Smile Politely

Carmella’s does doughnuts right

Last Saturday morning I awoke to a stroke of genius: I must write a review of doughnuts, I thought. This morning, right now. Perhaps it the changing weather and the cooler temperatures, but I needed some breakfast pastry. I ventured to Carmella’s in Champaign, where all my doughnut desires were on display.

Carmella’s is located on Springfield Avenue in Champaign, just east of Mattis Avenue. Its neighbors include Bobo’s Barbeque, Mobil, Pia’s, a new Midland States Bank, and Walgreens; let’s just say that it’s not the most robust commercial development. However, recent development brought the new Midland branch, and the sidewalk and driveway around Carmella’s has just been redone.

The building is very small, but has a drive-thru for your convenience. I always park and go inside, and this day was particularly busy. There was a family sitting inside and enjoying some coffee and treats, a couple ahead of me was ordering doughnuts, and there was another couple waiting in line behind me. The interior of this shop is dimly lit, and honestly, looks tired and drab. There are two drink coolers if you’re interested in a soda or other bottled or canned beverage. The counter is directly in front of you as you enter the space, and the display of doughnuts is robust and plentiful. If you’re standing in front of the doughnut case and look to your right, you can catch a glimpse of the always (in my experience, at least) dark kitchen in which trays of extra doughnuts are neatly stored, awaiting adoption. There aren’t any labels on in the case, so if you can identify the doughnuts, fantastic, but I usually just point to ones and ask.

Unlike a very popular chain doughnut shop, there aren’t any seasonal or movie-themed doughnuts here. Carmella’s has the standard yeast or cake doughnuts. There are a few that are filled, but I did not test those ones out on this trip. Yeast-based doughnut rings—that is, your traditional, doughnut-shaped doughnut—are only 79 cents each. Long johns are 99 cents each, and cake doughnuts are 89 cents each. At least that’s what I gathered from the signage. It’s actually pretty unclear how much each item costs, but I can tell you that it’s best to order by the dozen. If you allow them to choose the dozen, it’s $7.99. Tuesdays are discounted, and a shop-chosen dozen is only $6.99. Mondays they offer a dozen glazed plain yeast doughnuts for $6.50. On this occasion, I opted for only a half-dozen, and with tax it was $5.20.

Yeast-based doughnuts are the ones that are more in line with the texture of bread. They’re light and fluffy: think plain glazed. Cake doughnuts are exactly that: cakey and dense. They are often sweeter, too.

I ordered the following doughnuts: yeast-based plain, plain cake, chocolate cake, blueberry cake, cinnamon twist (yeast-based), and a maple-glazed long john with nuts on top (also yeast-based). This selection is more-or-less standard at any doughnut place, and seemed like it would be an appropriate standard by which to base my taste test. Here’s the quick and dirty on the doughnuts: they are awesome.

My least favorite of the group was the nut-topped, maple-glazed long john. The yeast doughnut was generously sized, but the glaze to doughnut ratio was off. There was not enough maple topping to the amount of cake, so with each bite I was met with the light, chewy, lovely pastry, but was left wanting more maple flavor to dance with my doughnut. The nuts on top were peanuts. I found them to be nuts for the sake of having nuts; their flavor was too strong and didn’t pair well with the maple. The maple icing was well flavored and sufficiently maple-y.

The blueberry cake doughnut was lightly glazed. It was a little blue-greenish inside and indeed tasted like blueberry. Well, it tasted like other blueberry-flavored things. It clearly wasn’t made with fresh blueberries, but that was all right with me, because the fake blueberry flavoring didn’t taste like chemicals. My husband (who was my tasting accomplice on this adventure) described the blueberries as ‘”lacking pizzazz,” and I’d have to agree. There weren’t any blueberries—real or fake—inside. The glaze on the exterior was light; the exterior of the doughnut was just slightly crispy. The cake inside was soft, crumbly, and sweet. The cake was also moist, which was quite welcome, and contributed to the freshness of the doughnut. The entire bite tasted like a blueberry pie (with the texture of a cake, of course), and was really delightful.

The plain yeast doughnut was also glazed, but unlike the blueberry cake, was light (literally, it weighed less). The doughnut was light and fluffy; the insides were buoyant and chewy. Because it wasn’t bogged down with heavy-handed glaze, it was incredibly easy to eat the entire thing without noticing. In some ways, it tasted like nothing, or slightly sweet, chewy air. The textures and flavors were delicate. Lovely is an appropriate word.

In contrast, the plain cake doughnut was denser, sweeter, and more robust. The glaze was yet again perfectly applied as to not disrupt the delicate balance of cake and topping. It functioned completely as an enhancement to the doughnut. Like the yeast doughnut, it was perfectly plain and unassuming in flavors: it was exactly as you might expect a plain doughnut to taste. The cake and crumb texture were again moist, light, and crumbly.

The chocolate cake doughnut was tied with the cinnamon twist as my favorite. It was moist and crumbly, like the two other cake doughnuts I sampled. The chocolate flavoring had depth, which I greatly appreciated. I can’t help but think of all of the mediocre and downright gross chocolate cake doughnuts from Dunkin Donuts I’ve eaten. Never again, I say. Carmella’s chocolate cake doughnut was done right: it was chocolaty without being overpoweringly so, saccharine, or manufactured. It actually tasted like chocolate (well, baked in cocoa powder). The exterior of the doughnut was crisp, the glaze was sweet, and the interior was moist chocolate-cake goodness. This is the perfect doughnut for coffee dunking, as the cake soaks in the coffee, creating a warm, mocha cake bite that is weekend morning glory. If you’re not a doughnut-dunker, you are missing out.

My favorite doughnut of the six was the cinnamon twist. My spouse, too, really enjoyed this one. This yeast doughnut was braided and within those braids and twists were robust and flavorful swirls of cinnamon. The cinnamon was warm and when mixed with the sweetness of the glaze, was like an approachable version of a cinnamon bun. It provided a wonderful bite(s) of sweet warmth, comfort, and indulgence.

I made a follow-up stop on Tuesday to pick up a dozen doughnuts—they’re only $6.99. I ate one of them, and it was clear that they were day old doughnuts. They weren’t inedible, by any means, but they were not as fresh and soft and delicious as the half dozen I purchased on Saturday morning. My guess is that they pack up Monday’s leftovers for easy distribution on Tuesday morning. The chocolate frosted chocolate cake doughnut I had was a bit drier, but it did make for an even more perfect dunking consistency. Because it was a little dried out, it soaked up the coffee without crumbling to bits inside of my coffee cup. Even a day old, they were still much better than Dunkin Donuts.

Carmella’s has the best doughnuts in town, and offers consistent quality at a reasonable price. You don’t even have to put on real clothes—drive thru is available for those of you who prefer to travel in pajamas. You will, however, need cash, as they do not take any type of plastic. They’ll take a check, but who carries a checkbook these days? The service is no-frills and the owners can seem a little short in their patience, but have never been outright rude. There are a few tables outside, but this is a get-your-snacks-to-go type of place, so I wouldn’t recommend hanging around to eat your treat.

Carmella’s is located at 1611 W. Springfield Ave., Champaign. They’re open Monday through Saturday, 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. They are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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