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Cider Donuts: A Cautionary Tale

October 10, 2013

With apology to Edwin Starr.

Good God y’all.
What are they good for?
Absolutely, nothin’.
Say it again.

Yesterday, KB @ Home-Baked Happiness raised a really good point. Recently she set off on her own cider donut tour in which she sampled an astonishing eleven donuts in one day. God bless her. But heroic fortitude aside, there is something notable about her results. They were much much different than those from the FLB’s Tour de Donut.

She found Devoe’s to be the best of the bunch, followed by Saratoga Apple. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, Saratoga Apple made in many respects a great donut for last year’s tour. However, when we were visiting they seemed to be cooking their donuts in old oil, which resulted in a lingering and unpleasant taste that just wouldn’t quit. More recently, Devoe’s at 9:00 am on a fall Saturday, seemed to be selling only day old donuts.

So, what can we learn from all of this?

Perhaps I’m to blame for not being explicitly clear about how the results from the Tour de Donut should be viewed.

The very first stop of the very first Tour de Donut was Indian Ladder Farms. The donuts we had that morning were incredible. But there is no reason to believe that the orchard consistently delivers a product of that caliber. In fact, I know for a fact that they don’t. I’ve had some truly lackluster specimens at this beloved regional institution.

Ultimately, I don’t think the orchards take their donut operations very seriously.

Even the places that simply use an industrial mix that is combined with their cider and put into the donut robot can have a variable product. Too much mixing can make the dough tough. Inattention to the oil temperature can have a dramatic effect on the crust of the donut. If the oil isn’t changed periodically, everything that comes of the machine will taste bad. And a deft hand is required for getting a judicious, but even coating of sugar.

It’s not as if most orchards have one person who is responsible for all donut operations. Often times it is a shared or rotating responsibility. I’ve met some local donut makers who take a lot of pride in their work, and they acknowledge that the other people making the donuts don’t do nearly as good of a job.

I think back to how great coffee shops put apprenticing baristas through training. Until the novice proves themselves to be competent at steaming milk, they aren’t allowed anywhere near the coffee end of the espresso machine.

Cider donuts could improve a lot if there were more care that went into their production.

Let’s be clear about something. What Devoe’s did was not okay. Day old donuts need to be segregated, marked, and discounted. The same goes for cupcakes. I’m serious. If you are paying over two bucks per cupcake, that damn well better have been made earlier in the day.

It’s fascinating to learn that the same place that doesn’t care enough to start the day with fresh donuts can totally knock it out of the park when they’ve put their mind to it.

So what’s the point of the tours then exactly?

Well, they offer one data point. For what it’s worth, it’s a pretty good data point. It’s not just one person’s opinion, but rather the summary judgement of a group. The donuts are placed in the context of their closest competitors. Yet there is no escaping the fact that we’ve only visited once, and can only judge the donuts that we’ve been given.

Frankly, this is why I encourage people to take the tour on their own, so they can make up their own minds and enjoy a similar experience.

The point of the tours is really the tour itself. While there may be some tangential benefit for those who want to read about the results, those who really learn the most are the participants. By eating five of the same thing over the course of a few hours, you really get a better sense of the dish. You get to experience the range of textures and flavors, and at the end, participants have a broad enough base of taste knowledge to put any future version of that dish into context.

For example, it’s now easy for me to try any cider donut and say with confidence whether or not it falls within the top 25% of cider donuts. And that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to do.

It’s not too late for you to go on any of these tours with your friends. The maps I’ve made are still online. And if you ask nicely, I’ll even email you an unofficial scoresheet for your touring pleasure.

Should you come back with different results, I’d love to hear about them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2013 12:21 pm

    If someone is selling food (or anything else) to the public, they deserve to be held to a minimum standard. Sometimes they’ll exceed it, hopefully most of the time, but it should never fall below that standard. If they do, they deserve to be called on it, which you did, no apology necessary.

  2. Lilly permalink
    October 10, 2013 1:47 pm

    My son works at Indian Ladder. We don’t ask, and he doesn’t, bring any donuts home with him. He has learned (and us) that getting the best is all in the timing. Not just day old, but within a matter of hours the donuts can start to get denser then when they came out of the machine. Depending on the time of day, and the day itself, and the amount of people purchasing throughout the day, you will never get the same donut twice. Doesn’t stop me from enjoying them (as long as they can be eaten within a few hours).

  3. October 10, 2013 10:56 pm

    Allow me to be a bit off color for a second…. Cider donuts are sort of like sex. Even when they are bad they are still sort of good.

    I heartily endorse your “tour de”s as social events, but I take the judgements passed with a grain of rock salt.

    As you said — a lot of these places are concerned with other things then donuts. I bet there has been a moment at every single one of these joints where some lucky person had the best goddamn cider donut of their life.

    My advice stands, find the place that appeals to you the most and have your donut and stop thinking about it so much. The spectrum of local cider donut quality is simply not that vast.

    But again. The tours seem like a heck of a lot of fun. Some people collect baseball cards and some people do donut tours. Takes all kinds,takes all kinds…

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