By the time 6 a.m. rolls around in the fall, Chichester Country Store’s bakery has been fired up for several hours. The day’s doughnut mix is settling after being mixed, and the frying oil is getting piping hot.
If doughnuts have a season, it’s fall — amped up by apples and cider. Store owners Rob and Robin Panneton know this all too well. They’re prepping for their own cases and for four nearby apple orchards who give them cider and carry their doughnuts at their farm stands.
Cider doughnuts; these cakey, usually nut-colored beauties that aren’t quite as flashy-looking or as fluffy as their yeast doughnut cousins (the puffy ones, oft-glazed or frosted or sprinkled at Dunkin’ Donuts). Though you can find them year-round at Chichester and other places, cider doughnuts are synonymous with the harvest, because that’s when orchards have more cider than they know what to do with and, quite simply, New Englanders have cider on the brain.
“Apples provide the key to the doughnut season, if there were a doughnut season. We make and sell a lot of apple cider doughnuts this time of year,” said Matt Hankins, owner of Crosby’s Bakery in Nashua.
The two most common varieties of doughnuts are differentiated by their dough — cake or yeast.
Yeast-raised doughnuts are the fluffy, lightweight ones that are commonly found with flashy toppings or frostings. Think of the original Krispy Kreme, or the simple glazed doughnut at Dunkin’. For these, the dough is cut and then set to rise, which gives them their fluffy consistency, before they are fried.
“With the yeast doughnuts, we move a lot as regular, glazed doughnuts,” said Steve Yurish, owner of Moulton’s Market (10 Main St., Amherst, 673-2404) and 10-year doughnut maker. “But our cake ones are much more popular.”
Cake-style doughnuts — cider doughnuts among them — are made with a quick-bread-like dough and get their lift from baking powder. They are also fried but tend to be firmer and more dense. In the grocery store, these can often be found in cellophane-windowed boxes by the dozen, plain, cinnamon-powdered and white-powdered.
“We sell about five or six times as many cakes than yeasts. People like them because they’re thicker and more dense. Anyone looking to dunk something in their coffee goes with the cake,” Yurish said.
Various ingredients can easily be mixed into the batter of a cake doughnut for flavor, such as blueberries, chocolate or apple cider.
Each week at Apple Hill Farm in Concord, the cider maker selects apples for that week’s cider.
“We have 38 varieties, and each week they taste different, though we tend to stay on the sweeter side,” Apple Hill Farm owner Diane Souther said.
Any given apple on a tree gets sweeter as the year progresses. Early-season cider tastes more tart than later cider, and single-apple ciders will be characterized by the flavors of that kind of apple, Souther said. The sweeter Golden Russet apple cider the farm mulls is much sweeter than, say, the McIntosh or Granny Smith.
“We tend to go sweeter, and I think those make the best doughnuts, because that’s what the American palate wants,” she said.
The ingredients in apple cider doughnuts are few: the mix of butter, sugar, eggs, flour and salt is combined with cider. It’s the nuances, the particular levels of pumpkin spice and nutmeg that the Bakeshop on Kelley Street in Manchester puts in, or the way of heating up and sometimes boiling the cider at Crosby’s Bakery, or the chunks of apple used at the Stonehouse Baking Co. in Barrington, that give signature personalities to these cakey delights.
“Sometimes at places the holiday flavors and themes get into the doughnuts and the fillings and the toppings and the coffee,” Hankins said. “But having your unique type of apple cider doughnut that no other little shops are going to make makes people a lot more interested.”
At Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, owner Tim Bassett fires up a doughnut assembly line. It’s the weekend, and as the weather gets colder, Bassett’s farm is churning out unpasteurized cider made from a mix of its 80 varieties of apples, including McIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Empire, Hampshire, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious. The 50-pound bags of doughnut mix take about 4 gallons of cider each. One pound can yield about a dozen doughnuts, depending on the recipe.
“We’re doing this in a 200-year-old barn, so the temperature may call for more or less liquid,” Bassett said.
Liquid expands the dough as it sits before frying. If it’s cold, the cider will expand more, so less of it is required. The basic batter ingredients are mixed with cider to form a wet batter that’s a bit thicker than pancake batter but not as thick as cookie dough. Gould Hill and other farms, such as Moulton Farms’ Cider Bellies bakery in Meredith, go with mixes — they’re quick for a demanding season.
“So much of what people have eaten is a frozen product. You can tell the people who come here and have never tasted doughnuts [that are] made fresh,” Cider Bellies owner Jessica Stephens said.
Using a plain commercial mix cut with cider and a special blend of spices, Stephens works with a small-scale robotic maker-fryer assembly line. At the beginning, the batter is mixed in a hopper that has a cake-dropper opening on the bottom that automatically shapes the dough and drops it into the oil.
Before we hit the oil, though, it’s important to mention from-scratch dough. Denis St. Pierre of Stonehouse Baking Co. says from-scratch dough makes for an unparalleled level of freshness in the doughnut.
“[Doughnuts made from a pre-mixed batter] can be slightly bland — they still taste good, especially if they’re fresh, but having all the ingredients being brought together that morning makes for a unique freshness and a flavor difference,” he said.
Stonehouse also hand-cuts the cider doughnuts. It’s something few places do, he added, because of the time required.
The Pannetons, in Chichester, who also use a cake dropper and conveyor, said freshness is paramount. Within three miles of the Country Store are five Dunkin’ Donuts, and five more just over in Concord, but business manages to stay steady, driven in no small part by the doughnuts this time of year.
“What happens with bag mixes is what you see wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store — the perfect-looking doughnut with a slightly different taste than making them from scratch,” he said.
At the Chichester Country Store, a cake dropper feeds into a conveyor-fryer, 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. The oil is hot (between 190 and 200 degrees) and is sitting in a moat with a robotic rudder in the middle. Doughnuts are formed by the cake dropper and plop into the oil.
“You want an even drop because the shell needs to be even — that’s what’s being created to cook the dough in. If the oil is too cold, it can sort of ooze out and create a gooey mess,” Panneton said.
Robotic conveyors flip the doughnuts precisely, and the larger conveyors can take between 50 and 75 through the oil at a time. Upon reaching the end, they are lifted out on a ramp, where they cool for 60 to 90 seconds before being topped.
Chichester cider doughnuts come glazed or dipped in maple or chocolate. After they are fried, Panneton said, there is an indeterminate amount of time — “more of a feeling” — before they are ready to frost or glaze. Too soon can make for a greasy, wet coating. Too late means the glaze won’t stick to the doughnut. After being doused or dipped, they are hung on a dowel rod rack to harden before being served.
A more minimalist approach, which is also done at Chichester, is a sugar and cinnamon dusting. Stephens’ Cider Bellies doughnuts come up out of the conveyor and fall onto a tray, where they are snatched up and rolled in sugar.
Because they are type of cake doughnut, apple cider doughnuts are an easy recipe to try at home, but you’ll need to pay attention to detail.
Yurish, from Moulton’s Market, said doughnut-making requires some precision.
“Too much liquid in the dough and the oil temperature are important,” Yurish said. “If it’s too hot, they’re easy to overcook — they cook too fast on the outside and soak up too much grease. The more liquid in them, the bigger they get. And if the oil is too cold, they will not keep their form.”
Most of us don’t have robo-doughnut makers or deep, well-heated oil fryers in our kitchens. Without industrial size mixers, it’s going to be a smaller batch — which is OK given that you’re not feeding hundreds of people.
You’ll need some persistence to perfect a recipe.
“I don’t recommend that non-experts bang out 1,000 doughnuts at home, but it’s an interesting field of recipes to try, and I have absolutely done them at home,” said Stearns, of the White Mountain Cider Co. in Bartlett.
Two large mixing bowls for the dough and a deep fryer or deep frying pan can make about a dozen doughnuts comfortably, without too much mess. The dough can be cut with two sizes of round cutters, or even improvised ones like a coffee can and a bottle. The dough will have to harden for roughly two hours. The preparation time, Stonehouse’s St. Pierre said, is the real wait; the cooking is all over in about 15 minutes.
“I’ve done it at home. It can be more work than it’s worth ... it’s labor-intensive — although you go back 80 to 100 years, it was usually done at your house,” St. Pierre said.
Like most cake dough, that of apple cider doughnuts is notoriously weather-sensitive, said Hankins, so having a kitchen to practice in will show a baker how a cold, rainy day, for example, affects things.
Cider Bellies sponsored a homemade doughnut-making event at the recent Sandwich Fair. A homemade doughnut category was added to a baking competition; entrants who in the past had baked apple pies, decorated cakes, and even made candy tried their hand at doughnuts, Stephens said, a far different type of pastry to bake.
“There were a lot of people who entered anyway, despite how they’re made and though they are difficult to make. Many of them tasted good,” she said.
“You need proper equipment, and there are safety issues anytime you’re working with hot oil, but it can be done,” Stephens said.
“It’s … especially fun when you have kids,” said White Mountain Cider’s Stearns, and the anticipation that comes with a once-a-month Sunday morning doughnut-making session, she added, will make everybody’s day a bit brighter.
Best of all, making doughnuts at home means you can eat them fresh as can be, right out of the fryer.
While they’re hot...
That’s a big selling point for the doughnut holes at The Bakeshop on Kelley Street. Customers order them individually or by the dozen, and they’re fried on the spot behind the counter. They come out piping hot, but they cool off and are sprinkled with sugar in about five minutes. Owner Denise Nickerson serves these old-fashioned doughnut holes year-round, but between October and Christmas she changes the recipe just slightly and adds cider to the dough.
“Something that is made on the spot appeals to people,” Nickerson said.
At local farm stands and bakeries, cider doughnuts will be gone by Christmas time, as orchards close and bakeries begin stocking up for the holidays.
Chichester is one of the few places keeping them stocked year round in-house, but only during the autumn do the Pannetons sell to local farm stands and use local cider. At the tail end of apple season, Panneton heads down to a peach cider orchard in Delaware and uses that cider in doughnuts too.
“When it is cider season … we try to use local whenever available and spread business around to local farms, to give people a true taste of the area,” Rob Panneton said.
“There’s something nostalgically fun about [doughnuts],” Stearns said, and despite that they aren’t exactly fat- or sugar-free, “having them a couple times a month is not going to hurt you.”
“I see that doughnuts make everybody smile. Sure, it’s only fried dough, but it’s something my mom did, and it makes them a special treat, so it’s something I do too,” Stearns said. “They are an everyman’s food, a coffee companion and an American institution.”
“I think people are looking for comfort as winter gets closer…,” said Linda Doyle, co-owner of Klemm’s Bakery in Windham. “Doughnuts help them get ready.”