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.

For the doughnuts:

1 cup apple cider

31/2 cups flour, plus additional for the work surface

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup buttermilk (low-fat or nonfat work fine)

Vegetable oil for frying

For the glaze:

1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons apple cider

For the doughnuts: In a saucepan over medium or medium-low heat, gently reduce the apple cider to about 1/4 cup, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed (with the paddle attachment, if using a standing mixer) beat the butter and granulated sugar until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and continue to beat until the eggs are completely incorporated. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the reduced apple cider and the buttermilk, mixing just until combined. Add the flour mixture and continue to mix just until the dough comes together.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or wax paper and sprinkle them generously with flour. Turn the dough onto 1 of the sheets and sprinkle the top with flour. Flatten the dough with your hands until it is about 1/2 inch thick. Use more flour if the dough is still wet. Transfer the dough to the freezer until it is slightly hardened, about 20 minutes. Pull the dough out of the freezer. Using a 3-inch doughnut cutter, cut out doughnut shapes. Place the cut doughnuts and doughnut holes onto the second sheet pan. Refrigerate the doughnuts for 20 to 30 minutes. (You may re-roll the scraps of dough, refrigerate them briefly and cut additional doughnuts from the dough.)

Add enough oil to a deep-sided pan to measure a depth of about 3 inches. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and heat over medium heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees. Have ready a plate lined with several thicknesses of paper towels.

For the glaze: While the cut doughnut shapes are in the refrigerator, make the glaze by whisking together the confectioners' sugar and the cider until the mixture is smooth. Set aside.

To fry and assemble: Carefully add a few doughnuts to the oil, being careful not to crowd the pan, and fry until golden brown, about 60 seconds. Turn the doughnuts over and fry until the other side is golden, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain on paper towels after the doughnuts are fried. Dip the top of the warm doughnuts into the glaze and serve immediately.

Per doughnut: 201 calories, 3 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 200 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Kara Newman is a freelance food writer based in New York.