It would make Homer Simpson proud: the doughnut has had a makeover. The fried sticky and sweet treat with a hole in the middle has been elevated into a gourmet treat.

As with many baked sweet treats, the US has been setting the pace for the popularity surrounding doughnuts, which is now filtering through to the UK. Last year, an article in the New York Times boosted the image of doughnuts from being roadside snacks to veritable delicacies, citing creative examples such as pistachio, lavender, orange-infused and even elegant Earl Grey-flavoured doughnuts.

A raft of upmarket doughnut outlets have emerged, aping the explosion of cupcake shops of recent years. One of the foremost, Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon, describes its doughnuts as "exotic" rather than "gourmet". Its best-selling doughnut is a bacon maple bar, a rectangular doughnut with maple frosting and bacon on top; other flavours include round doughnuts covered with vanilla frosting and scattered with chocolate cereal, M&Ms or flavoured jellies. They are weird and wacky but hugely successful, selling by the thousands a day.

"Our doughnuts stand out and really make people stare. We just experimented," explains co-founder Kenneth Pogson, also known as Cat Daddy to his customers. Pogson learnt how to make doughnuts after a three-day course with BakeMark USA. "In America, doughnuts are almost an institution. You could go into a doughnut shop and it would look just like it did 30 years ago. We decided we wanted to breathe some life into doughnuts and do something crazy with them. Once consumers noticed our doughnuts, there was no stopping the trend; we just rolled with it and grabbed the opportunity."

The appeal of US-style decorated doughnuts is best illustrated by the rapid growth of Krispy Kreme in the UK. Since its launch in Harrods in 2003, establishing it as a leader in gourmet tastes, the company has experienced rapid growth, with 45 stores currently across the UK, a presence in over 200 Tesco outlets and plans to double its outlets within five years. With 100,000 customers being served every week and openings being met by queues forming around the block, just what is Krispy Kreme’s secret?

"It’s all about having the right doughnut. Our customers can watch the doughnuts being made fresh behind the counter, right down from the dough to being glazed, so knowing what they are buying has been freshly-made makes it more special. It becomes more of an experience, and more of a treat and, in this current climate, customers really want to know that they are buying a treat that is worth it, and that they can trust," explains Judith Denby, Krispy Kreme’s chief marketing officer.

While Denby agrees that innovation is the key to capitalising on the doughnut, she stresses that tried-and-tested old favourites shouldn’t be neglected either. "At least half of our range of 16 varieties are the American classics: the original glaze, the sprinkles and the crullers. It’s really important for us to keep the American heritage of the doughnut. For a lot of people, their first experience of a Krispy Kreme doughnut will have been on holiday in America and, when they come to us, they want to relive that. It’s important to have a combination of old favourites and new friends. People do get upset if they cannot get the flavours they want we had to bring back our strawberries and cream doughnut, which was meant to be for one summer only, because customers got so disappointed when it went."

While old classics are essential, Denby says new seasonal flavours are also big-sellers and recommends using the seasons as a great way to continue offering customers variety. "This summer, we have coconut ice and mango and passion cheesecake. We’ve used summer desserts as our inspiration, and made the doughnuts really colourful."

Denby advises smaller craft bakeries to consider offering a customisation option, so that customers can have personalised doughnuts. Krispy Kreme offers customised doughnuts for charities and corporate clients, for example.

"A doughnut is a treat, and the more opportunities you can create to offer people those treats is a good way to open you up to more business," she says. "We did a ’Glamour’ glaze doughnut, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Glamour magazine; they were super-glossy doughnuts in lip gloss shades and hugely successful. Smaller bakeries could offer doughnuts for weddings, parties, events customers love having treats tailored to them."

According to CSM United Kingdom, which sponsored National Doughnut Week earlier this year, the UK doughnut market is worth £72.3m, with a year-on-year increase of £3m. Meanwhile, data from Kantar Worldpanel, which tracks supermarket sales, reveals the volume of doughnuts in supermarket in-store bakeries has soared, with a 13.5% year on year rise and over 73 million packs sold in ISBs.

"This growth is being fuelled mainly by shoppers buying doughnuts more often and new shoppers coming into the category," says Vandemoortele marketing manager Chelsea Pogson. "Innovation in ISB doughnuts continues with an increased range of sugar-iced rings on offer as opposed to fat coated doughnuts. The sugar-iced doughnuts deliver a more intense flavour and have a smooth mouthfeel, making them a more indulgent eat."

So what can craft bakers do to make the most of the existing demand in a growth market, and continue to build upon it?

The answer could be to look to the US for inspiration in order to create adventurous doughnuts with a twist. "Our colleagues in the USA report that bakers are developing more extreme doughnut menus, including raised yeast doughnuts with maple frosting and bacon on top and fried doughnuts with banana chunks, peanut butter and chocolate glaze. So bakers here in the UK might want to consider more complex doughnut flavour combinations," says Lisa Boswell, of CSM UK. "This approach takes doughnuts into another dimension and gives a modern twist to an established product, with options for premium-priced decorated doughnuts, doughnuts as individual celebration cakes and more creative doughnut displays to attract more impulse purchasing."

Ingredients supplier Macphie says the most important way bakers can innovate with doughnuts is by enhancing their visual appeal. Machpie’s newest product range, i-zings, offers bold colours for icings and glazes made from natural ingredients. "Looking at the catwalks, the fashion world has gone colour crazy," says Karen Scott, Macphie communications manager. "Now bakers can capitalise on this trend too. Bakers can make a real statement and brighten up their window displays this summer. The trick is to get creative."

According to Scott, time and money spent investing in the doughnuts’ decorative appeal is very worthwhile. "Bright colours, fillings and finishings really entice consumers. It costs just 4p to ice a doughnut, but bakers can command a real premium, so it’s an easy way to capitalise on this trend."

Scott continues: "Dual flavour combinations is a big trend too. For example, for a toffee apple doughnut, you could have toffee icing with Bramley apple injected into the doughnuts, or raspberry and coconut, or banana and custard doughnut."

Alternative treats

Churros, crullers, fritters and beignets also fall into the gourmet doughnut category of fried, sweet pastries, proving the doughnut to be prevalent in world cuisine. Churros, a typical Spanish delicacy, consists of long doughy fingers piped from a star-shaped nozzle then fried, before being rolled in sugar and cinnamon and dipped in thick hot chocolate to serve. Crullers, which are German in origin, are more like doughnut cakes, with fried dough twisted into a round. American apple fritters fry the fruit along with the batter frying elderflower in sweet batter is an elegant twist to create elderflower fritters while beignets are fried choux pastries with fruit fillings.

Fresh flavours

Lacking in gourmet inspiration? American bakery menus provide plenty of ideas for flavour combinations. Doughnut Plant in New York offers crême brulée, lavender flower, banana and pecan and peanut butter glazed cupcakes. Babycakes, New York’s vegan bakery, reportedly sells out of its daily stock of doughnuts by midday; favourites include lemon coconut and cinnamon sugar. The world-renowned Balthazar serves pistachio doughnuts while red velvet doughnuts go down a storm at the Peter Pan Bakery.