Think all doughnuts are the same? Think again. Mojo Monkey Donuts takes the pastry where it has never gone before. Really.
Lisa Clark takes a novel approach to making doughnuts. She actually prepares them herself, from scratch, every day. No cost-cutting commercial mixes, no short cuts. The payoff speaks for itself.
"Good doughnuts are just a matter of using good ingredients," she said. "Just doing that can dramatically change the flavor, for the better. It's not that complicated. In the doughnut world, you can buy everything frozen, fry it up and go. That requires about three hours of training, and you're done. I didn't want to do that."
Although Clark's Mojo Monkey Donuts has only been open for about a month, the idea for creating a different kind of doughnut shop has been germinating in her head for years. Starting with a long -- and now, in hindsight, influential -- stint at Breadsmith.
"What really stuck with me is that when you walk into Breadsmith, you see bakers making bread, by hand," she said. "They're making something fresh, that day, with real ingredients. When consumers see that with their own eyes, they recognize that what they're buying is special. They develop a whole new level of appreciation and gratitude for the product."
Agreed. Visits to doughnut-crazy Seattle were another powerful influence. "Doughnuts -- really good doughnuts -- are in such abundance there," she said. "It's wonderful, and we need that culture here in Minnesota."
It didn't hurt that Clark's daughters are also doughnut fanatics, which meant she had plenty of support at home. Armed with a business plan, Clark spent a year hunting down a location, finally settling on a storefront on St. Paul's W. 7th Street. "The neighbors have all been beyond supportive; it's like a little bit of Mayberry, but in St. Paul," she said with a laugh. "Seriously, I keep wondering, 'Where is Opie?'"
They might not be so welcoming once they realize that she's single-handedly expanding waistlines in the 651. Don't believe me? Take a crack at one of Clark's raised doughnuts with coconut. You'll have the elastic-waist pants store on speed-dial in no time.
Variation on a theme
The vast majority of raised doughnuts have the texture and taste of deep-fried cotton candy, smothered in a diabetes-inducing glaze (Krispy Kreme, anyone?). They're a sugar delivery system, and little else.
Not Clark's. "So many doughnuts rely upon icing --powdered sugar and vanilla extract, basically -- for their appeal, because you're essentially just biting into air," she said. "That was not my goal."
Here's her secret: Along with a considerable amount of know-how ("Doughnut making is hard; it's as much science as art," she said), Clark incorporates her own sourdough pre-ferment -- there's that Breadsmith training in action -- and she enriches her yeasted dough with mashed potatoes and parsnips, a combination that injects a moist heft into each ethereal bite.
Rather than soaking all of that slow-rising goodness in a toothache-inducing sugary coating, one that's bellowing a one-note vanilla foghorn, Clark turns to a mango-honey blend for an unexpected flavor pop, then adds a pretty garnish of fat and crunchy dried coconut flakes. It's not an exaggeration to state that I have never tasted a better raised doughnut. In Minnesota, anyway.
Clark cleverly enlists that dough into all kinds of admirable uses. There are round, pudgy Bismarcks filled with espresso-enriched chocolate mousse, or rectangular beauties she calls "bars," but my dad would label a Long John, finished with a glaze flavored with genuine maple syrup and topped with a long slice of crisp bacon; Clark can barely keep up with the semi-insane demand, sometime selling a hundred of them in a single day.
Cake doughnut goodness
The tender cake doughnuts are also exceptionally good, with trace scents of nutmeg and mace tickling your nose as you bite into them. The outer shell has just the right golden crispness, and it envelopes a moist, air-pocketed interior that will prevent you from buying a supermarket doughnut again. Ever.
Clark serves them straight-up, but also obviously has a lot of fun playing with the formula. Sometimes she lavishes them in a naughty vanilla ganache, sprinkled with chopped walnuts. Or she infuses them with chai, or pumpkin purée. Or folds in Minnesota-made apple cider and chunks of fresh-from-the-orchard apples. Then there are those with a blend of Dutch cocoa and semi-sweet chocolate for her spin on German chocolate cake.
"It's weird, in a good way, how much you can do with a basic cake doughnut," Clark said. "The variations can go on, and on, and on. The creative possibilities are endless, and I'm really excited about that."
That makes two of us. Other doughnuts include crusty-edged old-fashioneds, laced with sour cream, buttermilk and a hint of cinnamon, and delicate crullers. Prices range from 99 cents to $1.89.
On weekends, Clark makes the time to crank out beignets, to order, and she knows what she's doing, having lived in beignet-obsessed New Orleans for more than a decade. "The best thing and the worst thing about beignets is that you have to eat them right away," she said. "We make them until we run out, and we always run out."
It's a testament to her baking prowess that Clark's tightly spiraled cinnamon rolls -- which pack a heavyweight cinnamon punch -- bear few traces of their deep-fried origins. The knobbly fritters, as brown as hazelnuts, melt in your mouth (get the divine pecan-banana combo), with just scant evidence that they came to life in a bubbling vat of trans fat-free vegetable oil.
Oh, and coming soon: Danishes, based upon an old family recipe, "Where you roll, and re-roll, and re-roll, adding butter, until you have, like, 300 layers of dough," Clark said. I probably speak for a lot of Minnesotans when I say, "Hurry, please."
Two tips: Arrive early -- or have the foresight to order in advance -- as Clark and her crew routinely deplete their inventory by midday. Also, prepare yourself, because spending even five minutes inside Mojo practically guarantees you'll to be cloaked in Eau de Doughnut for the rest of the day.
Not that that's a bad thing. I wear it as a badge of honor, my own olfactory salute to doughnut lovers everywhere.