It’s time for a doughnut taste-off
DEDHAM, Maine (AP) — Hazy, lazy summer morning. No place we must be. A swim? The park? A book? A ball?
But first, a doughnut taste-off, perfect start to a crystal-clear New England day.
This one had been brewing for more than a year, since we’d noticed plans for a Canadian doughnut chain, Tim Horton, to open just down the street from the local Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was time for the showdown: A box of each, running the doughnut spectrum from old-fashioned plain to double-chocolate. Four tasters, and cups of each chain’s eponymous coffee to keep things buzzing along.
We knew we were venturing into a bitter corporate cat fight, with the front-line manned in bright pink or red uniforms, the outposts in drive-thrus and shopping malls. Dunkin’ is New England-based, born in Massachusetts and since gone nationwide. Horton’s is from Ontario, Canada, but now pushing its way into the morning and lunchtime markets across the northern tier of the U.S. and beyond.
It’s a billion-dollar battle, the focus of analysts and investors and business writers. But it’s also about the start of the day for who knows how many who still rely on that quick jolt of sugar and a side of caffeine.
I could not stay out of the fray, because I’ve married into a family of doughnut lovers. Their hearts (and mine, now that I’ve been smitten) are solidly with the mom-and-pop shops, the bright jewels of handcrafted doughnuts.
Sadly, those markets seem to be fewer than ever. Some favorites across the country are Top Pot in Seattle; the Apple Uglies at the Orange Blossom Bakery in Hatteras Island, N.C.; the Doughnut Plant in New York (all the rave in the magazines, though Balthazar’s old-fashioned plains deserve more acclaim); the Donut Stop in Los Angeles.
And the old Krispy Kreme’s down south were magical when the “Hot Now” light was lit, despite their later expansion and overexposure.
Here in downeast Maine where my in-laws hail from, the old doughnut shop in Brewer — Campbell’s Bakery — closed down a few years back, enshrining the morning doughnut in myth. Thankfully there is Tony’s Donuts, a great bakery in Portland, but at two hours it’s too far.
So do not deny or ignore the ever-present chains. And when you need a doughnut, you must answer the call, corporate product or not.
One of the stalwarts of any doughnut bag, in my opinion, is the simple glazed yeast doughnut. Dunkin’ took that one handily, winning three out of four votes. “Golden, toasted flavors” captured the judges’ view.
The old-fashioned plain left the panel evenly divided. One thought Horton’s had a nice whisp of nutmeg flavor; another thought Dunkin’s had just the right amount of crunch. The old-fashioned glazed/glazed cruller category also tied.
Hmm. This wasn’t going to be simple.
Horton’s swept the chocolate category, winning all but one vote for the glazed chocolate and the double chocolate. “Tastes like real chocolate,” two voters agreed.
Then came the Boston creme (or cream, or Kreme) showdown, which went easily to Dunkin’. The doughnut itself held its own against the lemony custard, I said.
We agreed we couldn’t judge the coffee, which both chains claim is superb – Horton’s just didn’t remain hot through the drive back from town, so it wasn’t fair.
Looking over the scores, there was a strange divide.
Each won two categories, and two more categories were tied. In points (each voter had one point for each doughnut), Tim Horton wound up ahead, with 13 points to Dunkin’ Donuts’s 11.
But when we asked which single doughnut was their favorite, everyone picked one from Dunkin’.
By then, sugared out and coffeed out, we retired to the great outdoors for swims and naps, swearing off doughnuts for at least a day or two, and vowing to stick to cereal and local strawberries.
Until someone drove in with a few bags from Tony’s.
— Columnist Robert Tanner has eaten his way around the world as a national writer for The Associated Press.