An ode to apple cider donuts

Apple cider donuts

Growing up in the Midwest, I never really had apple cider. I suppose we had “fall vibes,” but I never really experienced apple picking and orchard culture until I moved to New York.

After transplanting to NYC, I began the annual trek to the orchards in Westchester County and farther north, during which we filled mesh bags with apples because, well, we drove over an hour and paid to do so. While it was fun, I wasn’t feeling the same joy as my peers.

A few years later, I moved to the northern suburbs of NYC, and as part of the move, became familiar with Stew Leonard’s, a grocery store chain in CT, NY and NJ. There, I experienced apple cider donuts for the first time. At Stew’s, they make their apple cider donuts in the stores and in front of customers, and you used to be able to snag a tasty free sample (a true pre-COVID joy).

Stew’s famously does the apple cider donut to perfection – it’s a classic cinnamon sugar donut using fresh apple cider (that they also make) in the batter. The perfect specimen stays light with strong apple flavor throughout, but it’s a delicate balance – too little cider and you can’t differentiate the output from a cinnamon sugar; too much and the resulting donut is way too wet, and the sugar coating gets clumpy.

While the major chains like Dunkin’ have tried to produce apple cider donuts, they rarely stand out because they’re just not fresh enough. My favorites are local offerings like Stew’s and orchard offerings like those at Outhouse Orchards in North Salem, NY. Most farmers’ markets in the suburbs also feature some local bakery or orchard selling their take on the apple cider donut, usually in a wonderfully greasy paper bag.

Now, many years later, my fall trips to the NY orchards are much more fulfilling. While I still fill the mesh bag with apples, I also hunt down and try each spot’s take on the apple cider donut. Some are great, some are meh, but the fall donut vibes are always worth it.

Cover image: Apple cider donuts from Outhouse Orchards in North Salem, NY

Fall favorites from Peter Pan

When Autumn hits full swing in the North East, I love to take trips out of the city to get a little break from the concrete and steel and enjoy nature. I love to partake in viewing the changing leaves, picking apples, getting lost in corn mazes, and hitting up farm stands for the freshest seasonal treats. It’s been a little more difficult to make casual trips this year, so when my cravings hit, I made my way to Peter Pan in Greenpoint to snag some local, Fall favorites.

I’ve mentioned several times, but Peter Pan’s classic, no frills approach is always part of their charm and when it comes to Fall favorites, this might be where they’re at their best. Classic flavors always line the shelves at the Greenpoint landmark such as Marble Crullers, Red Velvet, Boston Creme, traditional glazed, as well other frosted standards covered in sprinkles. Still, arriving in this time of year and seeing Pumpkin, Apple Cider, and Apple Fritter gives such a sugar rush of excitement.

Pumpkin and Apple Cider are two of their most basic donuts and in appearance, there isn’t anything all that special about them. However, it becomes clear upon first bite just how intoxicating these two creations can be and how flavor can really sum up the season. Apple Fritter isn’t as much a seasonal exclusive, but still fits right in with the overall vibe. The Pumpkin and Apple Cider are traditional cake donuts, deep fried, and covered in a sugary glaze. Each bite is intensely sweet, but not overpowering, and deeply satisfying. The fritter is a bit larger in overall volume with chunks of apples directly in the dough. The cinnamon sugar inside forming a perfectly gooey glob of goodness. As winter looms and global conditions spark concern, donuts are often my go-to distraction. A sweet relief, delicious distraction, and enjoyable escape. A perfect tasting to celebrate the season.

Dunkin’ – Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut

A few weeks ago, Jason sent me a link that Dunkin’ (formerly, and always in my heart Dunkin’ Donuts) was dropping something new for Halloween this year… a spicy ghost pepper donut. I laughed it off as we both found it strange. Somehow in the past week, this treat has become near meme level in its consumption. A friend of ours tweeted at us and asked for a review, my employee sent me a picture of him eating one, and another friend in Massachusetts went to a few Dunks to get his hands on one as well. What I thought was a really dumb marketing gimmick had actually taken off for the fast food chain. So, after spending over an hour in line to vote early in NYC, I grabbed one for myself to finally get a take on this weird, possible disaster of a donut.

I’ve stated before that as a Massachusetts native, there will always be a soft place in my heart for Dunkin’ and how their version of the Boston Creme was a staple of my childhood, but this was really pushing it. Regardless, I did my best to try it with an open mind. If anything, trying this gave me more faith that a regular donut from Dunkin’ isn’t as bad as I remember and doesn’t taste as mass produced as I expected or remembered (I’ll save my thoughts on Krispy Kreme for another day and still have not made my way to their new monstrosity of a store in Manhattan). The donut is a traditional Strawberry frosted yeast donut and that part actually tasted pretty great. It was light and fully, not too greasy, and the frosting didn’t taste like pure sugar. It was a pleasant surprise. The Ghost Pepper that tops the donut in sprinkle form is obviously where it falls apart. To me, this wasn’t spicy, but rather the sprinkles (or whatever they are) had more of a Pop-Rock like sensation that tasted like a heated cinnamon candy, nothing spicy whatsoever. Sure, it gave the donut some extra texture, but either this thing really is lacking heat, or I had a dud. From the beginning, I knew the hype would be hard to live up to and I felt pretty right by the end. Cool in concept, but severely lacking in execution and not worth going out of your way to experience. Stick to the Boston Creme.

Doughnut Plant – Apple Cinnamon

This weekend saw the return, once again, of Doughnut Plant in New York City. After closing at the start of the pandemic, the iconic local chain reemerged at the start of the summer before having to close down again as they battled to keep their numerous locations open and stocked with delicious goods. As Jason and I have both written about, the virus continues to impact small, local businesses and the restaurant industry has suffered tremendously, which is why we take every opportunity we can to support them through this time.

Earlier this week, Doughnut Plant took to social media to announce a pop-up style return set for this weekend at their flagship spots in Brooklyn and Queens with a reduced, albeit spectacular, menu. In their best efforts to reduce cost and use their resources strategically, this weekend’s menu consisted of a few cake classics (Wild Blueberry and Carrot Cake were there, so my wish had come true) as well as their sensational seasonal favorite, Apple Cinnamon. Maybe it’s the limited availability or the hype that I had built up in my head waiting for this day to come, but it’s quite possible that the batches from this weekend were the best ever. Biting into the Apple Cinnamon was like tasting Autumn in full glory. The decadence was rich, the texture perfect, and it somehow exceeded all expectations. While I wish they could be open every day, I know the logistics in these circumstances must be an absolute nightmare so I will wait patiently and for as long as needed until they can return to their full standards, but I’ll gladly welcome another pop-up as well. Whatever comes next for this institution, I’ll be there ready to give it my full support!

MAD Donuts grand opening – White Plains, NY

MAD Donuts

I was lucky enough to stop by the grand opening of MAD Donuts in Westchester Mall yesterday, and I was so happy for owner Matt and his family. While NYC is flush with gourmet and specialty donut shops, we are desperately thin where I live in the northern suburbs, so it’s exciting to have MAD open and changing that.

Matt and team did a great job on the aesthetics of the shop – it’s bright white inside and welcoming. The location is also prime, near a corner on the Retail 3 level across from the few chain eateries remaining now that the 4th floor “Savor” food court is open.

I knew I had to try the apple fritter, which is so big that it gets its own display case. I decided to stick with the Fall flavors theme and pair that with the caramel apple cider.

Apple fritter and caramel apple cider from MAD Donuts in White Plains, NY

Other flavor options on opening day included pumpkin pie, cranberry iced, vanilla bean glazed, chocolate iced, PB&J, lemon meringue and brown sugar custard.

The apple fritter deserves the attention and press it’s been getting – the flavor balance and texture are awesome. You get a crunchy exterior, a touch of sweet with the vanilla and cinnamon icing, then a fun interior with soft apple bits and the classic yeast donut dough. The caramel apple cider also was great – not too sweet, which I really appreciate, with great apple flavor. The two together were a great pairing.

Scores: Apple fritter – 10/10; Apple cider caramel – 9/10

I am so pumped that MAD is open, and so happy to support a local small business owner where I live. You can follow MAD Donuts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Dun-Well Doughnuts: Apple Pecan

Temperatures may be plunging outside, but Fall flavors are still in full effect on donut shop shelves around the city. Brooklyn’s vegan staple Dun-Well Doughnuts recently had an Apple Pecan on the menu , a bit of a different twist on the autumn standard, but one that still embodied the full tastes of the season.

Despite it feeling more like Winter than Fall these days, this treat from Dun-Well was perfectly balanced and with eyes closed hard enough, it was easy to picture a tree perfectly bursting with color. Dun-Well’s donuts are wonderfully soft, chewy, and just a bit sticky, not at all dense or overpoweringly sweet. For this one, it tasted almost as if you were biting into a real apple, the flavor perfectly spot-on, I almost checked to see if the skin was in the dough. A pure apple taste matched with a perfect pecan crunch, the textures were lovely compliments to one another and the nutty flavor added some new innovation to the mix. A bit late to the game, this was a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one at that and nice alternative to so many apple cider / cinnamon donuts conquering menus around town.

Score: 8.5/10

Peter Pan: Apple Cider

It’s hard to beat a classic and not only is Peter Pan one of the best classic donut shops in the city, but serving up a Fall classic flavor like Apple Cider is one of the most perfect pairings.

The outer surface is covered in a hard sugary glaze, a perfect protection for the inner deliciousness that is filled with a rich flavor. The dough is soft and chewy, a perfect setting for the delectable taste that comes with every bite. Slightly over-fried, there is a small crunch from the sugary coating giving a nice, contrasting texture to the softness inside which holds the real flavor of the donut. This is about as classic as it gets and for a New Yorker, it can save a trip to a farm stand where you might be able to snag a warm, fresh version one of these guys, but from a city standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than this. Peter Pan isn’t doing this “for the ‘gram” and their donuts aren’t always the most attractive visually, but their imperfections are what make them so wonderful. These are hand crafted and made with love, not churned out via machine in mass quantities and the old-school vibes add a certain something that makes them so special. It’s a perfect glazed donut that unveils itself with each bite, never overpowering and always perfectly subtle.

Score: 9.5/10

Du’s: Caramel Apple

With a new season comes a new menu from Brooklyn’s Du’s Doughnuts and like so many other shops around the city, they’re embracing Autumn with apple goodness.

While so many others are serving up their best version of some kind of Apple Cider / Cinnamon / Sugar concoction, Du’s has also rolled out their take on Caramel Apple. It’s an immediate attention grabber on looks alone. Covered in an almost neon green glaze with a caramel drizzle, this one is hard to miss upon first glance and is a cool, creative take on the farm stand staple. The vanilla cake is a subtle base for this treat, but the real flavor lies in that vibrant green frosting. The incredibly sweet shell knocks out any other taste that comes along, as an almost pure, candied sensation rushes over your tastebuds. The green apple taste is similar to hard candy and an extra tang sticks around for a bit of an aftertaste. There’s a little crunch sprinkled on top as well for some extra texture. Overall it’s a tad aggressive and while it will certainly satisfy the most extreme sweet-tooth it may be a bit much for the average consumer.

Score: 7/10

Dough: Apple Glaze

These days, Pumpkin has become the ubiquitous flavor of Fall to (in my opinion), an unhealthy degree. Whether it’s beer, bread, or the spiced latte, the festive gourd seems to be the official flavor for any food this time of year. However, the dudes from Donut Club are firm believers that if you’re in the North East, Apple is still the apex of Autumn and with that, we’re presenting the best in the region starting with Dough’s Apple Glaze.

Properly displayed as Apple Glaze with wildflower honey and almond streusel, this is of course another one of Dough’s monstrous creations. As is typical, the donut is a very heavy yeast variety, massive in size, but not necessarily in taste. The apple glaze is sweet and refreshing, a perfect fall pick-me-up, and the almond streusel gives it a bit of a cream cheese-y taste which is complemented nicely by the wildflower honey. While the gooey frosting really carries the entire flavor of the donut, the sheer volume of the treat is still a bit over-powering. Eating one whole donut from Dough still feels like an accomplishment and their seasonal offerings never veer from their classics. The taste of the Apple Glaze screams “perfect fall dessert” and while I still think it’s not to be missed, the overall result feels like a traditional Dough donut: big on texture and freshness, but just a bit short in flavor.

Score: 8/10

Dunkin’ Apple Cider donuts

DD apple cider

If you can find these, they are fine. Oddly, they were sold out where I live for most of the past few months, and now Dunkin’ has pivoted to their Halloween specialty donuts, which I expect sell much better than apple cider. I was able to find the donut (not hole) version a few times, and they are a traditional cinnamon sugar donut with a light apple flavor. Interestingly, the cinnamon donut from the normal Dunkin’ menu is more of a cinnamon powder style, so this apple cider take is a nice variation. Pretty good and definitely worth buying if they have them, but not worth hunting for.

Dunkin’ Fall lineup blog post

Score: 7/10