This week’s recipe: Brown Butter Bruleed Donut Holes
My sisters and I were not allowed to watch television growing up. We also had two working parents who were often not home until late, and our babysitter could not give less of a crap if we watched TV or not, so we would rush home from school and put on Saved by the Bell, Full House, and Family Matters, remote always in hand in case our parents came home early and we had to make a quick getaway. I think that the point of the no TV rule was less about keeping us away from TV and more about making sure that we read, which we all still do, so in that regard, it was a success. But if it was at all about keeping us away from TV, it backfired spectacularly! We are all TV junkies to a greater or lesser extent, although I have no shame about that fact: TV is objectively better now than it was in the 90s, when we were growing up, and for the most part, the shows that my sisters and I love–West Wing, Parks and Recreation, Gilmore Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the like–are high-quality. But there is one show that we love that is…questionable. Naturally, it’s reality TV, the genre that is a repository for what’s worst and trashiest about television. But nevertheless, I will defend Say Yes to the Dress until my dying day!
Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But Say Yes to the Dress is, I believe, a different breed of reality show, and definitely better than what one would expect from the ironically named The Learning Channel. There are four main iterations of the show:
Say Yes to the Dress is the one from whence they all spring. It takes place at Kleinfeld’s, an upscale bridal salon in Manhattan. Women come from all over the country and even the world to meet with the bridal consultants and try on extremely expensive dresses. Many of them bring large entourages of friends and family members, many of whom have their own loudly expressed opinions, but in the end, the bride always gets her way. If an appointment starts to go south, the consultant calls in Randy, the fashion director. Randy is very gay and extremely good at his job. He is a national treasure. Another prominent SYTTD character is Pnina Tornai, the in-house designer, whose aesthetic can best be summed up as “slutty pirate.”
Fun fact about Kleinfeld’s: there is a bridal consultant named Rochel Leah there specifically for Orthodox Jewish and other modest brides who will need sleeves built onto their dresses. Rochel Leah has only been featured on one episode of Say Yes to the Dress, which makes sense, since modest brides probably do not want their arms and shoulders broadcast on TV.
Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta is basically the same as the original flavor, except it takes place in Atlanta and therefore all of the brides are in their teens or early 20s and they all have perfect hair. (It is one of the great mysteries of life that the American South, a notoriously muggy and humid region, produces women with such perfect hair.) There is also a high probability that the brides are or were at one point in a pageant. The salon is run by a woman named Lori, who is warm and folksy but can also be firm and no-nonsense when the need arises. SYTTD Atlanta has its own very gay man, Monte, who wants to be Randy. No one can be Randy but Randy.
Say Yes to the Dress Bridesmaids also takes place in the Atlanta salon. It is amazing because, much as I love regular Say Yes to the Dress, there is not a lot of inherent drama in watching women try on wedding dresses, whereas the bridal party is a reliable viper pit of long-simmering grudges, hurt feelings, and power plays. There’s always a bridesmaid who feels like the bride’s chosen dress won’t look good on her body type; the bridesmaid who was clearly only asked to be in the bridal party because she’s an old friend even though she and the bride don’t seem to like each other anymore; the resentful maid-of-honor sister, and so on. You can imagine the conflicts that ensue! Fun fun fun for viewers! SYTTD Bridesmaids also has its own very gay man, Brandon, who also wants to be Randy but even gayer/a millennial/kind of bitchy. Again, no one can be Randy but Randy.
Say Yes to the Dress Big Bliss is the exact same thing as Say Yes to the Dress, but with plus-sized brides. Considering that there are often plus-sized brides on regular SYTTD, I don’t really understand the point of Big Bliss.
All of these iterations follow the same formula. There are three appointments per episode, including one where the dress has already been bought and altered. Each episode begins with the salon owners talking to the consultants about the day ahead. Miraculously, the theme of their talk—bossy moms, let’s say, or brides with negative body image—is always reflected in the day’s appointments. Also, they are usually wearing different clothes and hairstyles during the meeting than during the rest of the episode. It’s weird! Anyway, then the consultants are sent out to deal with the brides/bridesmaids and their annoying, judgmental friends and family members. The brides usually have a vision for what their dress will look like, of course. Some of them also have stupid themes for their weddings, such as “Sex and the City” or “bling,” which make you wonder why someone is willing to marry them at all. The consultants sit with the brides in the dressing room to discuss their wedding and ask about their fiancé. The standard spiel is, “Derek is my rock. He makes me laugh more than anyone. We met at a bar/at a party/at a baseball game/in middle school [Atlanta only] and I knew immediately that he was the one.” Seriously. Every single bride says something along those lines, it’s like they’re reading from a script. Anyway, the consultant goes to pick out some dresses, puts the bride in one using a series of frightening-looking clips, and then they go out to get the entourage’s opinion.
They don’t put you on the show unless your appointment generates an appropriate amount of conflict (or if you or your fiancé are famous). You can typically count on the family to be insane. In one of my all-time favorite episodes, a woman’s sister/maid-of-honor somehow got it into her head that she should also wear a veil at the wedding. Naturally, the bride and the consultants put the kibosh on this idea, but that didn’t stop the sister from wandering off to the salon’s bridal section in the middle of her bridesmaid’s dress appointment to go try on veils. Family pathology aside, I would say that there are three main sources of drama: how much skin to show, budget, and weight. Budget, by the way, is relative—if you’re not willing to spend at least $2,000, Kleinfeld’s is not for you. But there are also brides who have tried on over a hundred dresses with no success, brides with unlimited budgets who are buying one dress for their ceremony and one for their reception, brides who are in the military and need to get married quickly before they get deployed, and brides who, for cultural or style reasons, don’t want a white dress. (Those ones never made sense to me—why not just go to a department store, which is going to have a much larger selection of red or black or pink dresses for a lot less money?) Truly, the wedding dress shopping experience is as varied and diverse as the human condition.
Does it sound like I’m mocking? Never! My love for SYTTD is pure, despite its silliness and flaws. Nothing about the production is subtle—not the cheesy narration, the breathless “cliffhangers” before each commercial break, the heavy-handed musical cues that tell you exactly what’s going to happen and which emotions you should be feeling. But I love it anyway. The bridal consultants are so kindhearted and patient and accommodating, even to brides and families that I would smack into next wedding season. They really want the bride to feel beautiful and to get everything she wants for her special day. The toxicity of the “her special day” narrative, the pressure for perfection, and the wedding-industrial complex generally is a topic for another post, of course. But considering what a cesspool most of reality TV is, it’s refreshing to watch a show that has kindness and generosity of spirit at its core (plus a healthy dose of consumerism—this is still America we’re talking about).
So anyway, here are some donut holes. These have been on my “to make” list forever, and since we were celebrating my eldest sister’s birthday, I thought this would be a good excuse to make them. “Ah, this recipe says it yields 20 donut holes,” I thought naively, “that will be a perfect small, celebratory dessert.” It ended up being more like 40-50, and poor Mark had to take one for the team by eating about half of them. But they were so delicious it almost didn’t matter. Plus, it was a chance to break out Ye Olde Blow Torch, which I haven’t used in over five years. I was worried about whether it would still function—can butane go bad?—but it came through nicely and I only set the parchment paper on fire twice, so all in all I’d say it was a success.
Brown Butter Bruleed Donut Holes
1 (1/4-oz) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons warm water (105–115°F)
pinch of sugar
3 1/4 to 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for sprinkling and rolling out dough
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted until browned and cooled slightly
3 large egg yolks
About 10 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
2-4 cups granulated sugar for rolling and torching
- Stir together yeast, warm water, and pinch of sugar in a small bowl until yeast is dissolved. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If yeast doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
- In the bowl of an electric stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, combine flour (3 1/4 cups), milk, butter, yolks, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and yeast mixture. I like to stir the mixture by hand, with a spatula, to loosely incorporate before transferring to the stand mixer to beat with the dough hook.
- Beat at low speed on the mixer with the dough hook until a soft dough forms, about 3 minutes. Add a bit more flour if the dough seems too wet. It will tend to stick to the sides of the bowl a bit, but add flour it it seems overly wet and soft. Increase speed to medium and beat 5 minutes more.
- Scrape dough down side of bowl (all around) into center, then sprinkle lightly with flour (to keep a crust from forming). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (Alternatively, let dough rise in bowl in refrigerator 8 to 12 hours and make fresh doughnuts in the morning.)
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out with a lightly floured rolling pin into a roughly 12-inch round (1/2 inch thick). Cut out as many rounds as possible with 1 1/2-inch cutter and transfer doughnuts to a lightly floured large baking sheet. Cover doughnuts with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until slightly puffed, about 30 minutes (45 minutes if dough was cold when cutting out doughnuts). Do not reroll scraps. They tend to get tough.
- While the doughnut rounds rise, prepare your frying ingredients. Begin to heat your oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Spread sugar on a rimmed baking sheet for after the doughnuts have been fried.
- Heat 2 1/2 inches oil in a deep 4-quart heavy pot until it registers 350°F on thermometer. A thermometer is key for this recipe. You need to know just how hot your oil is before the doughnuts fry. Fry doughnuts, 3 at a time, turning occasionally with a wire or mesh skimmer or a slotted spoon, until puffed and golden brown, about 2 minutes per batch (1 minute per side). Transfer the freshly fried, hot doughnuts to the sugar and immediately toss to coat. Coating the doughnuts in sugar works best just out of the fryer so the sugar can stick to the hot oil. Remove from the sugar and allow to rest on a cooling rack before torching.
- Return oil to 350°F between batches.
- Once the doughnuts are all fried and generously coated in granulated sugar, using a kitchen torch to brûlée the tops of the doughnuts. Allow to cool and set before serving.
- Doughnuts are best enjoy the day they’re fried.