As with so many foods from the age before mass production, it’s almost impossible to nail down the date, or even the year, the first cake doughnut was made. Yet as we look down the ingredient list we can narrow the time frame a bit. Cake doughnuts are chemically leavened (i.e. they employ baking soda or baking powder), and we know these types of leaveners didn’t come into popular use until the early 1800’s. Prior to that all doughnuts were yeast-raised, a style that still endures, notably in the Krispy Kreme doughnut empire, which makes no other kind.
Doughnut recipes that feature chemical leavening don’t start popping up in household cookbooks until the late 1840’s, though even then they were likely considered more of an oddity than a delicacy. The best guess as to when cake doughnuts started to become commonplace was the end of the nineteenth century, when tin doughnut cutters with a hole in the middle started popping up in housewares catalogues (most cake doughnuts were cut from a fairly firm dough in those days).
Yet the first clear instance of cake doughnut popularity doesn’t come along until World War I. As the story goes it was a cold and rainy night in the trenches near Montiers, France. Sodden, battle fatigued soldiers huddled for warmth under leaky tarps, despairing of ever seeing their homes and families again. Exhausted and starved for supplies, volunteer women in a nearby Salvation Army relief tent get an idea: there’s a little flour and sugar left in the storehouse. Mix it with some water and leavening and the result would be not unlike a doughnut dough. Quickly improvising a stove, they began to cast their eyes about for frying vessels. Finding none, they upended a wounded soldier’s steel helmet, filled it with oil, and the rest is history.
Hogwash, of course. Or at least nearly hogwash. Though it makes a great story (some versions have the doughnut girls cutting out rounds of dough with the ends of spent artillery shells), the reality is a bit less dramatic. There were in fact many women among the legions of Salvation Army volunteers that followed the troops into the trenches in WWI, and they did make doughnuts. Far from being impromptu, however, doughnut making was part of a much broader baking effort that included cakes, pies and other tastes of home. It was true that the volunteers didn’t have much in the way of kitchen equipment, and early on they may have rolled out dough with empty wine bottles. Be that as it may, their cake doughnuts caught on like wildfire. So much so that when the war ended and the troops came home, they demanded a little taste of “over there” from their local bakers. The Salvation Army of course went on to make doughnuts for the troops in World War II and beyond, which is why today (especially among servicemen) the Salvation Army and the doughnut are practically synonymous.