There is nothing more quintessentially fall than the apple cider donut. A popular treat at apple orchards and cideries throughout New England, establishments from large donut shop chains to Trader Joe’s have tried to capture the magic of these deep-fried rings of deliciousness. How did this pastry become a symbol of cooler temperatures and leaves changing into brilliant hues of red and gold? Let’s take a look at the history of the famous treat.
There are different variations on fried dough right around the world, from Italian ciambelle to Spanish churros. Donuts as we know them in the United States go back to American colonists and their fall butchering season. Without refrigeration, the people prepared for winter by butchering, preserving and storing meat. They found a creative way to use the abundance of leftover animal fat by using it for frying, often mixing apples from the recent harvest with dough to create an autumnal treat. Call it an early version of the apple cider donut, but it would be a couple of centuries before they swept the nation.
It was a chance meeting between Adolph Levitt, an enterprising Russian immigrant and baker, and an engineer on a train in the Midwestern U.S. The duo came up with the prototype for a donut-making machine, which Levitt went on to perfect and launch at his Harlem, NY bakery in 1921. Displayed prominently in the window, the machine automatically dropped perfect circles of batter into a vat of hot oil, frying and then flipping them until golden. The machines caught the attention of passersby, who would stop to watch the donuts being made and then head into the bakery to buy one fresh from the fryer.
This clever invention led to the founding of the Donut Corporation of America, or DCA. Levitt added these machines to his other bakeries and also sold both the machines and a signature flour mixture to bakeries across the country. So, how does the apple cider donut play into this story? The DCA’s marketing game was on point, and they would introduce a featured flavor each fall during “National Donut Month” in October to increase sales. In 1951, it was the Sweet Cider Donut.
Around the same time that Levitt and the DCA launched the definitive fall donut, more city families were buying cars and heading out on day trips to the countryside. Orchards and farm stands were a frequent stop for these newly mobile folks, and it was a no-brainer for them to begin selling donuts made with their own apple cider.
What is it about the apple cider donut that makes it so appealing? It’s the addition of apple cider, cinnamon and nutmeg to a basic buttermilk donut mix. The cider adds more moisture to the donut, a natural sweetness, and gives it a sturdy structure that makes it perfect for dipping into a hot cup of coffee or apple cider. Most orchards and cideries across New England have their own signature recipe that they fry up and offer to carloads of visitors stopping by on fall road trips or after a day of apple picking.
Apple cider donuts have stood the test of time, outliving Adolph Levitt’s Donut Corporation of America, which was bought out by another company in the 1970s. Trips to apple orchards remain a rite of passage each fall. Families and groups of friends put on their coziest sweaters, hop in the car for some leaf peeping and cap the day with a donut. If you don’t live within driving distance of a farm or orchard, supermarkets and coffee shops around the country offer their take on the iconic donut, or you could always track down a recipe and try making them yourself.