Potatoes have a long tradition in baking. In the 1833 edition of her popular cookbook “The American Frugal Housewife,” Lydia Maria Child suggested using mashed potatoes to stretch the more expensive wheat flour in making desserts: ”Potatoes boiled and mashed while hot are good to use in making short cakes and puddings; they save flour, and less shortening is necessary.“
An 1861 article on bread making in The New England Farmer pointed out another reason to add cooked potatoes to dough, “to increase the amount of fermentation in the sponge, which it does to a very remarkable degree, and, consequently, renders bread lighter and better.”
Unsalted mashed potato is a perfect growth medium for yeast, which is why old recipes for making your own yeast mixture often recommend using cooked potatoes. As yeast grows, it consumes glucose and oxygen and gives off water and bubbles of carbon dioxide that cause dough to expand. So potatoes add lightness to yeast-raised donuts, as well as moisture and flavor.
Potato doughnuts seem to be a fairly recent invention that is native to northern New England and Quebec. The oldest recipe that I have found so far is from “Vermont Cookery, as Practiced in 1899 by the Women of the First Congregational Church of Bellows Falls, Vermont.” Like many community cookbooks, this one includes some homely maxims for better living. “It is the art of cooking that makes the distinction between man and the lower animals, and good cooks who have a thorough knowledge of this art should be entirely devoted to the gratification of taste and the preservation of health.” So it is the practice of cooking, not the use of symbolic language, that distinguishes humans from animals, according to the good ladies of Bellows Falls. Another adage from this cookbook lays a heavy moral responsibility on the cook: “Bad dinners go hand in hand with total depravity, while a properly fed man is half saved.” Those fortunate enough to enjoy food prepared by a good cook should be doubly grateful: they gratify their palate and are saved from total depravity.
Homemade doughnuts are a delicious treat for a special occasion such as Valentine’s Day. To celebrate Maine’s bicentennial year, you can make them with Maine potatoes. The following recipe from “Vermont Cookery” will make a dozen light and toothsome doughnuts, plus doughnut holes.