“The morning, the early morning, is incredible.”
Heather Schmidt and Josh Danoff would know. They’re co-owners of Union Square Donuts in Somerville, Massachusetts, and thus awake when some of us are just calling it a night. When we heard about their unique approach to donut-making, and the cult following that has emerged in the wee hours of the day to get the freshest dough in town, we decided to make a stop by during our New England Road Trip with the new Lincoln MKX and see for ourselves.
“That early part of the morning feels like it just belongs to me,” Heather says. “The sun comes up, the donuts go in the fryer, and you get that smell in the kitchen. Then the energy totally changes, it becomes lively and vibrant.”
Heather starts each day alone. A trained pastry chef, she relishes these early morning moments to refine each part of the meticulous baking process while coming up with new glazing ideas to work through with her team. Then her staff starts to roll in, on-by-one, and she oversees the mixing, sheeting, rolling, cutting and frying of the dough before it begins its journey towards glazing.
“When the donut comes out of the fryer, we put them on their individual trays where they’re gonna be glazed,” Heather says. “Whatever the glaze may be, the best thing in the world is a warm donut from the fryer. Oh my gosh, it’s so good.”
Before most have had a chance to brew their morning coffee, their little shop has already turned out a staggering 300 donuts. The morning ritual at Union Square Donuts is part science lab/part craft workshop, and bustling with hundreds of little decisions and a complex choreography of people and processes that would make most heads spin, though patrons would never know.
“(There needs to be a) system in place to make sure all of these moving parts come together because this person eating a donut—they don’t need to know how the flour was ordered, and how it was delivered, and when it was driven up the back, whether there were dumpsters in the way, or if we ran out of an ingredient and someone had to run out and get it. It’s not their job to know that,” Josh says. “Their job is to show up and have the donuts they want be delicious every single time. So at 7 a.m., when we’re ready to open our doors to Somerville and the community, it’s a pretty special thing to see there be a line.”
This is the part when you get really hungry.
“The recipes that I’ve formulated for the donuts are (closer to those of) pastries,” Heather explains. “We use real butter. We use real eggs. The milk we use is from a local farm, and it just creates this rich, fluffy, beautiful, light dough. It’s like eating donut clouds. You just bite right into it and it springs back.”
The shop has mastered all the traditional flavors that come to mind when one thinks of donuts, nailing fresh ingredients such as buttermilk and, adds Heather: “a little touch of nutmeg in there like my grandmother used to do.” This produces the added benefit of allowing Heather the leeway to get creative with her sugary output. And by creative we mean-bacon-on-a-donut creative. Every last detail is researched and refined to provide the best before going to market.
“We use a maple glaze, and we use a local maple syrup from this couple who live up in Vermont—it really makes it so special to have these ingredients that were made by someone that we know—we use a thick-cut bacon that’s smoky and delicious. It’s like a pancake breakfast on a donut.”
Oh, and also…
“We made a brown butter hazelnut crunch donut,” Heather continues. “This is a beautiful, rich brown butter glaze with toasted salty hazelnuts on top. It makes this perfect marriage of salty and sweet. It’s fun to have donuts be a creative outlet, because you can do anything with donuts.”
Spoken like a true pastry chef.
While Heather’s approach to donut-making blurs the line between art and science, to focus on either would be missing most of the point—the donuts are so community-encouraging; so line out the door in the dark-worthy because they come from a place of such personal, nostalgic warmth. It’s not just from her background as a pastry chef: when she was a young girl, her father would go to the donut shop and bring home a dozen every Sunday mornings. Her business is the evolution of a ritual that brings people together.
“(There is) so much love and care in every single donut that we make because we know it’s going home with a family, or it’s going home to a newlywed couple, or somebody’s bringing it to their grandmother’s house for her birthday, or somebody who just had a baby,” she says. “We’ve seen couples who come in who are just about to have children, and then we see their newborn babies come in, and then, two years later, they’re still coming in and I’m giving their children donut holes.”
And because of this, Heather feels understandably nervous when first-timers come into the shop—she’s giving them a piece of her workday, a piece of her creative expression, and a piece of her personal nostalgia simultaneously. But it doesn’t sound like she has much to fear.
“I think my favorite reaction to seeing people taste a donut is when no one says anything,” Josh smiles.“When they just take a bite of that donut: their heads lean back a little bit, their eyes close, and you can’t fake that! It’s just like—you know that donut tasted really good.”
We discovered Union Square Donuts on our road trip in the Lincoln MKX. Discover more about the MKX here.