Doughnuts – A Yankee Cake

Doughnuts, pretzels, coleslaw, and the treats that became “cookies” are all of Dutch origins. These yeast-leavened bits of dough were dropped from the end of a spoon to form irregularly shaped balls. The Dutch served these at Christmas and other special occasions.

18th Century

Dry half a pound of good brown sugar, pound it and mix it with two pounds of flour and sift it; add two spoonfuls of yeast, and as much new milk as will make it like bread; when well risen, knead in half a pound of butter, make in cakes the size of a half dollar, and fry them a light brown in boiling lard.

Randolph, Mary. “The Virginia Housewife”

21st Century

  • ½ pound of light brown sugar
  • 2 lbs. all purpose flour
  • 2 packages of active dry yeast
  • ½ lb. unsalted butter
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • Lard, peanut or vegetable oil
  1. Heat the milk in a sauce pan until lukewarm(100 degrees, no more). Add a spoonful of the sugar, and the yeast to the warm milk.  Let the yeast ‘bloom’ (or get foamy) for at least 10 minutes. When the yeast is foamy, add several handfuls of flour to make a pancake-like batter and the rest of the sugar.
  2. Break the butter into several pieces and mix into the remaining flour with your fingers. Make the butter the size of peas.
  3. Let the batter sit for 10 minutes. When the yeast mixture is bubbling and foamy, pour into the flour and mix with your hands. Knead together until combined. Add more flour if necessary to make the dough firm. Place the dough in a greased bowl.
  4. Cream a piece of butter between your hands and rub it all over the surface of the dough to prevent a crust from forming while it rises.
  5. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and place it in a warm place to allow the dough to rise, approximately one hour. It will double in volume.
  6. When ready punch down the dough and reform it into a ball. Pull the ball apart into eight or ten equal sections. Pull these sections apart to form little dough balls, ½ inch thick.
  7. Place the doughnuts on a floured cookie sheet and cover with a damp towel for 30 minutes.
  8. Heat the oil to 365 degrees in a Dutch oven or deep fat fryer.
  9. Fry the dough balls in batches, four at a time. Turn the doughnuts after a minute to achieve uniform color.
  10. Drain on a cooling rack. Allow to cool for twenty minutes before serving.

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18 Responses to “Doughnuts – A Yankee Cake”

  1. May 3rd, 2012

    Chris Hansley says:

    Dear Frank,
    First – our deepest sympathy to the Foodways crew on the death of Jim. From the pictures of opening day, he looked like he was really enjoying himself.

    Second – This is a real diet buster of a recipe. My hips thank you. I’ll be making them soon. From the picture it looks like the cakes are dusted with sugar. What type of sugar did you use? Would they have had powered sugar in the late 1700s? Would they have glazed the Yankee cakes or just sprinkled regular sugar on them?

    Thanks for all you folks do,

    • May 8th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      Hi Chris,
      Thank you so much for your sympathies. We are still shocked and realizing how much we will all miss Jim.

      The size of sugar in this time was dependent on you and how much grinding in the mortar and pestle you did. White sugar came in large, hard cones and you had to break off chunks and grind it up. I have seen special mortars used by confectioners that have a very large pestle attached to them which were designed to make finely powdered sugar. Modern powdered sugar is not the same, because it has corn starch in it to keep it from clumping up. So it has a different texture then finely powdered sugar of the period. Many cakes or puddings were covered with sugar and then heated with a salamander (a flat metal bar heated to red hot in the fire and then held over to caramelize the sugar.) This process is called “glazing with sugar” and is called for in many 18th-century recipes.


      • May 8th, 2012

        Chris Hansley says:

        Hi Frank,

        Thanks for the info. Just like the Heritage Chocolate blocks, I think I’ll order a cone of sugar, I bought one at one of the stores on DoG street years ago. If it’s available I’d like to try it in the History is Served recipes. Would the measured amount be the same? Teaspoon for teaspoon of cone sugar vs. modern day granulated sugar?

        Please keep Jim’s image in the video intros. It’s good to see him.

        Thanks again,

  2. May 6th, 2012

    Meyltje van Aalst says:

    Dear Frank,
    we, the Dutch, still eat these ‘oliebollen’ (yes, oil balls) mainly during festivities like on fairs. The time of the year when nearly the whole population eats them is not at Christmas however, but on 31th December. They are not eaten as a desert either, but snacked on during the evening with salty stuff like soup, salads or other fingerfood. The balls are even better when filled with raisins or currants (very common) or pieces of apple.

    Kind regards,
    Meyltje van Aalst

  3. May 7th, 2012

    Christen Smith says:

    Dear Frank,
    My friend and I are doing a project on Colonial American bakers. We wanted to try this project at home, but neither of us have a deep fat fryer. Is there any alternative to deep fat frying it?

    Also, was this a common food for bakers to make?


    • May 8th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      Hi Christen,

      Well in fact, we don’t have a deep fat fryer either! We just pan fry these and they are fine that way. I doubt they were commonly done by bakers since they a fried at this point. I find it interesting that they are called “Yankee cakes.” The donut seems to have always been associated with the Northeast. If you go there now, you can’t turn around without hitting a donut shop. Apparently the Northern taste for donuts goes way back.


      • May 16th, 2012

        Becky says:

        You can’t turn around without hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts, to be precise. Dunkin’ Donuts started in Quincy, MA and have gotten to be very, very popular in the last 50 years. To be honest, this MA girl prefers the Krispie Kremes I get when I stop by DC on my way to Williamsburg every year 🙂

        My father always said Yankees are English (and we’re Irish, so don’t let anyone call you a Yankee!). Anyway, the British are fond of their sweets and seem to really like the plain sugar taste, as opposed to the American preference for flavored sweets, like lemon, watermelon, cherry and so forth.

        As far as I can tell, cakes of the time weren’t all that sweet. Even today, Americans prefer much sweeter confections than people of other countries. Tiramisu, for example, isn’t all that sweet at all. I wonder if the “Yankee” just referred to the fact that Americans were developing a much sweeter tooth than their European counterparts?

        Thanks for this recipe, btw! I’m dying to try it. I’ve made donuts in the past but had to give it up on account of all the sore bellies we all had later that day…. Hopefully my raising skills have improved.

        • May 16th, 2012

          Historic Foodways says:

          Thanks for your comments, Becky. I agree with your premise that our foods are sweeter, and that nothing beats a hot Krispy Kreme! I would argue that the industrialization of food has done more than national preferences to increase the sweetness of our foods, and our tastes have followed their lead.

          It is very likely that colonial foods were less sweetened then modern ones simply because of the economics. We have also developed new types of super sweeteners like corn syrup, ect. that allow us to sweeten things more highly. Many of us today forget how expensive triple-refined white sugar was in the colonial period. Poor families would literally save for weeks to get the money for their Christmas puddings and the like.

          It is important to note that despite its high price to us, it was far cheaper and more available here than it was in England. We are closer to the Caribbean, where it was grown, and there was far more smuggling here as well. Apparently, illegal French molasses flooded New England in most of the period. Interesting that it is this cheaper type of sweetening that is called for in Yankee cakes.

          Oh, and I try not to let anyone call me a Yankee either, hehehe.

  4. May 7th, 2012

    carolina says:

    These “doughnuts” are just that, little nut-like-shaped balls of dough. And as the previous commenter said, the Dutch now call them “oliebollen.” However, historically (meaning in the 17th, 18th & into the early 19th centuries), they were called “olikoeks,” “oley koeks,” or “oly cooks” (among other spellings) by the Dutch; but that is just the Dutch word for “doughnut” aka a fried ball of dough. And yes, historically, they were typically made with currants and raisins in them. And yet, by the early 19th century (1820s or so), recipes begin to drop those two ingredients. That being said, they are NOT the same as our modern day doughnuts, and they never were. They’ve always been just little balls of dough. In addition, they’re really no different than any fritter (balls of dough that’re fried in oil), which every other culture/nationality (including the English) has had for literally centuries.

  5. May 8th, 2012

    Mem says:

    In your 21st century recipe I suggest replacing heating the milk in a saucepan to heating it in the microwave. The future, it is here!

  6. May 29th, 2012

    sally says:

    What do you do with the 1/2 lb of sugar?

  7. March 15th, 2013

    Dillon Hiller says:

    About how many doughnuts does this recipe make?

  8. September 13th, 2015

    Becky says:

    What do you do with the 1/2 lb of sugar

  9. December 18th, 2015

    Tara Shea says:

    I’m finding this recipe difficult to follow. As Becky asked you back in September, ” what do you do with the 1/2 pound of sugar?” Also, how long should it take for the yeast to rise? Do we add all yeast to the milk? Or only a spoonful as stated with the sugar? I hope to make this treat for my sons social studies class as they are studying Colonial AAmerica, but I am on my 2 no batch as the first never rose and I have a feeling that because I followed the steps exactly in this recipe my 2 nd attempt may also be a failure…I will keep you posted. I am not a person that takes kindly to waste…and as stated I have already thrown one batch away.

    • March 29th, 2018

      kcosta says:

      Hello Tara. I do apologize for the delay in answering your question. I agree, this recipe is very hard to read. I’ve gone ahead and corrected the missing information and clarified other parts. Thanks for letting us know. I hope you’ll tell me how they turn out.

  10. March 5th, 2017

    Thomas the train says:

    These are delicious! especially when you put powdered sugar on them.

  11. November 7th, 2017

    olivia says:

    the recipe is generley easy to make im doing a report and i might try to make this thanks for listing this

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