Superior Donuts

Michael Nagrant / 02.04.09

Kirsten Anderson shatters the ideal of the quintessential doughnut baker, embodied by the pudgy, pajama-wearing Fred the Baker in those mid-’80s Dunkin Donuts commercials. While Anderson, 28, plies her trade before dawn in the hazy golden kitchen light of an otherwise ghostly dark Bite Cafe, where she has waited tables since 2001, an early rise is where the similarities end.

Anderson, who creates gourmet-flavored doughnuts by hand for her Glazed Donuts Catering operation, has made a living defying expectations.

She has worked in the food industry for more than 13 years, starting out illegally bartending at 15 (“I didn’t even know what gin was, but I was making gin and tonics,” she says). She also has been a legal document process server, private investigator, food writer and personal bodyguard.

While at Bite, Anderson trained at the American Fighting Academy on North Halsted. She secured a job as a bodyguard for a charismatic religious teen minister who sold out stadiums.

“Eventually I realized I was going to have to sleep a lot less and drink a lot more if I stayed in this job,” she says.

In her next job, as a process server, she surprised people with court documents or sneaked into the hideouts of domestic abuse scofflaws to make sure they weren’t leaving the country before trial.

When living out of her car 10 hours a day grew tiresome, Anderson took up journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, eventually graduating and landing free-lance gigs. But, she says, “The more I wrote about people and chefs who were doing new and interesting stuff, the more I wanted to be the person doing the new and interesting stuff.”

In the midst of brainstorming food ideas, she took a girlfriend to Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park for a birthday dessert of brioche doughnuts.

“It was good, and all these doughnuts were showing up on all these fine-dining menus, but they weren’t nearly as cool as they could be,” she says. “I thought there was so much more potential, but really I was talking out of my … well, you know what.”

Anderson took a doughnut pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest, eating at celebrated spots like Top Pot and Mighty-O Donuts in Seattle.

She was inspired to see that people built their business on a shoestring budget and felt she could do the same. And she thought she had an edge.

“Except for the doughnut guy in New York [Doughnut Plant], no one was doing the kind of flavors I was thinking,” she says.

She launched her business in January 2008. Her very first doughnut, an orange spice concoction filled with nutmeg and clove and featuring fresh juice, was a labor of love.

“We juiced and zested forever,” she says.

She moved on to Mexican chocolate, pistachio with cardamom and honey lavender, all culminating in an alcoholic ensemble of champagne, Chambord and Irish Car Bomb on New Year’s Eve.

Of her wacky flavors, only pina colada has stumped her customers.

“Everyone freaked out, but what’s not to love about pineapple, coconut and rum?” she says.

Anderson uses sustainable and local ingredients whenever possible, including crispy bacon from C&D farms in Indiana for a recent batch of bacon maple doughnuts.

But flavor is paramount. “I never ever want someone to bite into one of my products and say, ‘Oh, that’s good for being an organic, local doughnut,’ ” she says.

Her cake doughnuts are hand-rolled and deep-fried six at a time in a relatively dinky commercial fryer filled with zero trans fat soy vegetable oil. She glazes them by hand in a three-hour process, yielding about seven dozen doughnuts a week.

The doughnuts — $3 apiece — have no egg or butter, less than a teaspoon of palm oil shortening and are sweetened with evaporated cane juice. For folks used to the yeast bombs at commercial bakeries, Anderson’s doughnuts are as nuanced as fine wine.

Though it seems like the itinerant Anderson has finally found her calling, even this occupation had unlikely beginnings. Her first doughnut memory was of plastic-wrapped chocolate Gems from the corner gas station.

But even in commercially baked doughnuts, you can find beauty, she says.

“Everyone has some major sense memory of doughnuts from when they were a kid,” she says. “Doughnuts return the magic of your childhood and take away the disappointment of your adulthood.”

This article first appeared the Chicago Sun Times in a different format.