apple cider donuts & puppets, oh my.

The unseasonable 80 degree days that dragged dangerously close to October have finally given way to my favorite kind of days: crisp fall ones.  In recent years, fall has become synonymous with trips upstate to Rokeby, and the moment I walk outside and find the cracked sidewalks of Brooklyn dressed in soft yellows and red, find the air’s cold enough to nip at my nose, I can see it: the Big House gazing out over the Hudson River, beautiful in its Venetian decay, the tumbleweed gardens and secret sculptures long ago abandoned to rust, the wildflower labyrinth and rotating cast of characters…Rokeby is a magical place.

Beyond being a keeper of secrets I hope never to discover, the Estate doubles as the Village Halloween Parade headquarters, and houses as well the workshop of Superior Concept Monsters, the Parade’s Master Puppeteers.

On Saturdays in October, the grounds are given over to Puppet Workshops for the Parade. Folks gather, and bring dusty puppets of Halloweens past down from the barn (yes, there is a puppet barn) and slowly — a little paper mache here, a little hot glue there — bring them back to life.

Rehearsing “tick tock”, this year’s theme performance:

 

One of my favorite moments of these Saturday excursions is the first one: the carpool from New York rounds a corner, catching sight of the old whitewashed sign, pulls slowly on to the unfinished road and winds its way up to the Milk House. We spill from the car and into the cool, shady barn, and make a beeline for the table, for a cup of hot cider, and one of the best apple cider donuts I’ve ever tasted.

I’ve always been rather indifferent on the topic of donuts, and though I usually  buy an apple cider donut at the greenmarket when I see one, I’m usually also disappointed. Cake donuts are prime for disappointment: they stale quickly, their crumbs dense with oil, hardening unappealing as they cool.

But the Rokeby donuts…they are different. Soft and fragrant and comforting, so delicious in fact that they bear seconds, and thirds. And so, with our first trip to Rokeby behind us, and the cider donuts haunting our memory, we wondered: what was it about these particular donuts that made them so unlike the others we’d had? Was it just that they’re fresh, made moments before arrival, at the farm down the street? Or was it Rokeby itself that bestowed some charm on them and those who tasted them?

We’d like to think it’s the latter, but in all practicality, a fresh donut is a delicious thing. So at the risk of ruining the Rokeby spell that we’ve lived under for so many years, we made some of our apple cider donuts — just to see.

And yes: a fresh donut is a delicious thing. Ours are no Rokeby donuts — the magic! — but they are delicious. Freshly fried and dipped in cinnamon sugar, with a cup of tea or a glass of prosecco, they’re every bit worth the work. And they’re their own magic: fall, right there in your kitchen!

apple cider donuts.

adapted from Smitten Kitchen via Hearth Restaurant

Makes 18 donuts, and 18 donut holes.

Note: Deb mentioned frying her donuts in shortening. Intrigued, we tested it out, and were happy with the results. The donuts were less greasy than they would have been if fried in oil and it’s easier to dispose of the used shortening once it’s cooled back to a solid state!

And another note: It helps to have two people for the frying bit, one to attend to the hot oil, the other to dip the cooling donuts in cinnamon sugar (if using). The donuts take just a minute to fry, so if it’s just one of you, don’t try to dip while you have donuts in the pot. Alternate.

And one more: If you’re the one attending to the hot oil, wear long sleeves! Despite your best efforts, splattering might very well occur.

1 cup apple cider, the fresher and less pasteurized, the better!
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 (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
Vegetable oil or shortening for frying

Optional topping
Cinnamon sugar: 1 cup granulated sugar + 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon

1. In a saucepan over medium or medium-low heat, gently reduce the apple cider to about 1/4 cup, about 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

3. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and granulated sugar until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, one 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.

4. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle them generously with flour. Turn the dough onto one 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 or 3 1/2-inch donut cutter — or a 3 1/2-inch round cutter for the outer shape and a 1-inch round cutter for the hole as I did — cut out donut shapes. Place the cut donuts and donut holes onto the second sheet pan. Refrigerate the donuts for 20 to 30 minutes. (You may re-roll the scraps of dough, refrigerate them briefly and cut additional doughnuts from the dough.)

5. While the donuts are in the fridge, mix the cinnamon and sugar together, if using as a topping, in a wide bowl or even on a plate, and set aside. 

5. Add enough oil or shortening 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°F. Have ready a plate lined with several thicknesses of paper towels.

6. Carefully add a few donuts to the oil, being careful not to crowd the pan, and fry until golden brown, about 60 seconds. You’ll see them puff up slightly and start to brown on the exposed side. It really only takes a minute! Flip the donuts and fry until the other side is golden, 30 to 60 seconds, no more. If you leave the donuts in the oil too long, they’ll break when you lift them out. Drain on paper towels for a minute, then dip the top of the warm donuts into the cinnamon sugar mixture. And, serve immediately!

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