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Holy doughnuts: Women’s group makes treats to raise funds for church

Esther Vollbrecht, left, and Shirley Mohr fry the doughnuts in heated lard and know when they’re cooked by color and experience from the huge number of doughnuts they’ve fried over the years. Dave Wallis / The Forum 2 / 3
Ardis Severson, left, follows a recipe to assemble the ingredients while Judy Anderson mixes the ingredients to get the dough ready for the cutters. Dave Wallis / The Forum 3 / 3

MOORHEAD – Before sunrise, a batch of dough is ready.

The sticky, nutmeg-scented mixture is carefully patted into smooth, even rounds. A rolling pin would ruin the texture; hands are best, JoAnn Oelke explains.

A dusting of flour on the pastry board keeps the buttermilk dough from becoming a tacky mess while Oelke and Barb Hopkins pierce it with metal doughnut cutters.

Each ring is carefully placed on a cookie sheet before it takes a swim in hot lard. The doughnuts sizzle and bob until they’re a deep, golden hue.

Shirley Mohr and Esther Vollbrecht aren’t sure exactly how long this takes; no one wears a watch. But they’re all experienced from years of cooking the sweets on their family farms, so not even one of the hundreds of doughnuts burns.

By 6:45 a.m., 13 dozen homemade doughnuts – just like grandma’s – are cooling on racks in the kitchen of Grace United Methodist Church here, waiting to be packaged in Ziploc bags.

At 9 a.m., customers arrive to claim the coveted doughnuts.

The women’s group, called Martha Circle, sells the doughnuts for $7 a dozen to raise money for the church.

Since starting in 2009, they’ve fried thousands and raised at least a couple thousand dollars each year. Last year, they contributed $3,000 to the roughly 200-member church.

“We love our church. We love our God. That’s what I tell myself when I have to get up this early – this is for you, Lord,” Mohr says as the other women laugh.

That’s another thing about the doughnut-making women – they’re spirited while they work, despite the early hour. Humor, just like their desire to serve their church, is part of the doughnut ladies’ sisterhood.

The idea to sell doughnuts was inspired by women at Hawley (Minn.) United Methodist Church, who made doughnuts for church fundraisers, Oelke says.

The groups of six, sometimes seven or eight, women at Grace United Methodist have been friends for years. Their children grew up together, and most are lifelong members of the church. 

The retired friends meet once every three weeks at 6 a.m. to make the doughnuts. “Ya’s,” “you betcha’s” and laughter fill the kitchen while the coffee brews and the old-fashioned treats are mixed, cut and fried.

“You know, it’s a fun fellowship thing, too. It’s fun to work together. Many hands make light work,” Oelke says.

The recipe is tried-and- true, given to Oelke by a neighbor many years ago. She and Mohr used to make doughnuts together for their families, but now, with their children grown, they don’t stock their freezers full like they used to.

The get-together reminds the women of life on the farm, and the taste of the doughnuts does the same for customers.

“People have asked what we fry them in. I say, ‘Lard,’ and they always say, ‘OK, I want some then.’ They’re just like my grandma’s,” says Grant Mohr, Shirley’s husband, who bags the treats and taste tests for quality.

The Grace United Methodist ladies have never strayed from the classic cake doughnut. Trendy sugary fillings and bacon-topped confections have no place in their kitchen.

The recipe includes buttermilk, apple cider vinegar and nutmeg – three essential ingredients that give the doughnuts their distinct flavor.

And don’t forget about the lard. Vegetable shortening isn’t the same, Oelke says.

No scrap of dough is wasted, and every bit is fried until it’s a tasty bite of old-fashioned flavor. But they don’t make doughnut holes. The scraps are formed into logs that the women eat during breaks from the kitchen. All the other dough is made into regular doughnuts.

“Farmers don’t want to be dealing with doughnut balls. They need doughnuts,” Hopkins says.

Their customers are mostly older people who miss the taste of their grandma’s doughnuts. That’s one reason they keep the price at $7 a dozen.

By 8 a.m., all the doughnuts have been fried, the coffee drunk and the dishes are in the dishwasher. The women part ways, at least until Sunday or the next doughnut-making morning.

To order doughnuts

What: Homemade buttermilk doughnuts made by the women of Grace United Methodist Church

When: Pick-up is at 9 a.m. Sept. 17

Where: Grace United Methodist Church, 1120 17th St. S., Moorhead

Info: The doughnuts cost $7 a dozen, and all proceeds benefit the church. Doughnut orders must be placed at least 48 hours in advance. To order, call (218) 233-1857 or email

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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