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How Scott Levine Makes Underwest's Brown Butter Doughnuts

Welcome to Upper Crust, a series that shines the spotlight on New York's most exciting pastries and the chefs that make them

For someone who never set out to make doughnuts until he found himself with a tiny kitchen inside a car wash, Scott Levine makes very good ones. He’s the owner of Underwest Donuts, which from its improbable home on the West Side Highway, in the far reaches of Hell’s Kitchen, turns out some of finest cake doughnuts in the city. They’re lightly crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and closer to the texture of birthday cake than the denser specimens of their kind found elsewhere. It took Levine about five months to perfect the recipe, but that was partly because he’d never made a doughnut before in his life.After a career on the savory side of the kitchen, as a sous chef at Chanterelle and later a teacher and consultant, Levine wanted to open his own place. Originally he thought bagel shop. But when one deal fell through, Levine’s father-in-law offered him a space in the Westside Highway Car Wash, which he’s owned since the ‘70s. “Once I knew I was going be in a car wash, I knew the concept had to change,” he says. Trying to map out what he could cram into the narrow entryway space he’d been given, Levine realized he’d have to focus on one thing. He also knew he wouldn’t get much foot traffic (besides the occasional visitor to the Intrepid across the street), but could do a brisk morning business with the cab and limo drivers who line up down the block to start their days with a spray-down. Without enough room to even make an egg sandwich, Levine decided the next best option was to buy himself a Belshaw Adamatic Donut Robot and learn how to make great doughnuts.

Some options at Underwest are fried fresh to order, then served plain or rolled in one of three flavored sugars. But if you can manage to turn down hot fried dough, some of the most interesting doughnuts are the glazed options. These are made in advance in the wee hours of the morning, and they're flavored inside and out, each a different cake matched with a different glaze. Among the rotating choices, the almond-topped brown butter doughnut looks a little humbler than the vanilla-lavender “carwash” doughnut (striped with the same colors as the soap squirted onto passing cars), or the famous halva doughnut, but it’s just as unique and just as worth ordering. Here’s how it’s made.

All of Underwest’s doughnuts originate in the same basic recipe, which is then tweaked for different flavors and scaled up depending on the needs of the day. The brown butter doughnuts start with a simple mix of dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. This gets a spin in the mixer.

Then Levine adds the wet ingredients, which are always premixed and ready to go (to make things fast and easy for the early morning doughnut makers). He’s already taken the chill off this mixture by setting it in a warm water bath because "the ideal batter is room temperature." Too cold, and it won’t fry right, soaking up extra oil while staying gummy in the middle.

All of Underwest’s doughnuts include a blend of milk, eggs, sour cream, and vanilla, but the brown butter recipe also gets a dose of pure brown butter solids. Levine keeps an enormous tub of these in the fridge, and every so often, he replenishes it by cooking "a ton" of butter until the milk solids turn the color of coffee grounds. He strains these solids out, saving the clear fat for other things, and is left with the undiluted nutty flavor of brown butter.

Levine mixes the golden batter for a good minute, until it’s totally smooth. Now he punches some buttons on a timer: the batter will have to rest for 15 minutes. This gives the flour time to soak up the liquids and the chewy gluten time to relax, for a softer, moister doughnut. Meanwhile, the oil in the Donut Robot heats up.

When the timer beeps, the batter is noticeably thicker and fluffier from the baking powder at work. Levine scrapes it into the funnel-shaped hopper, which will pump out perfect little rings of batter right into the hot oil. He holds his spatula flat beneath the mouth of the hopper, using it to catch a single test doughnut. "You have to prime the machine," Levine explains, "otherwise the first couple would come out misshapen." After letting one more ring dollop onto the spatula, he swipes the batter back into the hopper and swings it into place over the Donut Robot’s channel of hot oil.

At the flip of a switch, a ring of batter gently plops into the channel. A conveyer belt beneath the golden surface inches it forward at a sedate pace, and soon, another doughnut lands, and another. The doughnuts bobble along two by two until they come to a metal flap that rotates like a water wheel to flip them over. Then they creep along the rest of the way to the end, where a the conveyer belt carries them up and over the edge of the machine, dumping them out onto a sheet tray.

The finished doughnuts are a dark golden brown, darker than their vanilla counterparts because of all the brown butter solids. They would be delicious right now, still hot, but they’ll have to cool before they can be glazed. The glaze would melt right off a hot doughnut, and that’s fine if you want a thin, shiny coating, but Levine likes something a little thicker.

When the doughnuts are just cool to the touch, Levine starts dropping them three at a time into a tub of glaze, which he’s made from powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and more brown butter solids. The glaze is kept warm in a water bath, because just as hot glaze would be too thin, cold glaze would be too thick – about the consistency of toothpaste. Levine gives the doughnuts a good dunking, jumbling them around until no spot is bare. Then he pulls them out and lines them up on a rack to let the extra glaze drip off.

Finally, after every doughnut has been dunked, Levine adds a finishing sprinkle of toasted slivered almonds, which will add texture and a little extra nuttiness to the toasty, buttery flavor of the doughnut itself.

All this mixing, frying, and dunking used to be done right behind the counter at Underwest, on the same machine that fries up those fresh sugared doughnuts to order. But now, luckily, Levine has a bigger kitchen space in a former storeroom overlooking the car line from above. This – and a second Donut Robot – gives him the space and the time to wholesale to coffee shops like Oren’s Daily Roast and Everyman Espresso. So you don’t actually have to trek to the far reaches of 46th Street to get a brown butter doughnut, but doughnuts are still often best from the source – especially when the source is the only place in town to watch a car wash and a Donut Robot in action side by side.

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