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With progress, a cruel twist

Once Dunkin' staple, labor-intensive cruller out

Its retirement never even merited a notice on the drive-through menu, much less a memorial service with Homer Simpson-esque eulogies. But over the summer, when customers were distracted by Coffee Coolattas and maple-frosted scones and such, Dunkin' Donuts took a step that left some loyalists with an empty, funereal feeling, twisting them in knots like the snack whose passing they now mourn.

Without fanfare, the Randolph-based company phased out one of its original breakfast-pastry items, the doughy, dunkable girder upon which many a franchise -- and ample waistline -- has been built.

The cruller is no more.

Walk into any local Dunkin' Donuts and you can purchase a caramel-swirl latte or sourdough bagel, a pumpkin muffin or powdered Munchkin. You can get a jelly stick, chocolate stick, or chocolate-coconut stick, pastries that are shaped somewhat like conventional crullers and contain roughly the same lip-smacking number of empty calories.

You can even get something called a French cruller, which is round and textured like a tractor-tire tread and lighter than a French poodle's coiffure.

But you cannot get a cruller anymore. Not the kind that resembles a small, braided torpedo and has been a staple of the New England diet since the Pilgrims' day.

Explaining the decision is Bob Pitts, the company's chief test baker and doughnut technologist. Pitts has worked for Dunkin' Donuts on and off since 1961, so he remembers the days before Coolattas and croissants came along. According to Pitts, the cruller was a victim of changing technologies and improved dough mixtures, a combination that rendered it obsolete.

"We introduced a new doughnut mix over the summer, one which is lighter and moister and all machine-made," says Pitts. Handcut products, he adds, were beyond the capabilities of these machines, which can produce rings and sticks but not braided pastries. Therefore, something had to go. The cruller went because it could not be machine-produced, like the jelly stick, but required human hands.

Dunkin' Donuts, the world's largest coffee and doughnut chain, sells 52 varieties of baked goods. Always looking to upgrade its product line, Pitts says, the company dropped the cruller as "part of a decision to move on," although he prefers the term "replaced" to "discontinued" when describing the cruller's fate.

Asked whether many customers have complained, or even noticed, Pitts says a few have. "Whenever you change things, there are questions," he acknowledges.

One customer who questioned the decision is Sean Fitzpatrick of Sterling. Fitzpatrick stops by once a week for coffee and a chocolate cruller. Last summer he was handed a bag with a chocolate stick inside instead of his usual order. He tried it. It tasted vaguely familar but just wasn't the same.

"It wouldn't have caught my eye normally, but it really was inferior," Fitzpatrick says. "My guess is, when a cruller is braided it cooks through properly. This one wasn't. It crumbled a lot easier, too."

A lifelong crullerphile, Fitzpatrick, 35, was mystified. How could his favorite delectable be replaced by this? He wrote to company management, seeking an explanation. In return, he received a form letter and a gift coupon. "I understand this is no big deal in the grand scheme of things," Fitzpatrick says with a chuckle. "The word that comes to mind is `inexplicable.' Why remove human beings from the process if it leads to an inferior product? I don't get that."

Peter Delios, owner of Kane's Doughnut House in Saugus, thinks he does. Crullers must be hand-shaped and twisted before cooking, Delios says, and that takes a little extra time. In the fast-food industry, time is the enemy. To an industry consultant, a cruller probably sounds like a doughnut designed by committee.

"Nobody wants to go to the trouble of making them anymore unless you're a mom-and-pop shop and willing to do things the old-fashioned way," says Delios, who sells several varieties of cruller. "Dunkin' Donuts was probably just looking at the numbers."

As for a round cruller: As the French say, sacre bleu.

"A cruller is not round," Delios says flatly. "Round is a doughnut. A classic cruller is oblong and twisted."

Indeed, the word "cruller" comes from the Dutch krulle, meaning "twisted cake." According to the definition in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th Edition), a cruller is "a small, usually ring-shaped or twisted cake of sweet dough fried in deep fat." In New England, the definition goes on, it refers to "an unraised doughnut, usually twisted but also shaped into rings or oblongs."

One of Dunkin' Donuts' newest regional competitors, Krispy Kreme, also sells rounded crullers -- but not the oblong, twisted kind. (It does sell a cruller-shaped pastry called the Cinnamon Twist.) Another rival, the New England-based Honey Dew Donuts chain, leaves product decisions largely in the hands of franchisees, according to executive vice president Jim McKenna. However, most offer at least a couple of varieties of the traditional cruller, he says, and some as many as four or five.

"We're very neighborhood-oriented, and there are some areas where customers love their crullers," says McKenna. "I notice people who want to sit and relax longer often do so over a cruller. Maybe because it's more substantial than a regular doughnut, I don't know."

When the first Dunkin' Donuts opened in Quincy in 1950, according to founder William Rosenberg's autobiography, it sold four kinds of doughnuts: plain cake, jelly, yeast-raised, and crullers. Rosenberg died last year, so he wasn't around to pass judgment on the passing of the cruller. Had he been, Rosenberg might have been reminded of a phrase uttered on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and much cherished by fans of the TV series: "Respect the cruller; tame the doughnut."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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