If ever in you’re in Thunder Bay, Ont. there’s one thing you absolutely must do: treat yourself to a Persian.
No, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East. In Thunder Bay, a “Persian” is an oval-shaped pastry that’s fried and frosted with pink berry icing. It’s a local delicacy with deep roots in this Northern Ontario town.
“It’s similar to a cinnamon bun,” says Danny Nucci, owner of the legendary Bennett’s Bakery and The Persian Man in Thunder Bay. “What makes it different from anything else is the icing on top. It’s not overly sweet. But it gives you a good feeling.”
This prized pastry was first created in the 1940s by Art Bennett, the original founder of Bennett’s Bakery (formerly called “Art Bennett’s”). As the story goes, he named the sweet treat after John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, an American World War I General who allegedly visited his bakery while he was making the dough. As a result of this memorable meeting, Bennett dubbed his now-famed pastry a “Persian.”
“General Black Jack Pershing happened to make his way to Thunder Bay and pull into Bennett’s Bakery,” says Nucci. “He and Art Bennett were talking, while Art was producing a newly formed product. They hit it off and he named it after him.”
Since then, Thunder Bay locals have been raised on these Persian doughnuts, even hosting eating competitions and selling them for community fundraisers. They’ll tell you that it’s a “must-eat” dish if you’re in town. Today, Bennett’s Bakery sells the dessert at their popular coffee shop, The Persian Man, as well as in packs of four at local grocery stores.
“The formula hasn’t changed, the recipe hasn’t changed,” says Nucci. “So it’s still the same goodness that you used to get since its conception in the mid-1940s.”
But what exactly makes a Persian so special? The original recipe remains under wraps, so we can only speculate about its irresistible ingredients. But some claim the signature pink icing is the clincher.
“It’s a berry icing,” says Nucci. “A lot of people pick up Persians with icing on the side. What they do is put ‘em in the freezer and then put the icing in the fridge, and then have one as needed.”
There’s also an old school “toasted” version of the Persian. Back in the day, some Thunder Bay restaurants would toast the doughnut, adding butter and icing on top, and a lot of locals still adhere to this tradition in the kitchen.
“You take a Persian in half,” says Nucci. “Toast the cut halves in the frying pan until they’re golden, and put a little icing on top halves and flip over to caramelize the icing. There may be some toasted Persians still being sold in Thunder Bay restaurants.”
Regrettably, since Art Bennett’s original recipe remains a secret to this day, we’ll never know what exactly makes the Thunder Persian so dang delicious. Today, it’s been inherited by the Persian Man in Thunder Bay, who continues to use this classic recipe to make their cherished pastries.
“I got the recipe from working at the shop,” says Nucci. “Juliet Bennet ended up selling the bakery to my dad and his two cousins in 1962. It’s a secret, especially the dough product itself. There’s no set ingredients in the listing on the bag product.”
But don’t despair: instead, try your hand at making the doughnut in your home kitchen with this recipe for Thunder Bay Persians. Biting into the light-as-air fry bread and creamy icing, you can salute General Pershing and baker Art Bennett for gifting this doughy delicacy to the world.