St John Bakery Doughnuts

Sweet Recipes, Winter • 11 Mar 2015

I’ve forever been weary of making doughnuts until last week. Perhaps I cracked due to the mulish collection of below-freezing days, the stinging air working its way into the crevices of my brain, numbing all hesitation. Or call it freakish boredom, lucid cabin fever. My fear of doughnut making came to a rigid halt and there I was, 9 at night, standing in front of my KitchenAid, watching the firm, glossy ball of dough whirl ceremoniously in incongruent circles, smacking against the shiny metal bowl, causing a racket of noise. I had plunged in head first, fear unwavering, confident in my yeast, in chemistry, in the kinetic process. As if doughnut making was not enough of a mortal fear, I had chosen London’s esteemed St. John Bakery’s recipe. Surely I had a death wish.


After a minimal amount of poking and prodding that evening, I left the dough to develop in the refrigerator overnight. That night I dreamt the dough came alive, all blubbery and frothy and elephantine, and much like The Blob overtook everything in plain sight. It was horrific, something at which to marvel, gloriously grotesque and fear inducing. I awoke to the sound of my panicked heart and instantaneously flew out of bed. Guided by the emerging dawn light I ran to the fridge to check on my dough, which was thankfully swollen and pregnant, overwhelming the bowl in which it sat. I regarded the giant mass, unapologetic in size, and marveled at the wonder of yeast, this fantastic living organism.

A lot of patience stood between the rotund ball of dough and gorgeously golden, sugarcoated doughnuts. The next few steps require a gentle touch, and confidence in the process. Tenderly remove the dough from the bowl and divide it into 20 equal parts; restraint in the hands is key. Roll them into smooth, tight balls and let them rest quietly, peacefully for several hours while reclaiming their radically puffed up form.


Next comes the frying. We’re talking a gentle fry, nothing overzealous. The dough balls sizzle when dropped into the hot pool of oil, puffing and browning in the placid bubbles. Each side is cooked until golden, then, still warm, bathed generously in crystalline sugar. Stacked neatly in a row, I filled the doughnuts with fluffy vanilla cream, a mixture of smooth, rich vanilla custard and fluffy whipped cream.

We ate doughnuts for my birthday, in lieu of cake. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to cake after eating these. They are by far the most perfect doughnuts I have ever tasted and I was elated that they came to pass so beautifully on my first try.

*This recipe was created by Justin Gellatly, formerly of St. John Bakery and currently of Bread Ahead in London’s Borough Market. I recommend sticking to metrics and using a scale to measure out your ingredients. I made a few minor adjustments, which I noted below. St. John kindly gave me permission to reprint the doughnut recipe, which can also be found in Mr. Gellatly’s book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding.

Makes about 20 doughnuts.

For the dough:
500g strong white bread flour
60g caster sugar
10g fine sea salt
15g fresh yeast, crumbled
4 eggs
Zest of 1/2 lemon
150g water
125g softened unsalted butter

For cooking: About 2l sunflower or rapeseed oil, for deep-frying (I used canola oil)
For tossing: Caster sugar (I used granulated)


Step 1: Put all the dough ingredients, apart from the butter, into the bowl of an electric mixer with a beater attachment and mix on a medium speed for 8 minutes, or until the dough starts coming away from the sides and forms a ball. Turn off the mixer and let the dough rest for 1min.

Take care that your mixer doesn’t overheat – it needs to rest as well as the dough. Start the mixer up again on a medium speed and slowly add the butter to the dough, about 25g at a time.

Once it is all incorporated, mix on high speed for 5 minutes until the dough is glossy, smooth and very elastic when pulled, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to prove until it has doubled in size. Knock back the dough – knead it to get the extra air out – then re-cover the bowl and put into the fridge to chill overnight.

Step 2: The next day, take the dough out of the fridge and cut it into 50g pieces (you should get about 20).

Roll them into smooth, taut, tight buns and place them on a floured baking tray, leaving plenty of room between them – you don’t want them to stick together while they prove. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and leave for about 4 hours, or until about doubled in size.

Step 3: Get your deep-fat fryer ready, a heavy-based saucepan, and fill it up to the halfway point with the oil. Heat the oil to 360F, then carefully remove the doughnuts from the tray by sliding a floured pastry scraper underneath them, taking care not to deflate them, and put them into the oil. Don’t overcrowd the fryer – do two to three per batch, depending on the size of your pan.

Fry for 2min on each side until golden brown – they puff up and float, so you may need to gently push them down after about 1min to help them color evenly.

Remove from the fryer and place on kitchen paper, then toss them in a bowl of caster sugar while still warm. Repeat until all are fried, making sure the oil temperature is correct every time before you fry – if it is too high, they will color too quickly and burn and will be raw in the middle, and if it is too low, the oil will be absorbed into the doughnut and it will become greasy. Set aside to cool before filling.

For the Custard:
1 vanilla pod
500ml full fat milk
6 egg yolks
125g caster sugar, plus an extra 2tbsp
80g plain flour
200ml double cream ( I used whipping cream)


Step 1: To make the custard, slit the vanilla pod open lengthways and scrape out the seeds. Put both pod and seeds into a heavy-based saucepan with the milk and bring slowly just to the boil, to infuse the vanilla. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks and 125g caster sugar in a bowl and mix together for a few seconds, then sift in the flour and mix again. Pour the just boiling milk over the yolk mixture, continuously whisking to prevent curdling, then return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over a medium heat, whisking constantly for about 5min, until very thick.

Step 2: Pass through a fine sieve, discarding the vanilla, and place a sheet of plastic wrap on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin forming. Leave to cool, then refrigerate. Whip the cream and the 2tbsp of sugar together until thick but not over-whipped and fold into the chilled custard.

Step 3: To fill the doughnuts, make a hole in the crease of each one (anywhere around the white line between the fried top and bottom). Fill a piping bag with your desired filling and pipe into the doughnut until swollen with pride. Roughly 20g-50g is the optimum quantity, depending on the filling; cream will be less because it is more aerated. You can fit in more than this but it doesn’t give such a good balance of dough to filling. The doughnuts are best eaten straight away but will keep in an airtight tin and can be reheated to refresh them.

2 Responses

  1. Stephanie R.

    Kate – these look amazing! I also love the idea of having these as a substitute for birthday cake! I would happily eat these donuts in place of cake.

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