On a recent Monday, Bill Fray, 62, had jury duty. A prosecuting attorney asked him a question.
"Because so many police officers act as witnesses, what do you think of cops?"
His answer was swift.
"They're great, if they eat my doughnuts."
The attorney, and probably a bunch of other people in the courtroom, knew they were in the presence of doughnut royalty. Fray is often called the Doughnut Whisperer. He has been brought in to fine-tune doughnuts at Dunkin' and at Krispy, at Winchell's and at Mister Donut. He has consulted with Dough in Tampa, putting them on track so Dough's doughnut artisan Tina Contes recently competed effectively on the Cooking Channel's Donut Showdown.
At the heyday of his Fray's Donut House empire, he was making more than 700,000 doughnuts each year.
Fray's doughnut curriculum vitae didn't start strong. He cut his first one in 1972. In the Navy, he had a 30-day leave and was mesmerized by a doughnut shop in New London, Conn. The owner, sensing opportunity, showed Fray some basics and left for a couple of weeks of vacation. This was before cellphones.
The owner finally called.
"There's dough everywhere," Fray said, trying to modulate his panic. "It keeps growing. What do I do?"
"Take a walk, smoke a cigarette and start over."
These days Fray is probably not recommending the cigarette part, but his advice is similar. Cake, yeast, French and puff pastry — sometimes you mess it up and have to start over. The key to it all: You have to measure the flour temperature and the room temperature to figure out your water needs.
Fray didn't know this off the bat.
• • •
Trial by fire, he figured it out. After that first Mister Donut, he went on in the late 1970s to work for Dunkin' Donuts, and then as a company store manager for Winchell's in the 1980s, then on to Fort Lauderdale to run some Mister Donut locations before moving to St. Petersburg in the 1990s and opening his first Fray's.
He built the business up to five stores, but in 2001 his wife, Lauree, died. Doughnuts lost their luster.
He gave four of the stores away to his employees.
"I fumbled around for six years. Everything I thought we were supposed to do together I stopped doing."
He met the next love of his life, his second wife, Janet, at an Einstein Bagels. (Savory, not sweet, but still there's a theme here, right?)
"When I retired I wanted to help people make a quality product. I have a passion for the doughnut business," Fray said recently in the kitchen of Dough, just before dropping cake doughnuts on a metal rack into 375-degree oil. "I don't remember wanting to be a fireman. I always wanted to be a doughnutmaker."
• • •
Nutmeg, vanilla, dried milk, cinnamon, water, no leavening and Dawn flour, finely milled and made of spring wheat: He dumps the cake doughnut dough out onto a floured board, using the sides of his hands so he doesn't create pockets, folds it in thirds, rolls it out, then lets it relax before using the ring cutter.
"This is my favorite doughnut," Fray said, hefting the metal cake screen toward the hot oil.
Why this doughnut?
"You'll see." (And we do. It's an amazing cinnamon sugar cake doughnut.)
Wearing flip-flops, Fray re-rolls the dough scraps from the cake doughnuts, using a Molina roller cutter this time to make long bars that will shortly become jelly sticks. He works decisively but favors his right shoulder. He has had surgery.
"After 44 years of doughnutmaking, it was bone to bone."
The sticks are still warm as he hooks a pair of them up to the dual-nozzle Edhard Machine. Some of them are filled perfectly, and occasionally the apple raspberry jelly bursts out the top like a B-movie casualty.
"I like the artisanship of making them by hand," Fray says. "With the dough you can feel the tenderness or stiffness."
The apparatus is fairly minimal. There are lifter handles and screen blocks, long wooden drumsticks used to flip the doughnuts in the oil, rubber gloves for the finishing work. Fray is visiting Dough for the third time: The first time, three years ago, he worked as a baker, this time and the previous he visited as a consultant, tweaking the recipes and kitchen regimen.
For Contes, it's a doughnut tuneup.
The last time he was here, he realized there was a problem with the proof box. They got a new one.
"It was kismet," Contes said. "Everything I've learned has been working under a chef. In some ways we were working harder, not smarter."
Contes' growing knowledge shows. When Dough started, they were making 1,400 doughnuts a week, each triumph hard-won. Now that number approaches 6,000 a week and Dough is routinely mentioned even in national discussions of dominant doughnuts. (Most recently, national praise has focused on Dough's shock-and-awe doughnut ice cream cones.)
• • •
Three-eighths of an inch thick. Fifty-five seconds on a side; flip only once. Don't overwork the dough.
Fray is exacting. It suits the zeitgeist: "Artisanal doughnuts" are all the rage right now, boutique doughnut shops supplanting cupcakes in most metro areas.
Why are doughnuts the latest "it" thing?
"It's the way everything comes back around," Fray said before biting into a cinnamon sugar cake doughnut. "But I don't think doughnuts ever went away."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.