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Glaze of glory

As a new doughnut shop opens in Missoula, we savor the history and culture of America's favorite treat

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Seitz started working at the front of the Rosauers bakery counter after high school. In the 12 years since, she's risen to the top of the bakery heapor, in corporate terms, the bakery manufacturing manager. "I'm the youngest [head] baker in the chain," she says.

She says the hours are tough: She has two young kids, and after her husband gets home and the family eats dinner, she hits the hay at 7 p.m.

The hours are tough, but the work is consistent even in an economic downturn. Seitz says Rosauers makes 50 dozen doughnuts every day, from Berliners to Danishes to maple bars, each slathered in rich, buttery icings or filled with pockets of silky cream. And she's willing to put her doughnuts up against anyone's, because handmade doughnuts "just taste better," she says.

•••

Far from the bustle of the Reserve Street supermarket, 40 miles from Missoula in the shadow of the Mission Mountains, a small-town shop offers about 50 doughnuts a day derived from an old family recipe.

Ravalli, population 119, sits on a curve of Highway 93. Just off the west side of the highway is the unassuming, homey front of the Windmill Village bakery. Step inside, and the place smells of yeast and feels like a well-kept, decades-old institution, with a tchotchke-filled kitchen, vinyl-lined tabletops and a suspender-wearing old-timer sipping coffee and staring at newcomers.

The business, started by Nancy and Dave Martin only about a decade ago (they claim to not precisely remember), is becoming a legend in western Montana as having some of the best doughnuts around.

Stephanie Lubrecht, head baker at Treasure State Donuts, cuts rings out of yeast dough. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Stephanie Lubrecht, head baker at Treasure State Donuts, cuts rings out of yeast dough.

As Nancy Martin works on a batch of doughnuts on a recent afternoon, she needs no coaxing to expound on the glories of her product. She believes firmly, for instance, in freshness, so she makes her doughnuts throughout the day. "You can't beat a warm doughnut," she says. Just then, Martin opens a camping-cooler-sized turkey fryer, lifts out a couple tanned doughnuts and sets them to cool for a moment.

Martin makes her doughnuts based on a recipe passed down by her mother. The end results are enormous, pillowy wonders, teetering and craggy like the mountains visible outside the window. Biting through the chocolate or vanilla glaze reveals tender but substantial dough with a slightly salty, almost pretzel-like flavor. Windmill doughnuts are satisfying, and demand another bite.

"I had to make 'em big," she says. "This is ranch country. Out here we're used to eating a pound of beefsteak, so when you make a doughnut, you make a doughnut."

Martin won't reveal what makes her doughnuts so special. One report outed the secret ingredient as mashed potatoes, but Martin claims there's "another" secret that she won't reveal. Ingredients aside, anyone can see the obvious extra heft to the Windmill's products. It makes a $1.25 vanilla glazed ring more than enough for breakfast. "One time I took a dozen and weighed them out, and they came out to five pounds," Martin says.

Martin, who's from Thompson Falls, says she spent years working in the steel manufacturing industry before she and Dave decided to move to Ravalli to be closer to her aging parents. They bought an undeveloped property and set up tents and ran a farmers market before constructing the building that's now Windmill Village.

Martin says the business started as a farmers market with a small amount of baked goods. The farmers market dwindled after other towns, including Polson and Arlee, started their own. After a few years, she says the bakery made more money than the market.

"At first I had two ovens, this size," she says, outlining a small square with her hands, "And I could fit one pie in each one."

The Martins have since more than doubled the kitchen size, and now offer her doughnuts at the bakery and the Polson farmers market in the summer.

Martin also used to only make one batch of doughnuts in the morning and let them sell out every day. Now, she gets to work around 4 or 5 a.m. and keeps making doughnuts until well after lunchtime.

Apple fritters meet the fryer. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Apple fritters meet the fryer.

Martin says she meant for doughnuts to be another side item in the bakery, but people latched on to them with a passion. The Windmill's Facebook page is filled with testimonials, including pleas for them to ship to other states. Martin has some theories of why her business has taken off.

"Getting a warm doughnut reminds you of that cozy home feeling, being secure and loved and ...," she pauses. "It just reminds me of my childhood, I guess."

•••

Consider your first memory of doughnuts. What does it conjure? Do you think of your mother's homemade maple bars, as Martin does? Trips to the Sugar Shack on Higgins with your family, like Lubrecht?

Doughnuts have the power to take us to specific times and places of childhood—often the happiest and most comforting times. Ice cream is the most comparable sweet, but you don't eat ice cream for breakfast. Maybe it's as simple as a Pavlovian reinforcement, the pairing of a sugar high with family and comfort, embedded in our brains.

"Doughnuts are not health food," Lubrecht says. "It's a treat."

Perhaps the people banging down the door at Treasure State are excited because they are drawn to something that they innately know will be comforting and sweet. Whether we're eating a doughnut at our favorite college coffee shop, or grabbing a maple bar out of the box in the office, or stopping at a warm bakery in Ravalli on a rainy-day road trip with friends, we're allowed to go back to being kids for a second. We may not be soldiers, but it's the same feeling that momentarily transported World War I troops back home while stuck in the trenches.

Doughnuts are, no matter how ordinary and abundant, a treat. They're a brief bite of nostalgia before we carry on with our day.

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