A Dozen Weeks of Doughnuts (/ )
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.
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.