There’s a great scene in the movie Sullivan’s Travels in which our heroes Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake show up penniless and starving at a diner. They ask for two “sinkers” and a cup of coffee. The hash slinger behind the counter reaches into a big glass jar and pulls out two thick black rounds, which hit the plate with an audible thud. The pair dig in, chewing as though they’d just torn a hunk off an old shoe. That in a nutshell, my brother and sisters, was the early cake doughnut.
Back in the day you see, before the advent of wet cake doughnut batters and the modern extruder, cake doughnuts were a little, oh, you know…heavy. Why was this? It all had to do with the limitations of chemical leavening vis-à-vis yeast. Ounce for ounce, nothing rivals yeast for sheer gas-producing power. Which is why you can roll out a firm yeast dough and have it rise into a light-as-air raised doughnut in a few hours’ time. In order for a chemically-leavened baked good to be “light as air”, it generally has to start out as a liquid or at least a paste (think cake or pancake batter). But how, without specialized equipment, do you deliver a liquid batter into a vat of oil and have it come out perfectly ring-shaped? You can’t. And they couldn’t, at least back then. Their cake doughnuts were made from actual dough. Which meant they came out kinda…you know.
The whole story had a happy ending though. Because sinkers were so darn tough (especially after tree or four days in a jar) people dunked them in coffee to soften them up. Hey! Those two things go pretty well together! Police work hasn’t been the same since.