WICKER PARK — Talk about perfect timing: In advance of the second coming of the polar vortex, hundreds of Chicagoans packed on a layer of insulating blubber at the city's inaugural Donut Fest.
"I'm on a caffeinated sugar high," said Alyssa Erickson, who dreamed up the idea. "This was beyond my wildest expectations.
Held Sunday at Chop Shop's 1st Ward, Donut Fest featured more than a dozen bakeries serving up sample-sized portions of bismarks, long johns and doughscuits to a hungry horde of 450 people lucky enough to snag a ticket to the sold-out event.
Julie and Adam Markgraf of Rogers Park, veterans of such foodie fests as For the Love of Chocolate, gathered all their samples at once, placed them in a box and planned to work their way through their haul slowly, likely taking a few pastries home.
"We've been to several events where there's sweets. You get sick, and it stops being fun," said Julie. "This time we thought we'd pace ourselves and enjoy the event."
The size and scope of Donut Fest was a tribute to the longevity of stalwarts like Andersonville's Swedish Bakery, which has been cranking out pastries for 80 years, and the recent explosion of boutique shops, led by Doughnut Vault, which opened in 2011.
"Three years ago, I couldn't have imagined a Donut Fest," said Patrick Addison, pastry chef at Doughnut Vault.
Addison, one of the pioneers of the doughnut revival, said, "There was a market for it almost immediately."
Nostalgia certainly is part of the doughnut's appeal.
"I remember going to the doughnut shop with my dad," said Chris Teixeira, West Town Bakery's pastry chef. "It brings you back to childhood."
But make no mistake, your 5-year-old self would scarcely recognize many of today's doughnuts.
West Town Bakery brought full-sized samples of its newest creation — a beer and pretzel doughnut with a spiced cookie spread filling that earned the fest's Fan Favorite award. The pastry was inspired by the upcoming Super Bowl.
"I tried to do something not so chocolate and vanilla," Teixeira said.
Chicagoans have responded enthusiastically to this constant pushing of a doughnut's boundaries.
Decked out in her Glazed and Infused T-shirt, attendee Lily Zarnowiecki of Humboldt Park was representative of the new generation of doughnut fan.
"I'm obsessed with them," she said. "I love how people are getting so outside the box."
Case in point: The winner of the fest's Best Donut judges' award — Endgrain's "doughscuit" — isn't even really a doughnut.
The fried honey-glazed biscuit, filled with crème fraîche and vanilla pastry cream, was developed in response to the cronut craze.
"People kept telling us, 'You need to do that,' " said Caleb Simpson, co-owner of Endgrain in Roscoe Village, along with brother Enoch.
Rather than copy the croissant-doughnut mashups produced by other chefs, the Simpsons opted to play around with their already popular biscuits.
The rest is Donut Fest history.
"I don't know what to say," a speechless Caleb said of the award. "We're not exactly a doughnut place."
(Those salivating for one of the prize-winning pastries will have to press pause on their taste buds — Endgrain is closed Monday due to the cold weather.)
The innovation sparked by today's crop of artisanal pastry chefs is even trickling down to more traditional shops.
Kevin Lee's father opened Gurnee Donuts in 1994. Though he lives in Ukrainian Village, Lee manages the family's suburban bakery on weekends and plans to take over the business within the next year.
"Growing up, I didn't want anything to do with the doughnut shop," he said.
But the introduction of new flavors eventually piqued his interest. Among the varieties Gurnee brought to the fest: a lemon-pistachio glazed doughnut Lee brainstormed the night before the event.
Given his city roots, Lee is considering expanding Gurnee Donuts to one of Chicago's more family-oriented neighborhoods where he could duplicate the experience of his youth.
"People come in and buy one, two or three dozen doughnuts after church," he said. "We have a breakfast club, a dozen people who come in every day at 7 a.m. They've watched me grow up."
Given the rabid interest in Donut Fest, Lee's vision of an urban outpost for Gurnee isn't that far-fetched.
"There was so much demand, we couldn't keep up with it," said Rebecca Skoch, co-organizer of the event. "I think it's been a real hit."
A repeat of the fest is likely for 2015, possibly at a larger venue or potentially splitting the event into morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate more attendees, Erickson said.
That kind of talk makes fans like Zarnowiecki nervous.
"It'll be like Baconfest," she said, "and you won't be able to get tickets."