Anyone who's driven more than a mile in the state of Massachusetts knows that this is doughnut country: the land of coffee rolls, powdery cake rings, and puffy Boston cream blimps bulging with custard and dripping chocolate glaze. But on a remote corner in East Boston stands a doughnut bakery that predates Dunkin' Donuts by almost two decades—and still makes a far superior product.
If you're not looking for Betty Ann Food Shop, it's easy to drive right by. The name is just barely etched into the glass windows, and even when you step up to the door—a diagonally positioned storefront on Bennington Street—the interior looks almost bare: Two weathered retail cases are just barely stocked with pies, cookies, and other pastries. First-timers might not even see the doughnuts, which are kept on sheet pans behind the cash register, just outside the kitchen. That is, until owner Bill Scantlebury sends out a tray of just-fried doughnuts, and the intoxicating aroma grabs your attention.
Scantlebury—a wiry older gentleman who looks like he's never eaten a doughnut in his life—inherited the business from his father and, before that, his grandfather, who opened the bakery in 1931. And he hasn't changed much since. The doughnuts (40¢ each) are old-school, and he makes only five varieties: cake rings, crullers, yeasted rings, and orbs filled with either raspberry jelly or lemon.
He makes the dough, a family recipe that his grandfather learned to make in Cornwall, England, from scratch every day, starting between 4 and 5 a.m. The yeasted dough rises twice—once overnight, and then again right before frying, when Scantlebury pops it into his coal-fired oven* to give the dough a little extra lift. Then they go for a hot-oil bath until golden brown and crisp, followed by a roll through granulated sugar. The filled doughnuts get fastened to one of two manual pumps, where Scantlebury squirts a healthy blob of not-too-sweet jam or lemon filling into their centers. The finished products, heavy for the size like good grapefruits, taste faintly of nutmeg and citrus, and will have you swearing off of commercial chain doughnuts forever.
Note: The bakery keeps odd hours: 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Fridays, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and closed Mondays. But don't push the timing. You don't want to walk in close to closing time and miss the jellies. Don't expect coffee—they don't sell it. And don't bring pennies; they won't take them.
* Scantlebury also uses that oven, which runs along the back wall of the building, to cook the city's best Boston baked beans. The pot of sweet-salty California beans bakes overnight for sale on Saturday mornings. Lately, business has been slow, so he's stop the baked bean production for the moment; here's hoping it picks back up when the weather improves.
Betty Ann Food Shop
565 Bennington Street, Boston MA 02128 (map) 617-567-1479
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