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2020 Is Bleak — A Cinnamon-Sugar-Covered Cider Treat Can Help05:26
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This way to self-care. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
This way to self-care. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

Cider doughnuts, folks. We need to have a chat about cider doughnuts. Why? Because now I get it: cider doughnuts help mitigate 2020.

For this eureka moment, we can thank Twitter. Typically, when I tweet, nobody much pays attention. That's not false modesty. It's documented. There are statistics. But it just so happens that recently in my travels online I came across a cider doughnut locator. Yes, an interactive cider doughnut map of New England.

Obviously, this is vital information, so I tweeted out the link. But this message met a different fate. How many people saw the tweet? More than 28,000. And from the voluminous follow-up comments, both on Twitter and in real life, it became obvious: New Englanders are very invested in their cider doughnuts. Cider doughnuts are a focal point of regional pride. They are a scrumptious distraction. They are a seasonal local comfort food for discomforting times.

Clearly, what we have here is a whole cider doughnut 2020 self-care phenomenon.

Amy Traverso agrees. She’s the food editor at Yankee Magazine and the author of "The Apple Lover's Cookbook." She says cider doughnuts are a great example of a "permission food" — in that people often carry on an internal dialogue about foods they want to eat "but feel guilty about eating, and they construct a sort of situation in which it is not only permissible but also necessary to have this sort of 'bad, naughty' food."

Cider doughnuts in the cooker at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts. (Courtesy)
Cider doughnuts in the cooker at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts. (Courtesy)

Food, Traverso emphasizes, is not something she thinks can be naughty. And cider doughnuts are especially not. They are, she says, part of “this great experience of being in nature, and going to an apple orchard, which is such an aesthetically pleasing experience on every level. It's visually beautiful. It smells amazing. It tastes amazing. You're usually with family or close friends... It all combines into this being kind of one of the most deeply comforting foods that you could imagine."

She says New Englanders have reason to claim bragging rights. McIntosh apples — a local specialty — have a spicy, tart flavor that make the best cider. This cider, in turn, makes the best cider doughnuts. And this superiority plays right into New Englanders’ tendency to, shall we say, derive extreme satisfaction from dominating the game.

"I think that we feel that we own fall better than any other part of the world! We have a mix of trees that gives the most spectacular foliage,” Traverso says. “So I think that feeling of 'this is the platonic ideal of fall' extends to our orchards and our cider — and our cider doughnuts.”

Plus, the fresh-out-of-the-fryer situation is irresistible. “When you get them in that paper bag,” says Traverso, “and they smell incredible, and they're so tender, they're warm — I mean, how much better can it get? There's something about the smell of the grease meeting the paper bag, plus the cinnamon and the sugar. And, you know, it's the opening up of the bag and the way the steam builds up just enough inside and it gives you this: puff! I mean, I'm sure there would be temples of haute cuisine that have these 12-course tasting menus that would work very hard to approximate the kind of sensory experience of opening up a paper bag of cider doughnuts!"

Committed to accuracy as I am, I could not merely take Traverso’s word for this. To conduct field research, I made a beeline for my family’s preferred supplier of cider doughnuts: Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts.

I can confirm: eating cider doughnuts is in fact pure multisensory bliss and I briefly forget the woes of the world. I had to track down the owner of Honey Pot Hill to find out why.

Andrew Martin, owner of Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts, about to snack on cider doughnuts. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
Andrew Martin, owner of Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts, about to snack on cider doughnuts. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

Snacking on cider doughnuts fresh off the cooker, Andrew Martin contemplates the popularity of the half-dozen sack. The pull of local traditions, he says, is powerful.

“Fall and cider doughnuts just go together, you know? It's really a New England thing, for sure,” Martin says. “I think it's because we experience seasons more than the rest of the country. And I think we want to really enjoy the fall while it's here because we know what's coming next — winter!”

And cider doughnuts, Martin says, aren’t as easy as they look.

“To make them right you have to be right on with everything, every single time,” says Martin. “If you don't get the ingredients quite right, or if the temperature is not quite right, or if the cooking time is not quite right? Then it’s not the right doughnut. If you have everything just right, it comes out perfect. If you don't, like so many things in life, it won't be what it's supposed to be.”

The controls on the machine where the cider doughnut magic happens at Honey Pot Hill Orchards. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
The controls on the machine where the cider doughnut magic happens at Honey Pot Hill Orchards. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

Like so many things in life, indeed. Chelcie Martin knows the drill. She’s Andrew Martin’s daughter, and as the general manager of Honey Pot Hill she spends countless hours churning out cider doughnuts. Making sure the machines are running perfectly is part of the job, which she acknowledges can be stressful, although she says the challenge is worth it to become a purveyor of joy.

"It feels good," she says. "I mean, it feels like cinnamon sugar in your eye, most of the time, to be honest with you. But it’s great."

As for New Englander’s passion for cider doughnuts, and the competitive spirit that makes New Englanders insist that no treats elsewhere compare? She says that comes with the territory. “We are,” she says, “a prideful people.”

She adds that this is not unique to the realm of cider doughnuts. “I think that when something's good, you know, you gotta shove it in the rest of the country's face. As is New England tradition. Am I right? Have you seen our sports teams?”

Point taken. Boston-area people are gonna Boston-area.

Chelcie Martin, general manager of Honey Pot Hill Orchards, ready to sample her own wares. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
Chelcie Martin, general manager of Honey Pot Hill Orchards, ready to sample her own wares. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

And even after spending her whole life in the family business, Chelcie Martin says she still eats cider doughnuts all the time.

“When we open in the summer and we start making them again, I always have one or two. Or five. The first week. Or day," she says. "And they’re still really good. I always expect it to be like, ‘no, these are gross.’ And they’re just not. They’re delicious.”

So she understands the devotion and the lording-it-over-other-geographic-regions impulse and the New England cider doughnut hype machine. On busy fall weekends, she says, "our lines can be up to an hour...and people will come up and order 20 bags of doughnuts. 'What are you doing with all of these?' And they're like, 'Oh, I'm here for my entire neighborhood!'"

Those customers are on to something. So are those entire neighborhoods. For at least a few, crumb-strewn moments, cider doughnuts make us better. They’re a sweet source of regional pride and a fleeting counterpoint to...all this. And that means, in 2020, cider doughnuts are the self-care ritual you truly deserve.

Mitigating 2020 with cider donuts, the New England way. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
Mitigating 2020 with cider donuts, the New England way. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

Part of the intense appeal of the cider doughnut, of course, is the urgency — the quintessential experience is only available in-season, at your favorite orchards. To help get you through the rest of your days until the next cider doughnut self-care opportunity, here’s Amy Traverso’s recipe for a reasonable facsimile that can fill your kitchen with the smells and tastes of fall in New England. Minus the deep fat fryer.

Amy Traverso's Cider Doughnut Muffins

Makes: 12 muffins • Active time: 20 minutes • Total time: 55 minutes for the muffins

Amy Traverso's cider doughnut muffins. (Courtesy Krissy O'Shea/Yankee Magazine)
Amy Traverso's cider doughnut muffins. (Courtesy Krissy O'Shea/Yankee Magazine)

Equipment

  • 12-cup muffin tin of ⅓ cup capacity
  • 3- to 4-quart saucepan
  • stand or hand-held mixer
  • cake tester
  • pastry brush

Ingredients

For the muffins:

  • 2 cups (473 milliliters) fresh apple cider
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick; 113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the topping:

  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick; 57 grams) salted butter, melted

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and set a rack to the middle position. Lightly grease the muffin tin. In a saucepan, bring the apple cider to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Using a stand or hand-held mixer, cream the butter with the sugar in a large bowl at medium speed until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each. Add the vanilla and blend.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, nutmeg, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add a third of this mixture to the butter mixture and beat just to combine. Add half of the reduced cider and beat to combine. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture, then the rest of the cider, then the remaining flour mixture. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups and bake until the tops are firm and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 15 to 17 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
  4. Prepare the topping: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cinnamon. As soon as the muffins are cool enough to handle, brush their tops and sides with the melted butter, then roll them in the cinnamon-sugar to coat. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Recipe from "The Apple Lover’s Cookbook: Revised and Updated." Copyright (c) 2020 by Amy Traverso. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on October 25, 2020.

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Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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