Meditation on a Cider Doughnut
And musings on Hudson Valley doughnut history
I have to confess I’ve yet to meet a cider doughnut I haven’t liked. I tend to buy them at the Greenmarket a few blocks from my house in NYC, dunking them in a dose of imagination to erase their winter chill. Instead of taking the New York State Thruway, I opt to take poky Highway 9W up the western bank of the Hudson River, disingenuously citing the Hudson Valley scenery rather than admitting the true lure is the farm stands with their piles of apples and their Rube Goldberg cider-frying contraptions that saturate the country air with the smell of sugar, baked apples and just-fried dough. Especially in the autumn, the fresh hot rings of dough seem in tune with the season’s coming chill; it’s as if they should have been here forever. Well, things aren’t always what they seem.
Of course there have been apples in the Hudson Valley ever since the Dutch imported the first trees from Holland in the 17th century. And there’s been cider, too. In fact, probably the majority of the autumn apple crop was used for hard cider until the killjoys of the 18th Amendment almost made that delightful beverage extinct. Cider and doughnuts go back to at least a couple of hundred years ago in American history but cider in doughnuts? Apparently not.
After considerable research, the first reference I’ve been able to find to a “sweet cider doughnut” is in a 1951 copy of Tide: The Newsmagazine for Advertising Executives commenting on a “new product” to be released by the Doughnut Corporation of America to kick off their annual autumnal PR onslaught. In its day, the DCA was the last word in the doughnut world, with almost a monopoly on automatic doughnut fryers and ready-made doughnut mixes. They sold big fryers to bakeries and little ones to the farm stands that began to crop up in the ’50s and ’60s as, for the first time, people got into their shiny new Chevrolets and on the road to see the USA. With all that help from corporate America, it’s no wonder that the cider doughnut became an all- American classic.
Admittedly, if the cider doughnut was a delicious and welcomed interloper in the Hudson Valley, fried dough has been at home in this part of the country ever since the Europeans set up their fry pots. Dutch food historian and author of Foods on the Hudson, Peter G. Rose, has tracked down recipes for Dutch- American doughnuts, or olie-koecken, from the New Paltz area that go back to the late 18th century.
In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, New York satirist Washington Irving mentions the Dutch affection for both “the doughty dough nut, the more tender oly koek [his spelling], and crisp and crumbling cruller.” Traditionally, the Dutch-American fry cakes had dried fruit and apples folded or inserted into the dough, though by Irving’s day (in the early 19th century) another version, apparently popular in Albany, was made without the fruit. Anna Maria Elting, an Ulster County native of Dutch and Huguenot origins, included two kinds of “oly cakes” in her handwritten recipe collection from the early 1800s, one with raisins and the other plain. It was the latter that she also called “dough nuts.”
The earliest printed recipe for a “dough nut” shows up around this time as well, in an appendix of recipes “adapted to the American mode of cooking” inserted by a New York publisher into an English cookbook in 1802. There’s a recipe for Irving’s Dutch-American “crumbling crullers,” too; it’s a sort of deep-fried sugar cookie. But fried lumps of dough weren’t limited to any one ethnic group. New England was chock-full of doughnuts as were the German-settled regions of the United States. The Germans, whether they settled in Saugerties or Philadelphia, brought a doughnut tradition that stretched back to the Middle Ages.
However, the most likely model for the Yankee dough nuts was an obscure English regional treat made in Hertfordshire for Shrove Tuesday (AKA Fat Tuesday). A late-18th-century English recipe calls them “Dow Nuts.” Of course the Puritan settlers, who never met a holiday they could abide, jettisoned the celebration as quickly as they could but, shrewdly, kept the fried cake recipe. As a result, American doughnuts lost any religious baggage or identity. Instead, they became an everyday pleasure, to be enjoyed year round. The name made sense in those days, the pastry was little bigger than a doughnut hole; some early recipes tell you to cut them the size of a half-dollar (about 1½ inches across); Noah Webster calls it a “small roundish cake” in his 1828 dictionary.
In New England, these little nuts of dough seemed to have been ubiquitous. Newspaper accounts, novels and even memoirs are full of them. On a walking tour of Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau recounted being served a breakfast of “eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea.” Apparently he stuck to the doughnuts and some applesauce. They must have been good because before leaving he stuffed his pockets with more doughnuts for the road. Contemporary menus also suggested doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even inmates at New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane enjoyed suppers of bread and butter, doughnuts, cheese, tea and milk.
In those days, all these lard-laced delights (as most recipes called for lard as the fat to fry the cakes) were made with a yeast-risen dough, what we’d call a “risen doughnut” today. Cake doughnuts (made with baking powder or soda) didn’t come into the picture until the 1820s. The first printed recipe shows up in a best-selling cookbook titled The American Frugal Housewife, written by the Boston-based Lydia Child. She doesn’t bother to tell us what shape they were, but chances are her doughnuts also took the form of little lumps.
The first holey doughnut recipe only shows up in 1846. Some 70 years later, a delightfully improbable origin story for the hole began to circulate. It was based on a 1916 interview of Maine captain Hanson Gregory to a Boston Post reporter. The octogenarian sailor recalled poking out the first ever doughnut hole, as a 16-year-old greenhorn aboard ship in 1847. The old sailor’s yarn has proved remarkably durable. Much more plausibly the inventor was less nautically inclined, and the first holey doughnut was likely modeled on the lifesaver-shape crullers or the circle-shape cookies called “jumbles,” both popular at the time. Whatever the origin, it’s certainly true that a ring-shape fritter will cook faster and more evenly than a circle or lump.
In subsequent decades doughnuts of every size and shape proliferated, yet they were still very much a treat you’d cook at home, not something you’d pick up by the dozen from a Dunkin’ Donuts to say nothing of a farm stand in Ulster County. But that changed dramatically when Adolph Levitt figured out how to automate the process at his Harlem bakery in 1920. And yes, it was Levitt who would go on to found the Doughnut Corporation of America. The fried-dough mogul’s empire was built as much on hype as mechanization. He built a modern temple to the doughnut at the 1939 World’s Fair, he named October “Doughnut Month,” subsidized doughnut distribution to GI’s in World War II and even sponsored a National Dunking Association, which, at one time, counted some the country’s biggest stars as members. In 1951, it was the turn of the “sweet cider doughnut.” It’s hard to know whether the DCA actually invented the ciderscented dough ring, but there’s no doubt their PR push put it on the map.
Fortunately, innovation hasn’t stopped with the cider doughnut. These days especially, the publicists have their hands full with all sorts of fashionable doughnut innovations, like the uber-trendy cronut (croissant + doughnut).
The scent of fresh-baked doughnuts is in the air and, I’m happy to say, not just at farm stands. Though, I suppose, you could call James King’s Washington County doughnut wagon a farm stand, except with all the inessentials removed and a bit of mobility added. King pulls his wagon, an early-20th-century vintage Freihofer’s bakery wagon, to the end of his driveway on Main Street in his hometown of Cambridge each Sunday morning and begins to methodically feed the crowds, who often line up 20 to 30 deep. There is farm produce here, in the rhubarb and black currant filling inside the jelly doughnuts, in the maple syrup (made from the maple trees in back of the house) used for the maple cream–filled Bismarcks, and in his own honey in the honey glazed.
James used to be a professional baker until, as he says, he decided to get a life, but he just couldn’t let it go. He’s hardly what you’d call trendy—though he has recently added a bacon maple doughnut to his repertoire. “To me, it’s a form of recreation and entertainment,” he informs me on an early Saturday morning before spending the rest of the day preparing as many as 25 kinds of doughnuts in his makeshift kitchen at the back of the house.
“I make what I like,” he adds but promises to make cider doughnuts next time I come up. But, he warns, come early.
CIDER DOUGHNUTS FOUND
Here are a few notable cider doughnut detours in the Hudson Valley:
Apple Hill Farm
124 Route 32 South, New Paltz
209 Perkinsville Rd., Highland
Golden Harvest Farms
3074 U.S. 9, Valatie
Love Apple Farm
1421 9H, Ghent
5 Sunset Avenue, Kinderhook
23 Soons Circle, New Hampton
341 Pancake Hollow Rd., Highland