When we travel back to California, the kids practically sprint out of bed and into the car on the first morning to go to Stan’s Donuts in Santa Clara. Since we’ve been in Ohio, we’ve tried every doughnut place within a reasonable driving distance, from doughnut chains to local bakeries to Amish doughnuts from the farmers market. But nothing compares. Stan’s has been making authentic doughnuts by hand for over 50 years, and what they produce is the real deal. If a doughnut can be said to have integrity, Stan’s doughnuts have integrity.
When we arrive at the strip-mall storefront, the kids crowd the shop window to watch the man in baker’s white deftly rolling out dough and stamping out rounds with a stainless steel cutter. They watch as the stretchy circles of dough are slipped into the oil, bobbing in the heat. They jump excitedly as the baker uses long sticks to turn the rounds, one by one, flipping each thin pale circle into a chubby golden puff. And they sigh as the baker expertly shakes on the glaze with a nifty device that lets the pearly white frosting rain down in a wide sheet, coating the doughnuts in glossy whiteness.
Doughnuts are vilified as junk food, but compared to the unnatural products that are marketed as food these days – fast food meat filler, corn syrup drinks with more dye than Easter egg kits – a simple ball of fried dough seems positively benign. Doughnuts were around in the pioneer days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the concept of frying dough in oil has been around for centuries before.
My mom grew up eating the Chinese version of a doughnut, called youtiao – straight lengths of deep-fried yeast dough with a cloverleaf-shaped cross-section that are broken in pieces and dipped in hot bowls of soy milk. Portugese explorers discovered youtiao in Ming Dynasty China and brought the concept, interpreted into a thinner, cinnamon-sprinkled version, back to the Iberian peninsula as a churro.
I used to help my mom make youtiao at home, rolling and stretching the yeasty dough, and for that reason raised doughnuts are my measure of a good doughnut. To me, a real doughnut is made from a simple sticky yeast dough that balloons up in the hot oil to form a crisp exterior and a high, soft, elastic interior. Cake doughnuts always seem dry and dense to me in comparison.
Today most doughnut shops use commercial mixes that no doubt contain the same long lists of unpronounceable, unidentifiable ingredients that are in retail baking mixes. I can’t be sure what goes into Stan’s dough, but the taste and smell of honest ingredients is evident.
Going to Stan’s is like visiting your grandmother making gnocchi from scratch, or my own mom and dad, making Chinese dumplings by hand. It’s encouraging to find that artisan doughnut makers still exist, but as with many old-school cooking techniques, knowledge often doesn’t survive a transfer to the next generation.
I regret that I didn’t make it to Lou’s Living Donut Museum, a San Jose institution begun by WWII bomber pilot Lou Ades in 1955, before it closed in 2006. Charles (“Chuck”) Chavira began working for Ades in 1977 and purchased the shop with his parents in 1981. The family continued to make doughnuts using Ades’s secret recipe that included, according to a San Jose Mercury News article, “potatoes, organic flours and sweet yeasts.” San Jose residents were saddened to lose the beloved institution when the Chaviras closed the store in 2006 due to health reasons. Chuck Chavira died on May 6, 2011, at age 51, survived by both parents.
We had a brief panic earlier this year when the founder of Stan’s, Stanford Wittmayer, died on February 12 at age 83. I learned from his obituary that Wittmayer, a World War II veteran, had opened the Santa Clara institution in 1959 (no relation to Stan’s Donuts of Westwood in Southern California, which Stan Berman began in 1965). Married for 62 years, Wittmayer and his wife Tina had nine children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. We were hopeful that with such a large family, Stan’s Donuts would continue on.
We were relieved to find nothing had changed when we visited this summer. Same unassuming storefront, same aging strip mall.
As always, the baker hard at work in the window.
The kids love watching doughnut-making in action, but they need a lift to see over the retro window sign with the grinning, running doughnut (running off the calories?).
I was busted by the cashier for taking pictures. So I can’t show you the baker punching out Os from the rolled dough, or the fat circles of dough floating in the hot fat fryer, or how fun it is to watch them flip the rounds so that their brown bellies pop up from the hot oil. You’ll just have to imagine the whoosh of the glaze over the warm doughnuts, and the freshly glossy doughnuts set to cool on the bakery rack behind the cashier.
This is important: when you go to Stan’s, look beyond the cake doughnuts in the glass display case to the bakery rack behind to see what warm doughnuts are hiding there. The raised doughnuts – glazed, chocolate, maple and chocolate bars, jelly and filled doughnuts – never last long enough to make it to the front display case.
During busy times you might have to wait for the raised doughnuts to cook. We’ve waited as long as 30 minutes, and even the kids consider it time well invested.
Here is our big box of warm doughnuts (with one cake doughnut for my sprinkle-loving two-year-old). I wish you could breathe in the sweet, yeasty smell and feel the heavy warmth of the box.
I had to sacrifice a few nibbles to appease the natives during the car ride home.
Now this is my idea of a doughnut: big and fluffy; a sweet, round, doughy pillow.
A crackly thin glaze that doesn’t obscure the fresh soft taste of the dough.
My parents’ dear friends, Clark and Lyn, used to joke when they were in their 50s that when they were 80 they would eat all the doughnuts they wanted. They reconsidered their strategy when a friend of theirs in her 80s laughed ruefully and said, “Enjoy them now! When you are 80 they won’t taste the same.” Fine wisdom in that advice.
Go to Stan’s, if you have the opportunity, and savor the fleeting taste of now.
2628 Homestead Road
Santa Clara, CA 95051
Open daily 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.