I love doughnuts. I remember my grandmother standing at her stove peering into a kettle of hot oil as she carefully turned homemade, from-scratch blobs of dough then lifting them out and setting the hot doughnuts onto a plate of cinnamon sugar. Incredibly delicious!
That memory, and the fact that I have the distinct pleasure of tasting my way through the world with realfoodtraveler, motivated me to go to the Northwest’s Emerald City, Seattle, Washington, to check out the latest buzz about doughnuts. Two of the city’s doughnut bakeries, Mighty O, a small neighborhood vegan doughnut shop, and Top Pot, a company that has been turning heads and showing up in the media (and on President Obama’s itinerary!) for the past few years, were featured on Food Networks first Doughnut Challenge. I had to find out what all the excitement was about.
Saturday morning in Seattle dawned drizzly with gray skies and unseasonably chilly temperatures. Despite the weather, at both Mighty O and Top Pot lines of people waited to indulge. Since Food Network aired the Doughnut Challenge segment, staff at both shops said business had definitely picked up. We meet Top Pot co-owner Mark Klebeck at the 5th Street Top Pot store in downtown Seattle (one of seven Seattle locations and franchises are coming soon). Mark Klebeck and his brother wanted something different when they created their doughnut company. And they did — perhaps the first destination doughnut company in the world.
Top Pot’s iconic sign at its downtown 5th Avenue is legendary for creating the name of the company. The two Klebeck brothers found the old Chinese Restaurant sign, Top Spot, but while transporting it, the S fell off and this doughnut destination became Top Pot. The two-story building is the first sign that doughnuts at Top Pot are different. This place is a destination, not just a doughnut shop. Yes, there is a bakery case crammed with varieties of doughnut and yes, you can buy coffee products. But instead of a dingy storefront, this is a modern space fronted with a soaring wall of glass and lined with handcrafted, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with carefully selected books. Upstairs singles or groups of two, three, and four tuck happily around small tables with laptops, cups of coffee, and plates of doughnuts. Whole families push tables together and children and adults alike dive into boxes of doughnuts filled with eye catching creations.
We tour Top Pot’s baking facility and coffee roasting area and watch bakers mixing their proprietary doughnut mix. These are hand forged doughnuts, as the logo on their bakery boxes proudly proclaims. And indeed, as we walk through their facility, the bakery staff mix, roll, and hand dip doughnuts non-stop. Racks of freshly glazed or frosted or dipped doughnuts are made in three shifts throughout the day to refill the cases and keep products fresh for customers. This is big business. Klebeck says they may sell a million donuts a month, including wholesale sales. A million donuts in one city in one month is a lot of donuts. Klebeck and his brother helped create the recipes and used to hand mix batches until sales required a different tact. Now their handcrafted dough mix is made to order and delivered in premixed bags. It is still their recipe and one that has redefined the doughnut landscape.
As we stroll through the baking facility, we cant help but notice tubs of premixed fillings such as Bavarian Creme and Raspberry with artificial flavors lining the stainless steel shelves. Klebeck says the company also uses fresh, in-season ingredients. Top Pot doughnuts are gorgeous, really. If you like coconut topped doughnuts, you’ll be drawn to Feather Boa, a vanilla cake doughnut that’s hand dipped in pink frosting and then dipped again in coconut flakeslots of coconut flakes. They offer raised doughnuts, filled doughnuts, cake doughnuts, old fashioned doughnuts, bars, twists — you get the picture. A staggering 40 varieties of doughnuts line their display cases. Across town near Greenlake, we find a small historic storefront with the Mighty O sign hanging in front. After several years of perfecting an organic vegan recipe at fairs, festivals, and farmers markets, Ryan Kellner established this corner store in 2003. Unlike Top Pot, Mighty O’s store (their only location) is cozy and homey, with a distinct neighborhood feel.
When the Food Network came calling, Kellner sent one of his top doughnut bakers, Sara Beth Russert, to compete in the Doughnut Challenge. She greets us warmly and gives us a short tour. She proudly tells us that everything at Mighty O is organic and made from scratch, including their glazes and icings, with not a drop of artificial ingredients, and no genetically modified or biologically engineered or animal derived products. Today, there’s a line of eager customers that stretches out the door. There are a few tables inside and out in front of the store. The bakery case is lined with doughnuts, but we are too late to sample their famous French Toast doughnut (a spiced cake doughnut with maple glaze). It’s sold out, perhaps because today is the first Saturday following the Food Network program. Still, there are lots of other varieties to choose from, more than two dozen.
All Mighty O donuts are cake style, either a vanilla or chocolate cake base that the bakery staff then dips, glazes, and frosts to create different taste sensations. The Mighty O philosophy and pledge to use certified organic ingredients and no animal products is on their website and displayed on their wall. I used to work in a natural food bakery that made breads, cookies, cakes, and bars so I don’t have any problem imagining organic, vegan doughnuts — unlike the judges on the Food Network Challenge. The idea seemed to raise eyebrows among those veteran bakers. The aroma of Free Trade coffee competes with the smell of freshly frying doughnuts that slide through the doughnut maker into hot oil. The tiny Mighty O Doughnut Robot cranks out 40 dozen doughnuts an hour or 2,000 to 3,000 doughnuts a day. (Top Pot has a much larger Doughnut Robot.) A mechanical doughnut dropper plops dough into a trough of oil, automatically flips the doughnuts, and, two minutes later, the doughnuts drop onto a cooling rack ready for hand dipping, glazing, and frosting. These are good looking doughnuts. I bite into a Lemon Poppy doughnut and I’m transported. The lemon flavor is real, vibrant; the doughnut has just the right crisp-soft combination. Delicious!
So which doughnut maker, Top Pot or Mighty O, makes the best doughnuts in Seattle? The difference in two shops ambiance is obvious. But what about taste? I remind you that taste is a totally personal thing. I cant tell you what you’ll like. I suggest you try them both and decide for yourself. However, the Food Network judges picked Mighty O over Top Pot in the Doughnut Challenge. In another taste test, the audience attending the Seattle morning show New Day picked Mighty O, and, in a blind taste test, both realfoodtraveler.com editors Bobbie Hasselbring and I picked Mighty O as number one.
I had one final test my mom. My grandmother died many years ago, but my mother, a vital woman who loves great food, still remembers grandma’s doughnuts and loves a good maple bar now and again. Her pick: Mighty O. Better texture she said simply. And better, truer flavors. So Mr. President, next time you’re in Seattle, head on over to Mighty O and give their doughnuts a try. You wont be sorry. www.toppotdoughnuts.com and www.mightyo.com Photos and text by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor