Federal Donuts, located in the Pennsport area of South Philadelphia specializes in just three things—donuts (obviously), coffee, and fried chicken—and was probably one of the most talked about restaurants of 2011. A limited amount of donuts and chicken are available each day and it has been pretty common for everything to be sold out by the time lunch rolls around. The last time we tried to go—on Chester’s birthday—we got there way too late and the handwritten sign on the door told us that they were sold out of everything. Sadness.
Luckily, this disappointment coincided with the release of the January class schedule at Cook—one of the other most talked about places to hit the culinary scene last year—Audrey Claire Taichman’s (of Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning fame) kitchen/classroom/pantry in Rittenhouse Square. When I saw that Michael Solmonov, James Beard award-winning chef of not only Federal Donuts, but Zahav (hummus!) and Percy Street Barbeque as well, was going to be part of a Federal Donuts brunch class, I stalked the registration page so that I could snag two of the 16 available seats for Chester and I as part of his Christmas gift (food and time with me? How could anyone turn that down?). Success!
Solmonov, along with Zachary Engel who is in charge of the kitchen at Federal Donuts, led the class. Joining them were two of their other partners: Felicia D’Ambrosio, who mixed up cocktails throughout the class and Thomas Henneman, owner of BODhi coffee, which supplies the caffeinated beverages to Federal Donuts.
Fried chicken and donuts are pretty simple to make, but Federal Donuts employs a pretty lengthy preparation process to ensure that their versions are pretty much the the best that you will ever have.
The shop makes 60 orders of chicken per day (four pieces in each order) and the preparation process is quite lengthy. The chicken is brined the day before it’s to be served. Then, at midnight, an employee comes in to place the chicken into the deep fryer, where it poaches for awhile. It’s then dried on racks until chicken ordering time begins, just before noon. They start making donut batter, at midnight too, and start frying at 4 a.m. (Obviously, this would never be a good job for me. I need my sleep). With this extra care and attention to detail in the preparation, its no wonder there have been consistent sell-outs and lines around the block since the October opening.
Throughout the class, we sampled four kinds of donuts and two kinds of fried chicken. It’s a good thing that we arrived at Cook pretty hungry. The donuts that were featured were made especially for the class at Cook, but the fried chicken recipes are the same ones that are used at Federal Donuts each day.
First up was the sufganiyot, a chewy, sugar-raised donut that’s filled with raspberry jam and is traditional Hanakkah treat. The Federal Donuts team served up one version rolled in vanilla-lavender sugar and one rolled in appolonia spice—a cocoa and orange blossom sugar blend. All of the spice blends are made for the shop by La Boîte Biscuits and Spices in New York.
Next up, was my favorite donut of the day: a sour cream donut with tonka glaze. These donuts had a rich, cake-like texture and were tender on the inside and slightly crispy outside.
I had no idea what tonka was prior to my experience at Cook, but I’m now in love with it. It smells and tastes like a combination of vanilla, almond, cinnamon and clove, and it’s traditionally been used in perfumes, potpourris and soaps. The government controls it as an additive in food; it can be slightly poisonous when consumed in large quantities, since it contains coumarin, which had blood thinning properties. So, enjoy your tonka in moderation.
The final donuts were the the oddly shaped Loukomades, a honey dipped Greek donut. They look heavy on the outside, but are actually light and fluffy with a mild flavor. I think they would be great rolled in a little cinnamon or powdered sugar too.
Next up, it was time for chicken.
My biggest pet peeve about fried chicken is that the breading always seems to peel off when you bite into it. Not so with the Federal Donuts versions, since the breadings included cornstarch or sweet potato startch to keep them in place. The outside has a satisfying crunch when you bite into it, and the chicken underneath is extremely moist and flavorful.
First up were Taiwanese fried chicken wings. They were flavored with a Chinese five spice powder and served with a Za’Atar spice (a blend of herbs, sesame seeds, sumac and other spices) and chile garlic glaze. They were presented in separate bowls, but I liked mixing them together for a little bit of extra heat.
Engel spent time in New Orleans’ earlier in his career and continues to be inspired by the cuisine there. So, for the second chicken preparation, he made the fried chicken recipe from Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a New Orleans institution. This was a more traditional fried chicken preparation, as it had buttermilk incorporated into the coating. It’s fried in pork lard, so while I would love to eat this everyday, I probably shouldn’t.
And, then, we were stuffed.
I highly recommend taking a look at the upcoming classes being offered at Cook. Get onto the mailing list so that you can be notified as soon as registration opens up, because things sell out very quickly. Although the class was on the pricey side, it’s definitely worth it if you love food (and I think you can tell Chester and I do!) and want to hear directly from the chefs about how and why they do what they do. In the case of Solmonov and his crew, it’s clear that they all love what they do and all enjoy working together. It was a far more personalized experience than we would have had if we visited Federal Donuts on the average day.
I’m hoping that it won’t be too long before we’re able to have donuts and fried chicken from Federal Donuts again. Although we left Cook with the recipes, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever be able to come close to getting them right at home. The good news came out this week was that the shop is starting a dinnertime chicken service on the weekends, so at least we might not have to wake up too early for our next visit.