Meet Melissa Poelling, Doughnut Magician

Melissa Poelling is the heart and soul of Harold's Doughnuts. She greets our incredible staff each morning (we shall not name the hour) with the cheerfulness and exuberance of someone who just cashed in a winning lottery ticket. Melissa Poelling loves her craft.

We love that Melissa is a native Missourian. We love that she culled her culinary expertise not from Hyde Park, but from immersing herself in the art of cooking in her grandparents' kitchen as well as her own. She's as good of a person as she is a cook. And my oh my is she a great cook.

Here's a bit more about Harold's Doughnuts' amazing Doughnut Magician, Melissa Poelling:

How did you become inspired to bake fine pastries?

I love to keep things really simple. I like to imagine the best desserts I have had and come up with ways to turn them into doughnuts. My cookbook collection is ridiculous; I have so many it's almost embarrassing.

I especially love to collect cookbooks from different regions throughout the United States and those I find at various small town church sales. I also shop for unique cookbooks at garage sales and online. I love to collect southern cookbooks. I'd have to say my prized possession - as it relates to cookbooks - is a Junior League cookbook from Baton Rouge, LA, circa 1959.

When or how did it occur to you that crafting baked goods was a vocation you wanted to pursue?

I am passionate about food. I love all kinds of foods the same way some people love sports or shoes. I spent a great deal of my childhood with my grandparents, and I have spots permanently etched in my psyche that are marked with a meal or recipe experienced in their company.

When I think of or smell fried chicken, I recall being completely surrounded by love and remember my grandma on the farm in Kansas. I can see the table set for supper with 9 kinds of pickles, a plate of bread, fresh spring onions, a mounded pile of fried chicken, a deep bowl of country gravy, the counter in the kitchen filled with desserts, and I can hear the faint sounds of Royals baseball on the radio (even though it wasn't supposed to be on). I can remember my grandparents talking to relatives about the "kids these days" and the corn report. I remember being in that place and time and everything in the world was as it was supposed to be. 

To answer the question, somehow I think I always knew that food was my answer. I have always been a pretty good cook, but after my grandmother passed in 2001 I knew there was no other life for me than one rooted in food. Cooking for someone is an expression of love. A way of seeing someone and saying I know you are there. I know you have struggled, so allow me to ease your burden for just a moment or two; let me send you back to a time you were at peace and full of joy. Only food does all of that in one bite.

Describe what it feels like to be in the kitchen baking your favorite creations.

Time stops. For that period of time I get tunnel vision and experience pure joy...complete clarity of thought. Knowing that I have done my best and put it into the world.

What's your favorite thing to bake?

Well, that depends. Sometimes I like to bake for myself, but more often I like to bake for others. When it's just for me, I love an old school peach cobbler...the kind that starts with an entire stick of butter in the pan. Or thin and crisp sugar cookies...those are simply incredible!

When I bake for family and friends, I need them to care about what they are getting because if they don't care, I can't make that memory connection. So my favorite thing to make are food memories. If the request starts off with "my grandmother used to make..., and I don't have the recipe" then you can bet I am all in.

So I guess you could say I love to make what you love to eat. I will retool a recipe a hundred times until I finally reach the point where someone says, "this is just how I remember it." I can make macaroni and cheese 500 ways but the only one that matters to me is the one you want to eat. If your grandma made it with canned milk and rat cheese, and I make you a dish with cream and gruyere, it just won't be the same. It will be good, but good isn't what I'm after. Recreating a scene at your family dinner table with a dish that transports you back to childhood is where I am trying to go.

What's your favorite music to listen to as you're cranking out super awesome doughnuts at 4 AM?

Let me be straight: I have awful taste in music. If music were food, most of the stuff I love would be fluffy white bread. I have some moments of depth with the classic 70s R&B, Taj Mahal, Hooker and Heat, Bobby Womack, and Bill Withers. I have the college years filled with electronic dance music, and I have post-college filled with jam bands. Then I have what I call my "southern period" filled with bluegrass and Johnny Cash. I also love pop music. I want my music to entertain me and make me smile. Here are a handful of songs on my morning playlist:

Going Up the Country - Hooker and Heat
Stickshifts and Safetybelts - Cake
Blame it on the Boogie - Michael Jackson
Home - Mark Broussard
Winning - Santana
Can I Kick It - Tribe Called Quest
Gold on the Ceiling - The Black Keys
Hang Fire - The Rolling Stones
Blues Man - BB King
The Joker - Steve Miller Band

What are one or two doughnut creations you're looking forward to making (and Columbians can look forward to eating!) at Harold's? What is it about these creations that excites you?

I am pretty excited about making doughnuts for Mizzou's SEC football games. These specialty creations will use foods that are cherished in the visiting team's respective state or region. I want to offer Columbia visitors a taste of home, so when they lose to our Tigers they won't feel quite so bad. 

I used to love to eat fluffernutter sandwiches and that translates easily into an amazing doughnuts. Peaches are my favorite fruit to eat and we are on track for an amazing peach season, so I can imagine a peach cobbler doughnuts and a peaches and cream doughnut with homemade peach caramel drizzle. 

I love to make candy as well, so I can imagine some candy-inspired doughnuts with scratch made toffee, brittles, caramels, and nougats. One of my favorite desserts is bananas foster, so clearly that is just begging to be made into a doughnut. In short...GET. READY. COLUMBIA!

What advice would you give to others who are thinking about pursuing the passion as a full-time career?

The age old advice still rings true: follow your heart, don't give up, and keep trying. There will be people who can't wrap their brain around what you want to do or why you want to do it. Don't listen to them. They may be in disguise as the voice of reason or practicality, and in their hearts and minds they may be coming from a place of love. But trust yourself, listen to your voice and just do you.

Passion and love will be the light on your journey. The path is long, winding and full of challenges. You may not end up where you thought you might, but if you are honest with yourself, and authentic in the world, you will absolutely get where you are supposed to go.

Tell us a bit about yourself - hobbies, family, hopes, dreams, anything you'd like to share!

I was named after the song "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers.
I can juggle, hang a spoon on my nose, AND tie balloon animals...just not at the same time.
I once lived in Alaska and drove a snow mobile to work.