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The Best Cider Donut Late in the Season

November 4, 2014

Who has the best cider donuts in the Capital Region? Indian Ladder Farm, Golden Harvest Farms, Hicks-Wilson Orchard, and The Carrot Barn. How do I know? Because with the help of countless volunteers, we pitted the cider donuts from twenty of the areas most beloved orchards against each other and these were the four that rose to the top.

However, this project is far from complete. Last Saturday, even as this year’s apple cider donut season is coming to a close, seventeen of us ate our way through five more versions of this regional specialty. The difference this time around is that a majority of the stops were at bakeries.

Sacrilege? We’ll see. Because joining the four off-orchard contenders was last year’s Albany Times Union darling, The Farm at Kristy’s Barn, which closes for the season just after Thanksgiving. I mention that just in case anyone wants to conduct the self guided version of this tour. I’d gladly send out an unofficial scoresheet pdf. All you have to do is ask.

What I can tell you is that this year’s Tour de Cider Donut was a blow out. It wasn’t even close. One place ran away with the victory. Where things really got interesting, though, was in the race for second place.

But before I totally spill the beans, let me tell you how the day played out. As always, each donut was rated on a five point scale against seven criteria:
1) Crust – The donut’s fried exterior – Nobody likes a limp, soggy donut
2) Sugar – We evaluate the sugar coated ones, and the differences here are astounding
3) Cider – Made with apple cider, that flavor should (but rarely does) shine through
4) Texture – The interior – Some are tough, others are gummy, few are tender and light
5) Taste – How the flavors all work together, or don’t if there is something off
6) Oil – Yes, it’s fried, but you shouldn’t be tasting old oil or handed a greaseball
7) Overall – The experience of eating this cider donut on the whole

On Saturday, seventeen intrepid eaters met at 8:00 am in downtown Albany. It was a cold morning, and officially Cider Belly was closed. I was imagining huddling together with the participants in the nearby bus shelter as we nibbled on the first donuts of the day. It’s not quite as picturesque as eating out in the orchards, but so be it.

Fortunately, Cider Belly let all of us in to use their tables. They had caught wind of the tour over social media channels. Schuyler Bakery also found out we were coming. So much for flying under the radar. But I’m confident that the donuts we bought were no different than any other Saturday morning pre-order.

At Cider Belly a dozen and a half of the Sugar Daddies cost $15 making them the most expensive donuts of the day. This is the flavor that gets a dusting of cinnamon sugar, making them most similar to the classic orchard staple. Those who enjoyed them praised their warm temperature, crisp crust, and meltingly tender interior texture. These burnished beauties tied for the highest cider flavor score of the day, which isn’t to say there weren’t tasters who would have liked the cider to have more oompf. The cinnamon sugar adhered reasonably well and almost sparkled.

On the downside, these donuts were also the oiliest of the day, and left a greasy feeling in one tasters mouth. Others complained about the lack of structural stability in such a tender donut, and noticed an uneven sugar distribution for the donuts which were bagged (versus a better distribution for the dozen that were put in a box). Overall, this was a strong start to the tour.

Onward to Schuyler Bakery which we were told is the oldest family bakery in the region that hasn’t traded hands. Schuyler sells thousands of donuts a day. This small shop is kept busy on the strength of its $.50 donuts. That’s right. Our dozen and a half only cost $9 making them the least expensive of the day. But it’s not a value if the donuts aren’t good.

Fans of these praised their denser texture and greaseless mouthfeel. What boya3706 felt to be a perfect crust moved her to wonder if “it was double fried to get the crisp outer layer.” The avalanche of cinnamon sugar received a mixed reception. Some people loved it. Others thought it was a bit too much. But I don’t think anyone left the bakery without being charmed by it on the whole.

Bella Napoli didn’t fare quite as well. It turns out that this bakery makes two different apple cider donuts depending on the season. This was news to me. I was only familiar with their cake-like apple cider donut with its tight crumb and impossibly crisp exterior. However, during fall the bakery sells its “Softee Cider Donuts” for $7.95 per dozen ($4.95 per half or $.85 each).

R of Chopsticks Optional praised these for being uniform with a soft crumb and good sugar. In fact, its even coverage of fine granulated sugar was a compliment echoed by many tasters. Still, others couldn’t get over its tough, dense texture. More than one couldn’t (or didn’t want to) finish it. Jack C. thought it had solid flavor and that the “cider spice comes through, if not actual cider.”

Which brought us to Yonder Farms in Colonie, which looks like a barn and contains a country store, but the farm itself appears to be elsewhere. For some reason that always trips me up. But there was plenty of seating for our large group and a batch of cider donuts that the clerk told me “couldn’t be any fresher.” Eighteen of them were $11.90 putting them right in the middle of the pack.

Looking at these lighter colored donuts, I was apprehensive about how they would taste. Well, they tied with Cider Belly for having the greatest apple cider flavor. Maybe that’s why people on Yelp love these so much. The flavor is what won over boya3706 who declared these her favorite of the day, “Flavor is intense – like mulled cider was used to make the doughnut – amazing flavor.” But that flavor was divisive. Where some people experienced apple, others tasted lemon. Still, it’s hard to overlook the glory of this donut’s tender melt-in-your mouth texture, greaseless exterior, and judicious use of sugar. There was a lot to love here, just maybe not for everyone.

The drive out to Kristy’s Barn was restorative and allowed us to face one more donut to end the day. These donuts beat out some serious competition in last year’s Times Union’s bracket challenge. But the unfortunate truth is that our batch just wasn’t in the same league as even the other donuts we evaluated that morning. We were charged $11.50 for the dozen and a half.

R of Chopsticks Optional enjoyed its texture and restrained use of spices. But Caitlin may have said it best, “Very middle-of-the road over all…This donut was tasty and inoffensive but not a front runner.”

So, who was the front runner?

It goes to the new kid on the block. Congratulations to Cider Belly Doughnuts for making what Max describes as the “best texture i’ve ever had in a cider donut” and what Lauren deems a “perfect crust” with “just the right amount of sugar on top.” Of the sixteen completed score sheets I received at the end of the tour, a full fourteen of them had Cider Belly as their top pick. That’s a supermajority.

The other two evaluators left their hearts at Yonder Farms, and I can’t blame them. It’s not your typical cider donut, but it packs a flavor punch. However, it should be noted not everyone digs that flavor profile.

If we took Cider Belly out of the equation, Yonder Farms would have nine of the evaluators in its camp with a very respectable five going to Schuyler Bakery.

Bella Napoli and Kristy’s Barn were only able to snag one second place vote each. And I really do think that Bella Napoli would have done better had the shop stocked the crustier version of its cider donuts. But that’s how the donut crumbles.

The best news is that you can make it to Cider Belly all year long. Just order in advance if you want to pick up donuts before 8:30 AM on Saturday. Maybe I’ll see you there. And if you want to see pictures of all these donuts, simply click here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2014 10:42 am

    A cider donut removed from the greater experience of getting a cider donut is just a donut. I don’t eat donuts. I eat cider donuts.

  2. November 4, 2014 12:04 pm

    I love those Cider Belly kids. I’m so happy to see them get some due recognition among the others; however, they will be the first to tell you to go to the orchard and support the small farms cranking out delicious, fresh, cider doughnuts.

  3. Ryan H. permalink
    November 4, 2014 7:39 pm

    Sacrilege? No way. Don’t send a farmer to do a baker’s job. We get most of our produce from Kristy’s Barn at our local farmer’s market, and we love them. But I just don’t think it’s possible to be the best at both farming and baking.

  4. colleen permalink
    November 6, 2014 12:28 pm

    I love love love love Cider belly, I can’t stop at one though, they are my downfall.

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