This week’s recipe: Brioche Donuts with Bourbon Vanilla Creme
If you’re a fan of either hatereading or nostalgia for racism and imperialism, you’ve probably seen Ross Douthat’s column on the death of George H.W. Bush, “Why We Miss the WASPs.” The obvious rejoinder is, in the immortal words of Tonto, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Well, by “we” he means “Americans,” and I suppose he’s right that some Americans do miss the old ruling class, but I don’t think it’s out of any particular affection for WASPs; like all nostalgia, it’s based less on concrete facts than a hazy feeling that things used to be better. I am nostalgic for the Clinton years because, from my perspective as an elementary schooler, the world seemed safe and prosperous during the 90s, but that doesn’t mean I think members of his administration should be in charge today and for all time. More importantly, I definitely don’t think Douthat is right to say that society is in decline because the WASPs have lost power and been replaced by something worse.
To start, Douthat does a terrible job of defining his terms. Donald Trump is technically a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant but no one would place him in the same category as the Bushes. By WASPs he is obviously referring to a very specific set: British-descended, mostly Episcopalian, wealthy, Northeastern, Republican, Ivy League educated, you get the picture. He sees WASPiness as a matter of character, and it’s Bush’s character rather than his policies that Douthat focuses on. First of all, I can’t with all these conservative writers wailing about how George H.W. Bush was the last honorable, dignified, gracious president, as if Barack Obama never existed. Second, Bush was able to maintain that pristinely patrician image because he farmed out his dirty work to Lee Atwater. This insulation from accountability has been a hallmark of powerful WASPs, politicians and otherwise, from time immemorial. That said, here are some of the reasons why Douthat thinks “we” miss the WASPs:
They displayed noblesse oblige: Douthat contends that the old-line WASPs were raised with a unique sense of duty and service, as exemplified by Bush’s war record. Considering that three of our last four presidents dodged the Vietnam draft (including Bush the younger so I guess the Bush the elder must not have done a good job of imparting the service ethic), it does indeed seem remarkable that someone so privileged fought on the front lines. But it’s a far leap from that to “WASPs are better than us because some of them are war heroes.” There were plenty of war heroes of all ethnic backgrounds to come out of the early 20th century, but the WASP establishment made sure that only those with the right background could leverage their heroism into higher office. You had to have the money, charisma, and unscrupulousness of the Kennedys to break down that barrier. Incidentally, you know who else was a World War II war hero? Mel Brooks. But there’s something about him that made him unlikely ever to become president even if he wanted to, can’t put my finger on it at the moment.
WASP elites were more “cosmopolitan” than today’s “shallow multiculturalists”: You already know this one’s going to be a shitshow when it turns out Douthat’s evidence is vague gestures to “Arabists and China hands and Hispanophiles.” I don’t even want to start on that nonsense BUT I WILL. How good of the old guard to enjoy cultures that had been fully subjugated to a colonial order that was set up for the comfort and convenience of people like them. I’m sure their appreciation for the countries whose resources were pillaged and whose patrimony was stolen and whose people were reduced to servitude was very genuine. It’s hard to even contemplate a line of thought that considers this to be an authentic form of engagement with others who are not like you—engagement and even sincere interest, maybe, but never equality and respect. It’s the logic of the slave owner who felt wounded after emancipation because he considered his slaves “like family,” or of the memsahib who marveled to her Indian servants at how wonderfully exotic everything was in their native land. Now, I don’t want to lay the blame for the entire history of European racial attitudes and colonialism at the feet of the American WASP elite. But it is instructive that those same elites—including George H.W. Bush—clearly did not trust the various dusky peoples of the earth to govern themselves, to the point where they would engineer the overthrow of democratically elected governments when they made up the foreign policy establishment. Very cosmopolitan, very accepting.
WASPs weren’t perfect but the “meritocracy” is worse: All in all, this is just a weak argument. Elites, like the poor, will always be with us, but is it better to have an aristocracy of birth or of merit? That depends on your definition of merit. I actually think Douthat makes some valid points here; it’s too bad he undermines them with fatal disingenuousness. For instance, it’s a fair criticism that schools like Harvard are putting quotas on Asian students the same way they used to put quotas on Jewish students, but calling it “literally the same” when Asian-Americans represent 6 percent of the population and 23 percent of Harvard freshmen is pretty mendacious. More saliently, you know who is trying to enact policies that would prevent an elite class from entrenching and self-replicating? The same progressives that Douthat feels the need to gratuitously disparage at least once per column. They’re doing a far from perfect job (not helped along by his ideological comrades’ insistence that what this country needs is more inequality), but at least they’re not throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, we’ll always have a ruling class, so might as well have one that has no qualifications other than the fact that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower!” That worked really well with our nation’s true affirmative action president, George W. Bush, whose WASP credentials were as impeccable as his presidency was disastrous. But hey, remember back when America was awesome? Well, not awesome for women, racial minorities, religious minorities, gay people, and so on, but they should have just learned to accept the natural order. After all, things were good for people like Ross Douthat, so they should never change. Striving? Ambition? Trying to correct the injustices you see in the world? That’s just so…ethnic.
When I read columns like this, I’m reminded that William F. Buckley wouldn’t allow David Brooks to become editor of the National Review because Brooks was Jewish. How do you encounter such raw bigotry and unfairness and continue to carry water for the cause for the rest of your life? Douthat is Catholic, but he’s also relatively young, and perhaps he feels both sufficiently established and sufficiently removed from the actual realties of total WASP power that he’s comfortable waxing nostalgic for a ruling class that would have happily kept him out of public life for his faith. I guess that’s what being a conservative is all about, and why so few Jews are conservatives; we know that they’re always coming for us, that our position is never secure. Better to fight for a fairer world, even though it will be imperfect, than to accept a second-class status lying down.
So anyway, here are some donuts, just in time for Hanukkah! These have been on my to-make list forever, and I figured our family Hanukkah party was the perfect time to bust them out. I was really pleased with how they came out—they looked beautiful and tasted amazing. You really can’t beat fresh donuts, and several of my relatives said these were the best donuts they had ever tasted! Wowee!
Brioche Donuts with Bourbon Vanilla Creme
for the brioche doughnuts:
120 mL whole milk, warm
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
420 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
50g cane sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 eggs, room temperature
100g unsalted butter, room temperature
5 cups of canola oil, for frying
2 cups of sugar, for dusting
for the crème patissiere:
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon bourbon
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of butter
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon cake flour
1 tablespoon corn starch
3 tablespoons cane sugar
pinch of sea salt
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped
for the brioche:
- In a bowl, add the dry yeast. In a saucepan, heat the milk over medium-low heat until it’s quite warm(but not hot enough to burn your finger). Pour the warm milk into the yeast and give it a stir. Let it proof for five minutes.
- Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook attached. Add the milk/yeast mixture and mix on medium speed for about 60 seconds. The dough will be rough and crumbly. Add the eggs, one at a time until they’re well incorporated. With the mixer on medium, knead the dough for about 5 minutes until a smooth but firm ball of dough forms. With the mixer still going, begin to add the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until it’s all incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and knead for another 5 minutes until a velvety-smooth and elastic dough forms. Lightly butter a large bowl and place the dough inside. Cover the bowl with a lightweight cloth and place the dough in a warm, dry place to rise for an hour or until doubled in size. I prefer to heat my oven until it’s just warm inside, turn it off, and then place the dough inside to rise. Once the dough has doubled in size, deflate it by punching it down with your fist. Tightly wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight(you can choose to skip this part, but I recommend letting the dough rise overnight before commencing to the next step).
- Cover a large baking sheet with a light cloth towel and sprinkle with a bit of flour. Set aside.
- Lightly flour a flat, dry surface and begin to roll out the dough. It should be rolled out to about a 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut out as many circles as you can and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process until all the dough has been used. If using a 3-inch cutter, you should have about 15 circles in total; expect less if using a larger cutter. Cover the dough with a light cloth and set it in a warm dry place to let the doughnuts proof for about 30 minutes. They should be quite puffy. When the timer reaches the 20-minute mark, begin to heat the oil for frying in a large pot or wok. It should stay between 350°F and 375°F. Adjust the stove top heat as needed(if you’re not using a fryer). Have a plate of sugar set aside for rolling the doughnuts in.
- When the doughnuts are done proofing, begin to fry them in batches of three. 60 seconds of each side. Bring the oil temperature down or up before adding more doughnuts. Cool the doughnuts for 20 seconds, then roll them around in the sugar until coated fully(they can’t be completely cooled or the sugar won’t stick). Repeat this process until all the doughnuts have been fried. Set them on cooling racks to cool completely before filling. Begin to make the filling.
for the crème patissiere
- Create a water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water and set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, combine 3/4 cups of the milk(reserve a 1/4 cup), bourbon, vanilla, and butter. Heat over low heat until it begins to simmer, then remove from heat.
- In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, egg yolks, and reserved 1/4 cup of milk until combined. While whisking, gently stream half of the hot milk into the egg mixture, then strain the egg mixture back into the remaining hot milk in the saucepan and continue to whisk while you heat the saucepan over medium-low heat again. Make sure to whisk all over so the custard doesn’t burn. When it begins to thicken, pick up the whisking speed. Once the mixture begins to bubble, whisk for 60 seconds, then remove from heat. It should be thick and smooth. Place the bottom of the pot in the ice bath and continue to whisk the custard until it’s warm and no longer hot. Pour the custard into a cake pan/rimmed dish and evenly spread around. Place plastic wrap directly onto the custard, then another layer over the top of the dish. This prevents a ‘skin’ from forming on the custard while it cools. Place the custard in the freezer until it’s completely cool and cold to the touch(but not frozen). This will only take about 10-15 minutes. Whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form, then gently fold it into the custard with a spatula until combined.
- With a knife, make a small incision in each doughnut then use your index finger to make a hole. Fill a pastry bag with the custard and begin to fill each doughnut until all the custard is used.