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The Best of the Best Cider Donut Orchards

September 12, 2017

Last Saturday was the 8th Annual Tour de Cider Donut, and notably this was the first time we returned to any of the 35 places visited over the past several years.

That’s because this was a tournament of champions, of sorts. The excellent donuts from Hick’s Orchard were eliminated because of their distance from the center of the Capital Region. Also, Cider Belly received a bye into the finals, which will happen at a later date.

More than a dozen people began the tour in Schoharie, but in the end once the tour was finished in Valatie I received nine completed score sheets. Not everyone who started the tour was able to make it through. These are rigorous eating outings, and they take a certain amount of commitment.

By the end of the day I logged 179 miles on the car. Thankfully, I did not count the calories.

Each donut was evaluated on a five point scale, looking at the crust, sugar, cider flavor, internal texture, overall taste, oil, and an overall score for the donut as a whole. Since this was a tournament of champions there wasn’t a bad donut in the bunch, and almost every place we visited was somebody’s favorite.

In the end, there has to be a winner. And there was. But it was close. Here’s how it all went down.

We all gathered at Terrace Mountain Orchard. This was the winner from the 6th annual tour, and that year this remote farm was our final stop. Last Saturday, one of the tour participants noticed a printout of those tour results displayed on the wall of the bakery. That was pretty cool.

The cases were full of freshly made donuts, but as is our custom I asked if we could get any that were hot. And they were glad to oblige.

For the sake of full transparency, I need to mention that our group was outed by the woman behind the counter. That said, I made sure that she confirmed anyone who asked could get hot donuts, and that we weren’t getting any special treatment. Given that we were successful in this on our first outing to TMO, I’m confident that is the case.

These donuts were just as excellent as I remember. Chad V. wrote, “Whoa! Great start to the day. Hot and fresh with most crumb and sugary crust.” Bobby enjoyed how it “melts in your mouth”. It’s true. These were incredibly light, beautifully fried, and doused in an avalanche of granulated sugar. Detractors found this to be too much sugar, and even those who categorically loved this donut were left wanting a more assertive cider flavor. We would find that at our second stop.

The Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms was a quick ten minute trip away

This farm bakery does not make apple cider donuts all year round, and last weekend was the first they were being offered for the season. Back on the 4th annual tour, The Carrot Barn took the top spot for donuts off the beaten path.

Once again, I asked if we could have hot donuts. This time I was denied. While not hot, these were made recently enough that they were still warm.

Sometimes people wonder why there is an oil category on the scoresheets. Well, it’s because sometimes a donut is exceptionally oily. This was the case at The Carrot Barn. And our visit was not an anomaly. This is just how cider donuts are made here. While Gaby found it to be her favorite of the day, because the “oil contributed to the decadent texture” of the donut, most found it simply too heavy.

That said, the crust was well developed, and the flavor was delicious with hints of sweet spice in the donut in addition to cinnamon in the sugar coating. In the end though, it was divisive. While some people really liked this, for others it was their least favorite donut of the day. Personally, I was a fan, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Starting to fill up on donuts, we took the thirty minute drive to Indian Ladder Farms.

This is the farm that started off this entire project. Way back in 2010, this was the very first stop of the very first tour. And I still remember how it was the assertive crust on these cider donuts back then that put this place in the winner’s circle, over Altamont Orchards.

Even back then, I noted that Indian Ladder Farms donuts were quite variable. Some days they were better. Other days they were worse. I suspect the problem last Saturday was that the bakery overestimated the number of people who would be buying donuts, because when we arrived, there were racks and racks of donuts waiting to be sold and no line to buy them. Still, we could see and smell more donuts rolling out of the machines, fresh and hot.

I asked for those, but I was denied. The donuts I was given were barely warm and pre-bagged behind the counter. And that bag had been folded closed.

Can you see where this is going?

While these were clearly well fried donuts, with a defined deep brown crusty edge, that crust lacked the payoff of a crisp texture. Still, they were delicious. And there were evaluators who enjoyed the dense, firmer texture of these cakey treats. Plus, the crunchiness of the generously cinnamon-spiked sugar topping texturally made up for the lack of a crisp crust.

Ultimately, you can only evaluate the donut that’s in front of you. Yes, Indian Ladder Farms can do better. But even so, it was the favorite of Susan N., who really loved the firmness of the crumb and the cleanness of the flavor.

We were less lucky at our visit to Smith’s Orchard & Bake Shop in Ballston Spa.

When the Tour de Donut visited Smith’s last year, it was the dark horse of the tour. We weren’t even supposed to go there originally. It was an alternate. But when we arrived at our second stop, and they were frying donuts in the kitchen, we were treated to hot specimens that made some on tour suggest that we just pack up and go home because these donuts were simply unbeatable. They were right.

These were so good last year that I went into last weekend’s tour thinking that Smith’s was the place to beat. Except as it turns out, these donuts are decidedly less exciting when they cool down.

Smith’s too had racks of donuts that had been made earlier that day. We rolled up around 2pm. The woman behind the counter even felt the donuts looking for the warmest when I asked for hot donuts.

As a side note, while we were there, hot pies were coming out of the kitchen. I’m kicking myself for not getting one and having a slice on the spot. But I needed to save all my room for donuts.

The donuts we received scored high marks for their excellent crust. Crust lovers rejoiced. There was a lot to like about these donuts, and the consensus seemed to be that the flavors and textures might have popped more if this donut were hot. Many speculated that based on its strong bones, a hot version could have won the day.

Unfortunately, in a very close race, these failed to rate. However, if you can get to Ballston Spa earlier in the day when these donuts are hot, you will be in for a treat.

The last stop was Golden Harvest, a full hour away in Valatie.

Back in 2011 this was the third stop on the second annual tour, and even though it went up against donuts that were served hot, this well balanced room temperature donut still came out on top.

This year, once again, I asked for hot donuts. Even though we arrived later in the day, the kitchen was still cranking out hot donuts. But apparently rules are rules, and we couldn’t get the hot ones of our dreams. Some day, Golden Harvest. Some day.

Once again, even at room temperature these are remarkably well balanced cider donuts. Yes, they could be crustier, but there is some crispness to the fry. Plus, with the strongest score for cider flavor of the day, these are worthy of note. Those who crave lots of sugar might find the donuts lacking, but those who considered these to be their favorite of the day found the restrained use of sugar to be perfect.

Ultimately I agree with Jack from Two Buttons Deep who summed up why Golden Harvest made his favorite donut of the day. To paraphrase, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a good donut without a single critical flaw. What I wrote back in 2011 still holds true today, “Finally we encountered a cider donut with some crispness to its crust, a light interior texture, and a good balance of sugar.”

In the end, three evaluators thought this was the best donut of the day. But that wasn’t quite enough to snag the victory this time around.

Congratulations to Terrace Mountain Orchard for winning the tournament of champions! I think Steve N. summed up the experience of this donut nicely:

Though there was a bit too much sugar on them, I liked the crunchy texture the sugar added to the donut. I also liked the creamy texture of the interior. The individual parts of TM’s donut—while very good—were not outstanding. But, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, and I found TM’s donut to be the tastiest, and most fun to eat.

One more thing. During the tour I stashed away one donut from each of the five stops and gave them all to another pair of tasters later that day. Interestingly, John and Meredith found The Carrot Barn to be their top choice, with Terrace Mountain close behind. To me, that’s encouraging, because it indicates that Terrace Mountain’s donuts do not have to be hot to be delicious.

Thanks to everyone who came out, saw the 8th Annual Tour de Cider Donuts through to its completion, and sacrificed their bodies to science. Two Buttons Deep was with us for the whole thing, and Katie was giving her thoughts along the way to Jack. I hear that video will probably go live soon, if it’s not up already.

The next tour won’t be until winter. But it will be New York City style pizza slices in Schenectady. And there’s talk about squeezing in one more round of donut tasting before the grand championship versus Cider Belly. More on that later. Stay tuned.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2017 10:10 am

    The pies at Smith are awesome. I took home a strawberry/rhubarb hot out of the oven. It was as good as it looked/smelled.

    The idea that a place would insist on giving you cold donuts when hot ones are coming out of the fryer is stupidity and Indian Ladder and Golden Harvest deserve to lose. At the very least the not-hot donuts should be sold at a discount.

    • Buffsoulja permalink
      September 12, 2017 3:32 pm

      Agree. Given the strength of how they tasted at room temperature, either one of those donuts could have easily won the day had they given us a hot one. Lesson: Hot cider donuts = win.

  2. Mary permalink
    September 12, 2017 1:19 pm

    Agree, Agree, AGREE. I could not make it to Smith’s or Golden Harvest (which is a long standing favorite of mine) But Terrace Mountain- cider donut- you have my sugary crusted heart and my delightfully soft and spongy soul!

  3. Ryan H permalink
    September 12, 2017 8:18 pm

    After doing a lot of driving earlier that week, we were happy to sit this one out and benefit from your “work.” Definitely next time. Cider doughnuts are one of the joys of life and this is making me very hungry.

  4. tallguyy permalink
    September 23, 2017 10:21 am

    Please put Gade Farms on your list for your taste test. We used to live near Golden harvest and they were always the best. Gade’s taste similar if not better! We are going to try Altamont Orchards today. =)


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