Apple cider doughnuts are synonymous with fall, particularly here in New England where apple orchards from Connecticut all the way to Maine use their own cider to flavor the golden fried rings of deliciousness! Sweet and savory often found glazed lightly or dusted in cinnamon sugar, apple cider doughnuts may seem like a throwback from Colonial times gone by, but the little round treats are actually a more modern creation with a history that may surprise you.
Apple cider doughnuts are a variation on a traditional cake doughnut or buttermilk doughnut recipe. For history of the cake doughnut we look to “The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion" which is one of the few baking bibles to devote an entire chapter to fried dough. It traces the origins of any 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 this time of year? 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, but that’s a debate for another day!)
But now let’s get back to our main topic. From what we can find, the apple cider donut entered the mainstream in the early 1950’s thanks to the Doughnut Corporation of America. Not much is known about the DCA, other than that it was founded in the 1920’s by Adolph Levitt, an enterprising Russian immigrant. According to Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, Levitt bought a chain of New York bakeries in 1916. He was impressed by American soldiers’ fondness for the fried rings of flavored dough and so he began developing a machine to take advantage of troops’ appetites. In one of his early marketing wins, he installed a prototype in the window of his Harlem bakery. The machine caught the eye, and appetite of those who walked past. Levitt went on to sell his doughnut-making machines and a standardized flour mix to other bakeries and shops across the US. In another example of his marketing prowess is when he came up with “National Donut Month” in 1928 to create more demand for his products. Not all of his ideas were a hit though. In 1941 Levitt launched his short-lived “Vitamin Doughnuts” that he claimed were packed with protein and nutrients, he even partnered with a surgeon, Howard Crum, to advocate for the public to adopt a “doughnut diet”. While, sadly the doughnut diet never caught on with the public, his next creation did. Skipping ahead to 1951 the DCA announced their latest new product, the Cider Doughnut.
From a 1951 New York Times article, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine:
“A new type of product, the Sweet Cider Doughnut will be introduced by the Doughnut Corporation of America in its twenty-third annual campaign this fall to increase doughnut sales. The new item is a spicy round cake that is expected to have a natural fall appeal.”
There we have it, the launch of the cider doughnut! But as more efficient donut-making machines have been invented and better donut recipes created, the sweet, sweet apple cider doughnut is the only one of the now-defunct Doughnut Corporation of America creations that has stood the test of time. If you still need to read more about DCA, check out this online article.
The beauty of the donut is its unique suitability for dipping; unlike other pastries, the donut is structurally sound enough to handle a hearty dunk into a cup of coffee or hot apple cider. So there you have it, grab 1 or a dozen at your local orchard, farm stand, cider mill, or bakery and dunk away. But please let it be a hot cup of cider that you dunk into, as that’s the classic pairing for a sweet cider doughnut. The only debate left is what’s the best coating, cinnamon sugar or glaze….we’ll leave that battle for another day and just say that EITHER is perfectly acceptable to us. Want to try your own hand at making cider doughnuts? The recipe below is one of our favorites this season, from Kara Newman of The Washington Post.
Apple Cider Doughnuts
For the doughnuts:
1 cup apple cider
3 1/2 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
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.