Serious Eats: Chicago
Meet the Maker of Bleeding Heart Bakery's The Death of John Waters: The Divine Donut
Bleeding Heart Bakery
Chicago, I don't understand your neglect of the doughnut. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley outside of LA, it was tough to go a mile-long stretch without passing a doughnut shop—be they chains like Spudnuts or Winchell's, or ma and pop independent shops that speck the mini-malls (which can be found at nearly every major intersection). Sundays as a kid meant a trip to the zoo or a bike ride or tossing the ball around in the park. And doughnuts. It wasn't Sunday without a trip to the doughnut shop.
And yet one would think Chicago—with its dive bars, stuffed pizzas, and encased meats—would be just the type of metropolis where the humble doughnut would flourish. But aside from some Dunkin' Donuts shops and a handful of small independent shops, this just isn't so. The doughnut just doesn't seem to have a place in Chicago.
Which is why it's somewhat of an anomaly that the most abstract, flavor-packed, and borderline schizophrenic doughnuts I've ever had are from Bleeding Heart Bakery in West Town. We're talking doughnuts in serious need of a Ritalin prescription. Just the names of the doughnuts alone give warning that you're in for a heck of a ride when chowing down on these guys. Names like Holiday in Cambodia, Punk Rock Princess, Mommy's Little Monster, The Machete and the namesake for this week's post, The Death of John Waters: The Divine Donut. A name that sounds more like a Coen brothers satire than a doughnut.
Bleeding Heart is a name most people in Chicago should recognize. Owners Michelle and Vinny Garcia (Vinny's more the cake visionary, Michelle the baker—though it's not fair to hold them to either) have built a reputation around their punk-rock pastry and cakes, and have won numerous awards and honors with their sustainably minded program. The husband and wife team opened their original bakery in 2003 and have since opened bakeries in Roscoe Village, Oak Park, Elmhurst, the four-month old café in West Town, and within a matter of days, Lakeview. But it wasn't until they opened the café in West Town a few months ago that doughnuts became a part of their regular repertoire.
Credit for Bleeding Heart's doughnut program goes out twofold. Authorship for the recipes and vision goes straight to Michelle, and that's pretty evident in names like Mommy's Little Monster. But doughnuts aren't like cakes, ordered on a specialty basis in limited quantities. A doughnut's quality lessens as each hour passes after its been pulled from the fryer, and they're really no good after twenty-four hours. Bleeding Heart makes its doughnuts fresh every single day of the week (any leftovers often end up as family meal for the staff at Roots next door). And that's one of the reasons why the role of master baker at the café is so important.
Gram Gould has been with Bleeding Heart since the original store on Belmont, and talking doughnuts with Gram, specifically The Death of John Waters: The Divine Donut, was a heck of a lot of fun. The bakery makes three different types of dough for its doughnuts, which is pretty standard for most doughnut shops. There's the cake doughnut (theirs is a chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate glaze and sprinkles aka Mommy's Little Monster), the potato doughnut (a sweet potato doughnut dusted with powdered sugar aka Radical Roots), and the yeast-risen doughnut (which most of their doughnuts are, including The John Waters).
Every day at 5 a.m. Gram or one of his bakers gets to work and heats up the frying oil, which is a large vat full of organic palm oil. Gram then gets to work on the three different dough types, giving a half hour for the yeast doughnuts to rise once they've been cut. When the oil hits temperatures near 350 to 375°F the frying begins, giving about a minute or so of cooking time on each side. Each doughnut is then given its respective bath of sugar, glaze, or whatever else tops them off—with the exception of our John Waters doughnut.
The Death of John Waters: The Divine Donut is a play on the director John Waters and his drag queen star of films such as Mondo Trasho and Female Trouble. And, of course, bacon has the reputation as "the divine swine." That's because the doughnut is crusted with candied bacon.
Once the doughnut is removed from the fryer, it's immediately soaked in syrup made of Jim Beam whiskey and maple. The dark sugars of the maple and whiskey infuse with the fresh cooked dough and essentially encapsulate the doughnut with a half-glaze, half-dipped type exterior. After soaking, Gram dips the doughnut in chopped bits of Nueske's bacon that've been rendered and glazed with maple syrup, giving the doughnut its signature crust. Whiskey. Maple. Bacon. It's nothing like the simple glazed doughnuts I loved as a kid, but in its four short months of existence the John Waters doughnut has racked up quite the Google search result list.
When I asked Gram his thoughts on the doughnut scene in Chicago, he was confused too. He spoke highly of Doughnut Vault (review here), and he says he knows people who drive to Munster, Indiana to get their doughnut fix every weekend. Plus, every time he's home in Fort Wayne he gets his fix at a small shop, too. It was a part of his childhood like it was mine.
But I won't go so far as to say Bleeding Heart Bakery is the answer to Chicago's doughnut drought. A doughnut like The Death of John Waters: The Divine doughnut is something one can only have so much of, and the bakery sells their doughnuts accordingly. Unlike a traditional shop, their doughnuts are sold by the piece at $2.50 for unfilled, $3.00 filled. If you buy a dozen—and God be with your arteries if you do—you're still paying per piece. What I will say is that eating these doughnuts somehow brought back those memories of Sundays and taking a trip to our local shop to get a dozen with dad, and I only hope that Michelle's creation of these novelty doughnuts only continue the push of local artisans trying do craft a niche for this deep-fried pastry of my youth.