Live from New York, it’s the Donut Dough-bate!

"Good Food" host Evan Kleiman and The Sporkful's Dan Pashman see how donuts made by a molecular gastronomist measure up to the city's most beloved rings, crullers and jelly donuts.

In 2014, Wylie Dufresne closed WD-50, the Lower East Side restaurant infamous for serving diners tasting menus of high-concept, modernist cuisine. A year later, his fancy pub-style spot, Alder, closed in the East Village. Diners and chefs mourned the loss of inventive dishes that made use of fried mayonnaise, freeze-dried powders and meat glue, among other novel ingredients. Where to go now for egg yolk-mashed potato ravioli and fish and chips with powdered malt vinegar?

As of last month, fans of Dufresne can try his mad food science at a donut shop in the William Vale Hotel in Brooklyn. Du’s Donuts is a tip of the hat to his great-grandfather, who made donuts at a diner in Rhode Island for decades. Upon getting word that Dufresne had turned his hand from the bunsen burner to the fry pan, “Good Food” host Evan Kleiman invited her pal Dan Pashman to a side-by-side donut tasting in New York. (Somebody had to do it!) Dan hosts a super-engaging podcast about food called The Sporkful, and joined “Good Food” last summer for a discussion on the particulars of pie. A donut debate was right up his alley: “I love, love donuts. It’s one of my top, top sweets. I try not to eat them too often because they’re not so good for you. But when I do eat donuts, I do not hold back.”

When the morning of our taping rolled around, there we were staring down four dozen rings, crullers and squares of fried dough in the Stitcher studios in Midtown Manhattan, where Pashman records his podcast. On one side of the studio were donuts from the new-school bakeries: Du’s and Doughnut Plant. Facing off on the other were the original gangstas of New York City’s donut game: cardboard boxes tied up with string from Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop and The Donut Pub.

Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop

Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop opened more than 60 years ago in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The shop features Dan's favorite donut in New York: the cream crumb, a fresh glazed donut topped with crumbled day-old donuts and cream. Here, the red velvet version. Although she wouldn’t eat it every day, Evan agreed the cream crumb from Peter Pan was surprisingly good, and combined frugality and decadence. Plus, the price for a dozen donuts at Peter Pan was right: $13, including two of these beauties. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop opened more than 60 years ago in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The shop features Dan’s favorite donut in New York: the cream crumb, a fresh glazed donut topped with crumbled day-old donuts and frosting. Here, the red velvet version. Although she wouldn’t eat it every day, Evan found the cream crumb surprisingly good, “a combination of decadence and frugality. That’s a beautiful dough. I’m impressed: I expected to hate this donut.” Plus, the price for the Peter Pan dozen was right: $13, and that included two of these beauties. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

The Donut Pub

Stan Lee/KCRW
Also representing the old school was The Donut Pub. This 24-hour Manhattan diner has been serving French crullers; honey-dipped rings; plain, sugar and coconut donuts; and specialty birthday cake and dulce de leche donuts at the counter since 1964. With a cup of hot cup of coffee and a smile. Although Evan prefers the plain cake donuts from Bob’s in The Original Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, she appreciates the craggy crunchy finish of The Donut Pub dozen. And oh boy, does she like a cake donut. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

Doughnut Plant

Stan Lee/KCRW
When it opened in 1994, Doughnut Plant was one of the first shops in New York to experiment with fancy toppings and flavors for its fried dough. In 2004, the bakery invented the “jelly-filled square donut,” which in Dan’s eyes solves the conundrum of the imperfect jelly-to-donut ratio in round jelly donuts. (Doughnut Plant agrees; this donut is trademarked.) Dan’s also a fan of the shop’s gusseted bags, which fit each box of donuts snugly. No smooshed donuts here. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW) 
Stan Lee/KCRW
We had to get a cross-section shot of the Doughnut Plant’s peanut butter and blackberry jam-filled donut — ahem — doughnut. The jelly is made in-house. The only drawback, Evan and Dan admitted, is the $40 price tag on the dozen. That’s roughly the same cost of a dozen at Du’s, though Doughnut Plant’s squares and rings are twice the size. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

Du’s Donuts

Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Du’s Donuts opened in Williamsburg last month and serves a variety of very pretty cake donuts with matte and sugar finishes. Evan and Dan liked the Creamsickle best. “He nailed the Creamsickle flavor,” said Dan. Evan agreed: “That is, like, one of the most skilled icings I’ve ever had. What’s really bizarre is that it isn’t sweet.” They were aghast at the cost of a dozen — $40 — but these are the only donuts Evan would serve for dessert. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)
Not so with the peanut butter yuzu donut from Du's. That's crumbled peanuts on top. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Also for the taking at Du’s on opening morning: a checkerboard peanut butter yuzu donut with peanut crumbles, a honey fennel donut and a strawberries-and-cream sugar donut that is made with strawberry powder. Pictured on the bottom row: a cinnamon apple sugar donut made with freeze-dried apple, a Mexican hot chocolate donut with a spicy chocolate glaze and Swiss Miss marshmallows, and a coffee malt donut made with Brooklyn Roasting Company decaf coffee. “That cake is perfect,” said Evan, biting into the strawberries-and-cream. “If you were to take this dehydrated strawberry donut and drop it in water, would the strawberries turn back into strawberries?” asked Dan. Ha! Inquiring minds want to know. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

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All photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.