If you don't know exactly what you're eating, the first time you sink your teeth into a fat apple cider doughnut, your instinct is to try to nail down that elusive flavor. Is it caramel? Vanilla? Maple? With apple cider doughnuts, there's no overwhelming flavor of apples or cider, but instead a subtle sweetness and a mellow tang.
Apple cider doughnuts are a variation on a traditional cake doughnut or buttermilk doughnut recipe. Unlike ethereally puffy Krispy Kremes, which get their lift from yeast, cake doughnuts have an old-fashioned heft and a tender, dense crumb. Done poorly, they resemble round doorstops; done well, it's like biting into the best of autumn, crisp and rich.
Although they may be dusted with cinnamon or powdered sugar or glazed with icing, most often these doughnuts are served plain -- ideally, alongside a steaming mug of hot apple cider.
Where did these treats originate? "The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion" (Countryman, 2003) is one of the few baking bibles to devote an entire chapter to fried dough. It traces the origins of doughnuts to Europe, where fried dough was among the delicacies traditionally consumed for pre-Lenten feasting.
Doughnuts later became associated with the cooler months for many settlers in the northeastern United States and Canada. Why? Because fall is the traditional season both for harvest and hog slaughter -- meaning it was the time of year when enough fat was available to fry doughnuts, which traditionally were cooked in lard. (Although most modern cooks fry doughnuts in vegetable oil, some purists still swear by lard to fry up the crispiest, lightest doughnuts.) It is difficult to trace the lineage of the apple cider doughnut in particular, but they have gained popularity in the American northeast, home to numerous apple orchards. Conklin Orchards in Pomona, N.Y., makes apple cider doughnuts on the site of its 100-acre family-owned farm the same way since it began producing them in the 1960s. "The machinery has changed, but the method hasn't," says co-owner Richard Conklin.
Conklin Orchards makes between 100 and 150 gallons of cider per week, a small fraction of which is turned into doughnuts. Ingredients are whisked together in a large stainless steel bowl, and the batter is poured a little at a time into an industrial "doughnut robot," which spits out perfectly formed "O's" into a shallow reservoir of hot oil. The doughnuts float in the reservoir for precisely 60 seconds per side, and the robot flips the doughnuts over to cook for another minute. The golden rings then are flipped into a large circular wire tray, which resembles a small satellite dish and rotates as the doughnuts drain and cool. One batch yields 150 doughnuts.
New York's Hearth restaurant includes apple cider doughnuts on the dessert menu. Pastry chef Lauren Dawson admits that the doughnuts sold at the greenmarket in New York's Union Square inspired her. "I would be there first thing in the morning," she confesses, "and I hadn't had breakfast yet, and they are so good." A flicker of excitement crosses her face as she speaks.
To make the dessert, which includes two doughnuts per serving, Dawson uses cider from Cherry Lane Farms (Bridgeton, N.J.), and reduces it over a low flame. The dough is cut by hand using a doughnut cutter that has two metal circles attached together. Home cooks also can use biscuit cutters in two different sizes to cut out doughnuts.
Dawson coats the doughnuts with an apple cider glaze and serves them with an apple compote and apple cider-infused whipped cream. This cider overload is a seasonal treat, returning to Hearth's menu in October after a summer hiatus.
"When it's on our menu, it's our most popular dessert," Dawson says. "Even with low-carb diets, people still love them."
Apple Cider Doughnuts
Makes 18 doughnuts
and doughnut holes
These apple cider doughnuts -- dense, richly spiced and with a faint taste of buttermilk -- are adapted from a recipe by pastry chef Lauren Dawson from Hearth restaurant in New York City's East Village. Hearth serves the doughnuts with applesauce and whipped cream.