amount of sugar in the dough itself. To make mixing easier, I've melted the butter in warmed milk, as suggested in Florence Jack's recipe, and kept the doughnuts quite small, rolling them into tight balls in the Richard Bertinet approved fashion rather than cutting them out as Jack and 101 Cookbooks suggest.
Temperature-wise, the Baker Boys' 160C seems safer than Bertinet and Hollywood's 180C, which browns the doughnuts too quickly, and I'll be adding the jam after cooking rather than sandwiching it into the raw doughnuts as this seems to be a far simpler way of doing things.
Sadly doughnuts don't keep well – so, unless you're trying to make the super heavyweight boxing team for Rio, make sure you've got a few people round before you fire up the fryer.
160g strong white flour, plus extra to dust
7g dried yeast
½ tsp salt
15g caster sugar, plus extra to dust
20g unsalted butter, at room temperature, chopped, plus extra to grease
65ml whole milk, warmed
45ml warm water
1 egg, beaten
2 litres vegetable or sunflower oil, to cook
6 tsp raspberry or strawberry jam
1. Combine the flour, yeast, salt and sugar in a large bowl and mix well. Put the butter into a bowl with the warm milk and water, and stir to melt. Pour this into the mixing bowl, along with the egg, and stir until it comes together into a dough: it should be firm, but soft.
2. Tip on to a lightly floured surface, or into a mixer fitted with a dough hook, and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Put into a lightly greased bowl, cover with a damp tea towel, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (about an hour).
3. Shape into 6 balls of about 80g each, folding each side tightly into the centre in turn, turning as you go, then turn the ball over and put it on a lightly floured baking tray or board, spacing them well apart. Cover and leave to rise again for 45 minutes.
4. Heat the oil in a large pan or deep-fat fryer to 160C. Cook the doughnuts in 2 batches for about 3 minutes on each side, until golden, then blot with kitchen paper and sprinkle with caster sugar. Allow to cool slightly, then make a small hole in the side of each, and use a piping bag to inject a splodge of jam. Eat immediately, while they're still warm.
Are doughnuts really the next big thing, or are you in the Elizabeth David camp, finding them overrated? And doughnut lovers, do you prefer them glazed and sprinkled like the Americans, filled with apple jam à la française, or filled with trendy St John custard?
• The recipe above originally stated 300g of strong white flour, which would have been for a double batch. This has now been amended