Since the early 20th century, doughnuts have been a popular treat in the United States. More than 10 billion doughnuts are consumed annually in the US, due in part to the large-scale expansion of corporations like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts. Although the diversity of colorful and frosted doughnuts might seem like an American delicacy, the origin of these sugar-laden treats lies at least partially in Germany.
Although doughnut-like delicacies existed throughout Europe for centuries, the first written reference of a jelly doughnut (called Gefüllte Krapfen in German) was in a cookbook from 1485. The cookbook, titled Küchenmeisterei (“Mastery of the Kitchen”) was published in Nuremberg and was one of the first to be reproduced with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
These early-stage doughnuts had no holes in them, and had their interiors filled with meat, cheese, mushrooms or other ingredients, according to Leite’s Culinaria. Once the price of sugar dropped in the 16th century, doughnuts became sweeter, and countries all across Europe began to adopt the sweetened versions of the jelly doughnut.
In Germany, the doughnuts have been referred to as Berliners for over 200 years. The history of this terminology remains blurry, but some sources claim that the pastry was named after a baker from Berlin. In 1756, this baker was allegedly deemed unfit for the Prussian military, but allowed to work as a baker for the regiment. While he was in the field, he would fry doughnuts over an open fire. His comrades named the treats after his hometown, calling them Berliners.
As the doughnuts evolved and spread throughout the world, they were given a variety of names; at one point, Germans even referred to them as Bismarcken, after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Today, terminology largely depends on the region: Berlin residents refuse to refer to the doughnuts as Berliners, calling them Pfannkuchen instead (which means “pancakes” in the rest of Germany). In parts of north and west Germany, the savory treats are still called Berliners, while in central and south Germany they are generally referred to as Krapfen. In Hesse and the Palitinate, they are are known as Kreppel.
When Europeans immigrated to the United States, they brought many of their native delicacies with them – including doughnuts. When the Dutch settled Manhattan, they introduced olykoaks (“oily cakes”) into the US, which was their name for the European doughnut.
But while traditional European doughnuts had a filling in the middle, American-style doughnuts evolved in shape to include a a hole in their center, making them perfect for dunking. The Pennsylvania Dutch were known for their production of doughnuts with a hole in the middle. These days, the colorful doughnut rings you find in US grocery stores look and taste different than the cream or jelly-filled Berliners and Krapfen sold in Germany, but both originated in Germany, growing in popularity as they became sweeter.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy