The Unexpectedly Modern History Of The Apple Cider Donut

Pumpkin spice may be all the rage when the weather turns chilly, but apple cider is just as autumnal. The mulled version, with its warming spices like cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and cardamom, plus the juice from fall's other favorite fruit, the apple, cider, is a cozy reminder of falling leaves and crisp air. So what better flavor to turn into a sweet, cakey donut?

Cider donuts originated with the American colonialists. With fall as the butchering season, there was a surplus of leftover fat from the animals. To use it up, colonial cooks would mix the seasonal apples with fry dough, and eventually, cider donuts became a homespun Halloween treat. According to a 1901 news clipping from The Buffalo Enquirer, they were commonly served for dessert at spooky holiday gatherings. The acidic apple cider adds unique qualities to the donut base, with NPR saying it produces an excellent crumb, and New Hampshire noting it makes the donuts more tender.

That said, it wasn't the delicious dough that launched the rustic treat to the national consciousness. Instead, according to NPR, it was born of a chance meeting between Harlem, New York baker Adolph Levitt, who dreamed of an easier way to make donuts, and an engineer. So, in 1921, they birthed an automated system. Instead of the labor-intensive hand rolling and cutting, the contraption dropped perfectly formed dough circles into a vat of hot oil and flipped them at the right time.

The apple cider donut's modern twist

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Levitt formed the Donut Corporation of America (DCA) in the 1920s, encompassing his bakeries, the donut machine, and commercial donut mixes. (NPR explains he sold the machines and mixes to grocery stores and other retail outs, which was a more lucrative approach than selling to bakeries). In 1951, the company announced the introduction of a new item, the Sweet Cider Donut, which was advertised as a "spicy round cake" with "fall appeal."

NPR reports that at the same time DCA launched its donut with its autumnal appeal, the rise of automobiles created a new demand at farm stands in rural areas that skirted metropolitan regions. They needed to feed hungry urban dwellers who went out on weekend jaunts to the country in their new cars. So with Levitt's donut machine and the accompanied commercial mixes, the orchards got into the donut game. The hot, greasy treat paired perfectly with the pressed cider they already sold.

Cover Story on Medium points out that Donut Corporation of America loved its marketing gimmicks, and perhaps the apple cider donut's popularity soared because of this. But without its delicious flavor, the confection would have gone the way of DCA's ill-advised precursor: The Vitamin Donut.