Holey of holeys

Been apple-picking yet, or are you waiting for your favorite niche variety to ripen? I like to hold out for the types of especially tasty eating apple that can only be obtained for a couple of weeks out of the year, and only if you happen to live in orchard country – Stayman Winesap and Northern Spy.

Apple time is also cider time. Drink it ice-cold, or hot mulled with whole spices; cut it with seltzer for a refresher, or mix it into an appletini. Pour some into the bottom of the pan next time you’re making pork or duck and spoon the resulting sauce over the finished roast. It’ll never taste better than the cider that you can get right now at your local farmstand.

But what’s that on the counter at that same farmstand, enticing us with its cinnamon/nutmeg scent? Ah, now there’s a true jewel of the harvest season, and a special perq that we get for putting up with the hard winters of the Northeast: the noble cider doughnut. What will it be: rolled in sugar crystals, or pristinely plain? Have you found your favorite source yet?

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I’m not going to take sides, though one knowledgeable friend highly recommends the cider doughnuts at Saunderskill Farms in Accord and another those at Minard’s Family Farm in Clintondale. One could easily spend a weekend in these parts on a cider doughnut crawl, trekking from farmers’ market to orchard to bakery in order to taste-test each secret recipe. Every one is a little different: Davenport’s are a little crunchy on the outside and feather-light within; Jenkins-Luekens’ somewhat more uniformly dense and cakey in texture. You may prefer yours oozing grease – the Dutch settlers who introduced them to the Hudson Valley called them olykoeks or “oily cakes,” after all – or on the drier side. Tastes vary, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried one that wasn’t yummy. And we have all this glorious autumnal weather coming up to hike off all those calories.

Doughnuts and other fried-dough sweets like paçzki, beignets, zeppole, funnelcakes, buñuelos, sopaipillas, jalebi and so on have been found in cuisines all over the world for many centuries. Tradition has it that the hole in the doughnut was invented in the 19th century by a New England sea captain named Hanson Gregory. He claimed in his memoirs to have cut out the first such hole with the round lid from a pepper tin, but the preferred tale seems to be that he jammed a doughnut onto the spoke of a ship’s wheel in order not to drop it whilst navigating in a storm. Captain Gregory’s mother Elizabeth is credited with coining the term “doughnut,” as a result of having literally stuck walnuts in the centers of her creations in an effort to have them cook through more evenly (the practical purpose of the doughnut hole when not steering a ship, by the way).

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the holemaking process was automated. A Russian immigrant named Adolph Levitt was hawking doughnuts in Manhattan’s theater district, and his products became so popular that he was soon managing a chain of bakeries. Not only did Levitt invent the first known doughnut-making machine, but the company he founded, the Doughnut Corporation of America, is credited with the first citation of a sweet cider donut becoming available commercially, in 1951.

Nowadays, the internet provides us with dozens of different cider doughnut recipes; most of them are “cake” doughnuts, made with baking soda and/or baking powder, as opposed to a “raised” doughnut, made with yeast. Cider is typically the primary liquid ingredient, occasionally mixed with water or even buttermilk. Often the cider is reduced by boiling to a thicker consistency before adding to the dough mix; Bon Appétit actually recommends the substitution of apple butter. But why go to the trouble of making your own this time of year, if you live in mid-Hudson orchard country and have a bewildering number of places available nearby to pick up some cider doughnuts still fragrant and warm from the deep-fryer?

For more fascinating doughnut lore, check out www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-history-of-the-doughnut.

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