“Why would I spend $5 on a bag of apples at the store when I can wear warm fall clothes in 88° weather and pay $36 for our family to pick them ourselves.” –Simon Holland
As my regulars know, I grew up in north Texas, where the weather is plenty hot and aside from a calendar, you would never know it’s October due to the shorts, tank tops, and sandals still sported by, well, everyone. Fall as a season doesn’t really exist there, so no fall cultural events have sprung up around the typical seasonal fall produce. We didn’t have corn mazes, and there are no apple orchards. I moved to NYC in my mid-twenties and finally grasped an understanding of what people mean when they talk about fall or autumn. I also started hearing about Going Apple Picking, a totally foreign experience to me. This is where insufferable city-dwellers drive upstate on weekend afternoons and descend en masse on apple orchards, where supposedly you pick fresh apples off trees with romantic abandon, then return home to fill your tiny apartment with the earthy fragrance of apple pies and cakes.
About ten years ago, after law school was over and I had a life again, I insisted we go apple picking somewhere in upstate New York, as I had surmised this portion of my childhood might have been deprived. We did. It was… an odd experience, one replete with trying to avoid stepping on all the rotted apples strewn on the ground, the cacophony of bored, whiny children, and portable toilets. And then of course we picked way too many apples. We drove two whole hours away from the city, what were we gonna do, not pick them?
I also insisted we could not leave without apple cider doughnuts, as I was led to believe this was an integral and delicious part of the whole experience. So we joined the end of a long, snaking queue that appeared to eventually lead to a storefront-looking-thing where you could purchase warm doughnuts straight from the fryer. We stood in line… and stood some more… and I swear that line did not move. Weatherwise, it was a pleasant enough fall day, but that was quickly offset by the family in line behind us. Said family consisted of two parents and a little girl I’d say around four years old, who was playing a harmonica as loudly as possible. Not playing an actual song, mind you. Just blowing into the screeching instrument on repeat with all the air her little lungs could muster. In, out, in, out. Over and over and over. I’m now staunchly in favor of amending the penal code to mete out jail sentences for anyone who gives a small child a harmonica in public spaces.
About ten minutes later, the child abandoned her relentless harmonica pursuit, and it was then I discovered, to my surprise and delight, that I hadn’t gone deaf. I could hear the hired cover band, who was playing Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” It was fine, but one of the weirder earworms ever when they somehow seamlessly transitioned to their next song: “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I felt like maybe I was tripping, but it was still preferable to Preschool Harmonica Concerts. We felt palpable relief to finally inch up to the doughnut stand and escape to the car with our apple picking treat.
And after all that, the doughnuts themselves were… fine, I guess. They were just… doughnuts… crusted in cinnamon sugar. They tasted nothing like apple cider, which was supposedly the entire reason to endure such indignity. Yet we could’ve eaten the same bland fried dough by finding the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, and THEY don’t subject their patrons to blasting harmonica recitals or weird-ass cover bands. Lesson learned: always make apple cider doughnuts at home.
Okay, but that’s actually harder than it sounds! Once I began testing apple cider doughnut recipes from my cookbook collection and various websites, I realized why the orchard doughnuts didn’t taste anything like apple cider: none of them do. Or, almost none. You know where this is going. After almost a decade, I finally discovered an apple cider doughnut recipe that actually tastes like apple cider. And this time, I wasn’t even trying. I first made these the afternoon of the 2018 midterms. I didn’t really care if they were all that good or not, I just needed to stress bake, and I had some apple cider to use up. Literally, that was it. And then hey, a pleasant surprise; there aren’t many these days, so I’ll take it!
Apple Cider Doughnuts That Actually Taste Like Apple Cider
- 2 ½ cups apple cider
- 8 tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1 tbs vanilla extract
- 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus about ⅓ cup more for dusting
- 1 tbs baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp + 1 tbs ground cinnamon, divided
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- Canola or vegetable oil, for frying
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Cook the apple cider in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until reduced to ½ cup, about 30 minutes. The texture should be thick and it will become almost syrupy as it cools. Shut off the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl as necessary. This takes about 3 minutes. Once the butter and sugar are creamed, turn the mixer speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, making sure the first egg is incorporated before adding the second egg. Now slowly pour in the apple cider reduction, buttermilk, and vanilla.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 3 ½ cups flour, baking powder, salt, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, and the ground allspice. Keeping the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the cider mixture about 1 cup at a time. Mix until a wet, sticky dough forms.
- Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle evenly with about ⅓ cup all-purpose flour; you can use more if it’s not generously dusted - this prevents your dough from sticking. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet and press into an even thickness of about half an inch. Dust the top of the dough generously with flour, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
- When you’re ready to fry them up, remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator and use a 3 ½-inch round biscuit cutter to stamp out circles. Use a 1-inch round biscuit cutter to punch holes in the middle of each circle. Make sure you can easily separate the doughnut from the doughnut hole. Don’t discard the dough edges around the circles.
- Fill a large Dutch oven with about 3 inches of oil. Alternately, you can use a deep-fat fryer according to manufacturer’s instructions. If using a Dutch oven, you’ll need to make sure the oil is heated to 350 F.
- Meanwhile, mix the granulated sugar plus the remaining 1 tbs ground cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Set aside. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels, then set a cooling rack inside it and set it close to your frying station.
- Once the oil is at temperature, use a thin metal spatula to lift the doughnuts plus doughnut holes and then carefully drop them into the hot oil. Fry for about 3 minutes total, using a fork to flip the doughnuts and holes over after about 1 ½ minutes. The little doughnut holes will cook up faster. Do this in batches, you don’t want to crowd the pot. I prefer to cook up doughnuts and doughnut holes together in each frying batch. That way I’m not overwhelmed trying to get all those little holes out at once lest they burn on me. Once the doughnuts are done, carefully remove them and set them on the prepared baking sheet with the cooling rack. While still warm, transfer each doughnut and doughnut hole into the bowl with the cinnamon sugar and toss gently to thoroughly coat. Set the finished doughnuts on cooling racks. Repeat with the rest of the doughnuts.
- Then - you’re not done yet! You should not reroll doughnut scraps. Doughnut dough is more delicate than most, and if you work the dough too much you’re finished product will be tough. Take as many of those little scraps and edges as you like and fry them up like you did your doughnuts and holes, then toss them in the cinnamon sugar!