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What can the wonut (and cronut and doughssant) teach us about history?

How the modern phenomenon of the pastry mashup takes its cues from the pre-industrial past

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THE FOOD ISSUE: Ancient Methods, Modern Cuisine

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When New York pastry chef Dominique Ansel debuted the cronut in May 2013 he opened the floodgates for other Frankensteinian pastry mashups we never knew we wanted, and in some cases didn't (sorry, doughssant lovers). Waffles Cafe, which has locations in Lakeview and Streeterville, got in on the action in April when it introduced the wonut, a treat with the crunch and density of a waffle and the size and sweetness of a doughnut.

Waffles Cafe owner and chef Alex Hernandez says he first came up with the idea about a year and a half ago, which isn't far off from the cronut's date of birth. That timing might suggest a movement among bakers and pastry chefs to modernize, even bastardize, their craft. But at the same time, attention to traditional techniques is essential in the creation of the most successful of these baked-good hybrids.

Hernandez's wonut is very much the product of old-school methods. He and his team fry up to ten at a time in vegetable shortening and hand-dip each in one of a variety of glazes, or squeeze on icing, or add tiny toppings. "We'll throw out a whole batch because the oil was not hot enough, they weren't left in the waffle iron long enough, they were left in the waffle iron too long," Hernandez says. "Sometimes it's just not a good batch and so we have to toss it out and keep up the quality."

The precise, time-consuming steps differ from the robotic manufacturing process responsible for the modern American doughnut. In 1920 Adolph Levitt perfected his patent for an automatic doughnut machine, which pumped out doughnuts by the thousands, each taking the same uniform shape and taste. The New Yorker pointed out in a July 1931 "Talk of the Town" column how Levitt's invention attracted attention at a doughnut spot in Broadway: "It isn't exciting enough to go there especially to see, but it's cleaner than a steam shovel in an excavation and provides the same kind of entertainment."

The piece notes that Levitt's machines could produce 1,200 doughnuts an hour; by comparison, Hernandez and company can make about 600 wonuts a day. Demand for wonuts has grown since Thrillist Chicago editor Sean Cooley first wrote about them in late April, with Waffles Cafe expanding to a third location, a kiosk in Water Tower Place, later this month.

"We definitely have been approached by people who have said, 'We can make machines that will punch out the waffles for you,' sort of a conveyor belt into a fryer," Hernandez says. "I don't think we're at that point yet, and I'm not ready to give up that handmade quality."

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