Is there any breakfast food more classic or more beloved than the donut? Bagels may have the urban vote, croissants get the support of globetrotters and Francophiles, but a donut represents Americans of all regions, religions and classes. And while you can find donuts in gas stations and supermarkets, I think the best place to experience a top-notch donut is at an old fashioned, no-frills neighborhood donut shop.

I wonder how long this guy has watched Des Moines diners enjoy their donuts….

I get a special feeling when I walk into a donut shop – more often than not, the place looks like it’s frozen in time. There are pictures and newspaper clippings on the wall showing much younger (and usually much thinner) versions of the same people working behind the counter. The characters sitting at the counter are on a first name basis with the shop owner, and their orders are set out seconds after they enter the place.

Now, the donut shop is not a place for any paleo-Atkins-South-Beach-gluten-free-Doctor-Oz-weekend-cleanse converts. Each recipe has been perfected over the years, and any attempt to “healthify” it is sacrilege.

A mix of donut styles: cake, raised, fritter and old-fashioned.

Cake, Chocolate, Spice and Sugared Donuts
Leavened with baking powder or soda and hand-rolled or dropped from a metal dispenser, these donuts are what come to mind when you think of classic American donuts. I prefer hand-rolled or scooped cake donuts because they have a more old fashioned texture than machine-made. They are fried, cooled and glazed or frosted and topped with things like toasted or raw coconut, sprinkles or chopped peanuts. But these donuts can stand on their own merits – often times a simple dusting of cinnamon sugar right out of the fryer is all these babies need!

Raised, Glazed, Long John, Jelly or Filled Donuts
These donuts are made with yeast, which give them a lighter, airier quality than cake donuts. They’re rolled out, cut, proofed and fried. Although they can be topped with many of same ingredients as the cake donut, simple glazed and frosted donuts are by far the most popular of this style.

Old Fashioned
These donuts have a crispier crust and feature characteristic jagged edges. They often include sour cream or buttermilk in the dough. Some examples are crullers and French crullers.

Apple Fritters
One of my favorite donuts is the apple fritter. Any of you donut enthusiasts might already know that most homemade apple fritter recipes are a version of what is referred to as the cake donut. These are not the same as the wonderfully fried, crusted and perfectly glazed beauties found in the donut shop.

Aside from these traditional styles, donut-like items can be found on menus across the globe. Some of those exapmles include churros, buñuelos, zeppole, bombolone, And the Sicilian sfinge. Of course, you can’t forget the newly developed cronut!

Coffee + Donuts, a Perfect Marriage
You can’t mention donuts without talking coffee – the two were made for each other. It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate old-school donut house coffee. This is NOT coffee that should ever be poured out from a beaker and nothing any Seattle or Portland native would ever let cross their lips. On it’s own, it’s a pretty vile thing. But paired with a donut, it’s transformed – the acid and tannins counter the ultra rich donuts still glistening with their fresh sheen of glaze.

The Des Moines Donut Circuit
My very fist donut memories were at Dunkin’ Donuts. Back when I was growing up, the brand still had a presence in Des Moines, and I’m glad to see it making its way back to town. However, it’s pretty plain to see that I’m a bit of a history buff and a hopeless romantic – that’s why I gravitate to the older established donut shop, it’s seasoned veteran donut makers and their time-tested recipes.

Hiland’s an old-fashioned bakery on the north side with great donuts.

Hiland Park Bakery may be one of the best places to buy donuts in Des Moines. Although they offer more than donuts, they’ve perfected the art. There aren’t tables and booths – just cases full of baked goods and a crew of staff more than happy to help you get your fix! The décor and atmosphere puts this place squarely in the “no-frills, just quality” camp. All of the donuts were top notch; their cake donuts have a nice crust and a moist interior and downplay the traditional spices (nutmeg and mace) that less skilled bakers focus on. All of this attention results in a very flavorful donut that gives you just a hint of those strong, sweet spices.

A selection of some of Hiland’s finest, including an apple fritter.

However, the apple fritters were the star on top of the Christmas tree for me. These were everything a classic deep fried apple fritter should be: the characteristic craggy edges, the expertly prepared glaze covering every nook and cranny, the slight crunch upon the first bite. The fritter was not overly sweet, with subtle apple and cinnamon flavors that kept my taste buds engaged from first bite to the last.

A 5:30am trip to Donut King guaranteed the freshest donuts available.

Donut King is a prime example of a classic, old school donut shop with hand-crafted wares. They offer an assortment of cake and glazed donuts, some of which you just can’t find anywhere else in Des Moines. A highlight for me was the chocolate covered, chocolate cake donut. Although I’m not the stereotypical chocoholic, it has everything I look for in a donut: a thin sheen of glaze, a pleasant donut crunch and a moist interior. You really only get that quality from donut shops – their products are meant for immediate consumption, not sitting all day and night in a display case.

Our early-morning Donut King haul, including classic donut shop coffee.

Donut King’s toasted coconut glazed donut was honestly a donut that I have not been able to forget since I visited. The glazed donut itself was extremely fresh (visiting at 5:30 a.m. certainly didn’t hurt!) and had the satisfying “chew” I enjoy. There was just enough glaze to make the toasted coconut adhere to the donut through every joyful bite.

A beautiful thing: Donut Hut’s donut case.

Donut Hut is yet another classic shop with a variety of the standard favorites, but the highlight here for me was their old fashioned donut. The crunchy, jagged edges hearkened back to homemade donuts, and the thin glaze was just sweet enough to get you through the morning.

Some of the “new-school” options available from Topped Doughnuts in Ankeny.

Although I naturally gravitate to the old-school joints, there are plenty of folks across the country injecting new life into donuts. Des Moines is no exception – Topped Doughnuts takes that new-school approach. Their products resemble a cross between a donut and a cupcake – two very fine items cleverly combined with an artisan bakery feel. They take classic dessert ideas spin them into donut form. A perfect example of this is their red velvet donut; it’s all you expect from a red velvet cake, but in an intense, concentrated donut.

Whether old-school or new-school, donut shops are a treasure for their neighborhood or community – they’re one of the few places where interns rub elbows with CEOs. My challenge to you: some morning, try being a regular at your local donut shop. Grab a couple donuts, a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper and relax with an American classic!

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