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FOOD

What makes cider doughnuts so special? We went farm-hopping to find out.

Stand aside pumpkin-spiced latte, it's cider donut season
WATCH: Correspondent Lindsay Crudele and host Segun Oduolowu sample cider donuts from her top five, hand-picked orchards.

We have a lot to be smug about here in New England when it comes to fall. Sure, we have the blazing foliage and the cozy fall outfits. True, we have the crisp temperatures and the picturesque historic walks. But don’t forget: We also have cider doughnuts.

Our fall fixation with cider doughnuts is well-founded, and it is, at last, time to make the doughnuts in New England. Cider doughnuts are a cake-style variety of doughnut, lightly scented with nutmeg and cider, and sold at orchards and farm stands. The best ones are freshly made on the spot: springy, crumbly, warm.

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At the peak of pick-your-own apple season, Ipswich’s Russell Orchards cranks out as many as 150,000 doughnuts across its busiest six weeks. Orchards of all sizes adapt to the passionate demand, including by hiring staff with specialized jobs such as “doughnut sugarer.” For their fans, “no doughnut” means “no visit.” It’s a simple food: a few dry ingredients and a splash of cider. So why are we so obsessed?

The cider doughnut appears in a 1901 Halloween party menu, and got a boost in 1951 following the patent of the doughnut machine, promoted as a special fall flavor. Some orchards serve recipes that date back generations. And in recent years, it’s had no bigger booster than New England’s cider doughnut laureate, Alex Schwartz — aka the Cider Donuteur — whose comprehensive Google map of local orchards inadvertently harnessed widespread passion.

The reaction surprised Schwartz.

“It’s the most wholesome, adorable thing of all time,” Schwartz said. (It even surprised orchards, as newly inspired donuteurs flocked to stands. “Everyone was coming into the store and getting dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens, and it’s like, what is going on?” said Miranda Russell, Russell Orchards owner.)

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Schwartz reviews doughnuts with the focus of a sommelier, considering crumb texture, crispness, and flavor. As I set out on my own odyssey, I asked Schwartz for a pro tip.

“Look for the act of creation of the doughnuts in front of you,” they said. “If you don’t see that, then who knows where they came from, who knows how old they are.”

The experience of eating a cider doughnut is as dependent on the batter and technique as it is the atmosphere in which it is enjoyed. Oenophiles have terroir, but cider doughnut fans have fall air and hay bales.

Passing through Rhode Island’s Apple Valley, Pippin Orchard sold their doughnuts by the box. They were moist and chewy, with an assertive apple nose that hinted of Jolly Ranchers. I munched in the car while the rain picked up speed. The next orchard was closed: a washout. My phone lit up with a flash flood warning. I headed to a third farm store, where I purchased a single — cinnamon-sugar dipped — for $1.29 and walked into the orchard, despite the rain. Droplets dappled my doughnut as I sheltered under a tree, and wondered if I was doing it right.

Schwartz pointed to Massachusetts’ “apple corridor,” the Bolton-and-Stow area, where you can’t throw a Honeycrisp without hitting an orchard. When the rain broke later in the week, I branched out.

Outside Bolton Spring Farm, a wide-set country farm store packed with pumpkins and baked goods, Kathy Bumpus emerged with a bag of warm ones. She was new to the area, though not to the doughnuts.

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“I’ve had quite a few in my day,” she proffered, but this was her first time trying these. I asked her for a taste test; she didn’t protest.

“Exceptionally moist,” she described, after reaching into her bag and taking a bite. “And dipped in the sugar, which is my preference.”

What makes a doughnut recipe special? Local orchards swear by their secret family formulas, trusted bagged mix, or fresh cider. But after days of scouring orchards across the region, almost no one agreed.

At Russell Orchards, doughnuts spend about 90 seconds in 375-degree oil. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Inside, farm manager Lori Stephenson said their recipe dates back to 1979 and is a proprietary mix provided locally. But she demurred when I asked for more details. The shop makes them fresh every day, and they’re always warm.

At Berlin Orchards in Berlin, I asked owner Sheila Beirne if she’d share her recipe.

“No,” she said.

But she would say this: they can’t get too greasy. To prevent cracking, they can’t stay in the oil for too long. And, it’s important to get the cider ratio just right.

“If you put in a little too much, it gets too heavy,” she said. “But weather matters: it’s too hard if it’s too cold. Certain days, we can’t have the window open or the door open because the breeze is blowing in.”

Her daughter, Mary, demonstrated how to make the doughnuts, explaining that the speed at which the dough travels across the sizzling oil affects the shape and browning of the final product.

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At Russell Orchards, apple cider doughnuts are lined up after coming out of the deep fryer.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As the oil reached 375 degrees, Mary coaxed dough into the oil, and pairs of cider doughnuts floated across a river of hot oil, flipped by a timed paddle, until they shot out into a sugaring bowl. Mary shimmied the doughnuts around in the sugar until they were coated, and stacked them in a pan.

“We spend more time on the doughnuts than we do on the apples this time of year,” said Beirne.

“I know for a fact there are people that wouldn’t go to orchards if they didn’t have doughnuts,” said Shelburne Farm owner Ted Painter. “I’ve been told that thousands of times.”

I encountered Painter in the farm store just after taking a messy bite of a fresh doughnut, my face covered in cinnamon sugar. I was in sympathetic company: Painter grew up on the property, never imagining he’d one day own it, and carries on a doughnut-making tradition that dates back at least 60 years. Now, he rhapsodizes about apple varietals, after expanding from 16 to 100 from the previous farmer, including some said to descend from Johnny Appleseed’s own Midwest collection. (How are they? “They’re edible,” he said.)

Gabriela McAteer, 2, from Tuba City, Ariz., eats a doughnut at Russell Orchards. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Orchards, like Shelburne, do what they must to meet the formidable demand. No recipe here, either: that’s a secret, too. I can attest that when fresh, these were among my favorites: light, springy, and kissed with cinnamon sugar. When I asked what makes his doughnuts unique, Painter pointed to the meticulous technique practiced by his special doughnut team.

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“We have this very rigid process for making them,” Painter said. “You could argue that besides the apple grower, they’re the most important people.”

And not everyone makes the cut.

“So that it doesn’t come out like onion rings — or, they’re like bricks,” he said. “We have a process that is perfect, and if you follow it, you get the perfect doughnut. And if you deviate even a little bit, you know . . . the answer is, ‘Don’t do that.’ Because we’ve worked on this for a long time.”

Since I couldn’t get anyone to spill recipe details, I asked another pointed question: Who does it best? But doughnut bakers are also diplomats.

“When they’re hot, they’re all good,” said Stephenson. “I guess it’s the customers that tell you you’re the best, and you shouldn’t be slapping yourself in the back.”

“Everybody’s doughnuts are worthy,” said Russell. “Ours are good, and if you’re here, please enjoy them. But don’t make it a doughnut war.”

“I think your favorite place has the best,” said Beirne.

Barbara Baumer pours batter into the doughnut maker at Russell Orchards. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

She wasn’t being clever: She wanted to acknowledge the link between this nostalgic experience, and feelings that the seasonal nature of the food invokes about passage of time, life changes, and family. And that can happen wherever you choose to carry on the tradition.

“It’s kind of the way it makes you feel kind of cozy and comfortable,” she said. “In an ever-changing world… there’s an earthiness to it, a wholesomeness to a doughnut.”

I didn’t think I was getting any closer to finding out the secret ingredient, but it was right under my nose (alongside the granules of sugar). Time and time again, bakers pointed to the orchard itself as crucial. Was it a ploy by Big Apple to drive more traffic to orchards? Or something else?

“This little pastry is the experience of being on the farm,” said Russell. If the place and doughnut were so inextricably tethered, perhaps doughnuts could also themselves be transportive.

“It’s very moving when people . . . come in to buy doughnuts and they’re shipping them out to their college student because all their college student misses from home is the cider doughnuts,” said Russell.

Miranda Russell checks on the McIntosh apples at Russell Orchards.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As I sipped a cider at the edge of Shelburne Farm, Painter shared a revelation.

Even on a busy day, there is always a quiet place among the apple trees, he said. “It’s just this miracle of nature,” he said. “Here’s a tree that’s bearing food that can sustain you.”

Painter spoke with awe of the apple’s history: from biblical references to tracing ancient strains in Kazakhstan. The trees loomed not just physically large up the hill from us, but immense in other ways, too.

When you emerge, he said, there are people gathering to celebrate the harvest together.

“It’s such an incredible experience of what makes us human,” he said.

It’s as if by making holes, we can be made whole. Not bad for a snack cake.

Russell Orchards manager Miranda Russell and Cowan McCormick, who is the store supervisor at the orchard, enjoy some doughnuts.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff