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PHOTO: John Diefenderfer

In Search of Donut Perfection

A tour of regional apple orchards, and a survey of their ultimate prize: cider donuts

 

By Kirsten Ferguson

At some local orchards, like Sara toga Apple in Schuylerville, you can get them year-round, but we tend to think of apple-cider donuts as an autumn delight, along with clear days and carved pumpkins on doorsteps.

Cider donuts are not hard to find in the Capital Region. In recent years, the wholesale apple business has been difficult for local growers, with China dominating the world apple market while Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples from western states like Washington dominate grocery-store shelf space. As a result, many local apple orchards have turned to direct marketing ventures to make ends meet. That means pick-your-own operations and farm stores, with some orchards offering attractions like hayrides and birthday parties, live music and corn mazes. And donuts.

The tastiest cider donuts have a few things in common. They are fresh and hot, or at least warm, when you pull them out of the wax paper bag. There’s a slight crispness to their outer crust, whether dusted with cinnamon or sugar or both. (There are plain cider donuts to be had, but “plain” and “donut” have never gone together in my lexicon.) When freshly made, that outer layer gives way to soft, mouth-melting dough inside. There may be a hint of the bubbling oil they bathe in, but good cider donuts should not be so greasy that you notice.

While the best homegrown cider donuts share those qualities, there are variations in type. I prefer a cider donut that’s light and fluffy inside, almost airy. But the denser, cake-like cider donuts have their fans. With either type, the apple flavor is subtle, more implied than something you can put your finger on. For an overwhelming apple taste, you best have a glass of cider instead. Or better yet, use the cider to wash down the donuts.

To get the most out of cider-donut season, don’t just limit yourself to one orchard. Take a self-guided donut-tasting tour instead, visiting as many orchards as you can and making comparisons based on sweetness, texture, density and the elusive “cidery-ness.” If you go with a group on your donut-tasting venture, you’ll find that everyone has their own opinion about what makes a perfect cider donut. But as Homer (Simpson) would say, “There is no such thing as a bad donut.”

Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont is a good place to start. On a clear sunny day recently, the orchard parking lot teemed with people, and the line for donuts stretched past the farm’s antique Farmall tractor and around the Native American totem pole. But a line for donuts means one thing: By the time you get yours, they will be hot. And while waiting at Indian Ladder, you can look in through the bakery windows to see the donut-assembly-line process at work, as donuts mechanically flip into and out of a vat of hot oil and make their way down the conveyer belt. The result: a hot donut with just the right amount of crispness on the outside, and fluffy, almost gooey, inside. Delicious.

“Atmosphere has a lot to do with how good a cider donut is,” my friend says, and Indian Ladder has lots of that. It couldn’t get much more scenic, with the dramatic Helderberg Escarpment looming in the background and the pretty shingle-sided barns with green trim. (I think I saw that color on Martha Stewart’s summer house in Easthampton.) A highlight at Indian Ladder is the petting zoo, where the animals are all character, from Rosie the rust-colored Scottish Highlander cow (“that’s a ‘Whole Lotta Rosie,’ ” my friend said, referencing the AC/DC song) to the fainting goats and the donkey that made a sly move for my bottle of cider when I wasn’t looking.

From Indian Ladder we went to the nearby Altamont Orchards, a more commercial-seeming operation with an adjacent golf club and the Cider House Restaurant. A witch on break from the orchard’s haunted-house attraction stood in black hat and striped knee socks in the parking lot. Here, friends called the donuts from the bakery more “desserty” and “donuty,” because of their denser, doughier consistency, though I stood by my preference for the lighter, fluffier kind of donut. Agree to disagree.

Next stop: a turn northward toward Saratoga County to visit Riverview Orchards in western Clifton Park, which couldn’t be located at a prettier, more peaceful spot along the Mohawk River. Here the “donut robot” is king, sending the round rings of deliciousness along a path from batter to oil to conveyer to sugar bowl. The result: a perfect donut prize, hot but not greasy, sweet but not too sugar-coated, light but flavorful. For entertainment, kids climb over a round hay-bale maze, goats cavort on a climbing apparatus, and the honey house offers interesting honey-extraction demonstrations.

For the last stop on this particular donut-tasting trip, we hit the small mom-and-pop operation that is Lindsey’s Idyllwood Orchard in Rexford. While the larger orchards offer lots of entertainment value for the cost (that would be a standard 60 to 75 cents per single donut at the places we visited), there are plenty of smaller places in the area worth visiting for their local color, low-key charm and smaller crowds. Here we were greeted with a personal welcome and free cider and donut samples upon arrival. (The donut leaned toward the “cakey” variety.) Inside the farm store, we redeemed some of our day’s nutritional indulgence by tasting apples instead of donuts; a patient store clerk sliced up apple samples as we tried obscure and antique apple varieties far more exotic than you’ll find in any ordinary store.

To plan your donut- or apple-tasting route, visit www.nyapplecountry.com or www.pickyourown .org/ny to find lists of local orchards and their attractions.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Tonight (Thursday, Oct. 19) there will be a cigar soiree at Park 54 (54 Clifton Country Road, Clifton Park) in association with Park Lane Tobacconist. $60 gets you drinks, dinner and cigars. For more info, phone 688-1548 or check out www.park54restaurant .com. . . . Tonight sees another cigar dinner, this one at Carmine’s Restaurant (818 Central Ave., Albany), where chef Carmine Sprio is designing a menu to accompany a selection of CAO cigars (you’ll get five!) Along with drinks and dinner for $85 (inclusive). Call 690-2222 to see if there are seats left. . . . The Gateways Inn and Restaurant (51 Walker Street, Lenox, Mass.) will host a Macallan Whisky cocktail reception and four-course dinner at 7 PM Saturday (Oct 21). Chef Rosemary Chiariello has created a four-course menu that includes roasted-duck-breast salad, lobster cappuccino and grilled beef tenderloin in a peppered wine sauce. It’s $80 per person, and you can reserve seats by calling (413) 637-2532. . . . Girl Scouts, Hudson Valley Council, will hold their fifth annual Cookie Cuisine event from 6 to 9 PM Tuesday (Oct. 24) at the Italian American Community Center, Washington Avenue Extension, Albany. You’ll see Cookie Cuisine honorary chair Carmine Sprio and a host of talented culinary teams prepare gourmet entrees and desserts using all of your favorite Girl Scout cookies, including a brand new, top-secret cookie. Tickets are $35. For reservations, call Sharon Smith at 489-8110, ext. 105 or e-mail ssmith@ girlscouts hvgsc.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@ banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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