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A match made in October

A cider doughnut from Russell Orchards in Ipswich. A cider doughnut from Russell Orchards in Ipswich. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF)

STOW - Some foods only taste good in certain seasons. Lobster rolls just aren't the same in mid-January. Pumpkin muffins in July don't really work either. But cider doughnuts in October? Yes, please. While the main attraction of apple orchards may well be freshly picked apples and apple cider, to miss out on these soft, sweet, spicy doughnuts would be to miss out on autumn itself.

Cider doughnuts are a well-known accompaniment to apple cider, but nobody knows exactly when and why the two were first eaten together. According to the "King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion," recipes for beignets, a kind of high-class fried dough, came here from France and Holland during Colonial times. Autumn was the time for fall butchering, and so it was the only season when there was enough fat available to fry things. As a result, doughnuts became an autumnal treat in the Northeast. In many homes, "cake" doughnuts - made with baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast - would be fried in fat rendered after the slaughter. This coincided with the season for apple cider production, and the two seemed to be a natural pairing. Whether someone spilled cider into the doughnut mix accidentally or purposely wasn't recorded. But there is actually apple cider in the batter for cider donuts. In fact, it's often the main liquid.

"That's what makes them so yummy!" says Honey-Pot Hill Orchards co-owner Julie Martin Sullivan. The Stow orchard uses its own cider in the batter, which is a secret recipe. The doughnuts are about one-third the size of regular doughnuts and come plain or covered in cinnamon sugar. Half-dozen bags come with three of each, but be careful. Their size makes it dangerously easy to unknowingly consume several. Outside they're crispy and inside they're dense; they're best right out of the fryolator and washed down with, or even dipped into, Honey-Pot Hill's apple cider, which is for sale in individual-serving cartons.

"Sometimes on the weekends the demand is full force and there's a bit of a wait," says Martin Sullivan. But don't worry, "We keep making them."

Shelburne Farm is about a five-minute drive from Honey-Pot Hill Orchards. Owner Liz Painter bought the farm with her husband, Ted, 10 years ago, acquiring the cider doughnut recipe from the former owners as a bonus. Getting the ratio of cider to water is important, says Liz Painter, but she won't say exactly what that ratio is. "Too much [cider] makes them too sweet," is about all she'll divulge.

The cider is as much for texture as it is for flavor. Painter does say that cider is the "main liquid" in the batter, and the reason for the doughnuts' moist, cakey consistency. The doughnuts, which are a little bigger than Honey-Pot Hill's, also come in plain and cinnamon sugar. The tastes of cinnamon and nutmeg are evident in the rounds. When I press for a recipe, it goes nowhere. Painter is mum.

Curious customers can watch "doughnut robots" producing the goods though a window. "We put in a window for the kids to see them made and now it's more popular with the adults," Painter says. It's a particularly popular attraction during busy weekends, when doughnut lines can get up to 45 minutes long. But nobody seems to care. "It definitely blows my mind that people would wait that long," says the owner.

Russell Orchards' cider donut history began when current owner Miranda Russell's mother-in-law, Meredith, started experimenting with recipes after buying the Ipswich farm with her husband, Max, in 1979. Meredith Russell tried out different cider-to-water ratios, as well as varying spice mixtures, until eventually she created the batter that is used today. "We're told they're the best," says her daughter-in-law. The batter recipe will, of course, remain a mystery to the general public but includes "lots of cider," according to Miranda Russell. The doughnuts only come in the plain variety, and are made from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m., when the farm closes. "Sometimes we have to set up a corral for people to wait for doughnuts," Russell says. And for the environmentally conscious doughnut fan, Russell Orchards fries its doughnuts in oil that is changed weekly and turned into bio-diesel fuel to power the farm's tractors.

While cider doughnuts themselves may not be the healthiest snack - especially when compared to apples - at least at Russell Orchards, they're good for the environment.

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