The apple cider doughnuts that chef Karen DeMasco makes for Hearth look and sound simple enough. They’re a chubby, petit version of the farm stand classic: nut brown, cinnamon-scented, and either tossed in sugar or dipped in glaze. They come to the table in a pair, warm from the fryer, resting on a few spoonfuls of creme fraiche and a plop of golden apple butter. It’s nothing fancy, but these doughnuts are what most apple cider doughnuts only promise to be: moist, tender, and actually apple-flavored. And for most, that should be reason enough to order them.
But for the New York pastry obsessive, there’s also a thrill in recognizing these particular doughnuts on the menu at Hearth. DeMasco is one of New York’s great pastry chefs, who made a name for herself overseeing the pastry department at Tom Colicchio’s Craft in the early aughts, and then at Andrew Carmellini’s eternally popular Locanda Verde. She excels at homey-yet-elegant desserts, the kind that are so simple and free of distraction they’re actually hard to pull off. Apple cider doughnuts are what you might call one of her greatest hits.
DeMasco developed the recipe back when she was at Locanda Verde and in charge of launching the restaurant’s all-day pastry counter. Among the cakes, cookies, muffins, and scones she piled on the counter, she also wanted to offer doughnuts, but needed a type of doughnut “that could sit out” without going stale. These apple cider doughnuts, moistened with a generous serving of grated apples, fit the bill.
Five or so years ago, fans could pretty regularly find DeMasco’s apple cider doughnuts at the counter at Locanda Verde (and to this day the restaurant is one of the city’s most under-appreciated destinations for doughnuts of all flavors). But in 2013, DeMasco left both Locanda Verde and restaurants in general in order to spend more time with her two daughters. So at the time it was unclear if or when she would ever come back to restaurants — hence the thrill in finding her apple cider doughnuts on the menu at Hearth, where, after a three-and-a-half year hiatus, she did in fact return to restaurant pastry last year.
“I really missed baking and getting my hands in there,” DeMasco says. So when chef Marco Canora (a friend from her days at Craft, where he was the chef de cuisine) was looking to hire a pastry chef for Hearth last year, she volunteered herself. It was the ideal position for her. She works during the day, when there’s space for her in the restaurant’s cramped kitchen. Her simple desserts are easy to prepare mostly in advance, and easy for Hearth’s cooks to finish making and plating at night without her. And Canora’s revamped menu had a focus on more nutritious ingredients, like alternative sugars and freshly milled flours, which intrigued her. “I realized that in restaurants, you eat so much sugar,” she says. “For a while it didn’t bother me, but when you do it every day, you do not feel well.”
The apple cider doughnuts, like most of DeMasco’s desserts for Hearth, begin in the basement, at a hulking grain mill wedged in under the stairs. The chance to mill your own flour is a rare one for pastry chefs, and it’s one of the big reasons why DeMasco took the job at Hearth. “It was a chance for me to work on a whole new repertoire,” she says.
The restaurant uses only heirloom grains grown in New York, and figuring out how to use them was exciting but also a “pretty daunting” process for DeMasco that involved a lot of trial and error. “There’s not a lot of specific information on any of these grains,” she says. For a while she made all her recipes with a mix of half freshly milled flour, half regular AP flour. But by now, she’s gotten the hang of it, and though you could hardly tell unless you were looking for the subtly rustic texture, all her pastries use only fresh-ground wheat.
In the basement, DeMasco pulls a bin of Frederick wheat out of the freezer. It’s a soft white wheat, and has become her go-to for pastry flour. She dumps a few scoops of the whole wheat berries into the mill’s hopper and turns on the machine. It rattles and hums and starts spitting a plume of flour into a plastic bin underneath. The flour comes out coarse at first, the texture of cornmeal, so DeMasco adjusts a couple of knobs until the flour coming out is soft and fine. She judges the texture by sticking her hand under the machine and catching a palmful of flour.
When the last wheat berries run through the burrs of the grinder, DeMasco takes the flour upstairs to the kitchen and sifts out the flakey wheat husks. She grinds a new batch of flour every few days, because “everything deteriorates the longer it sits.” The oils in the wheat go rancid, and the straw-colored flour goes from tasting sweet to tasting like sawdust.
Now DeMasco turns to making the actual doughnuts. The process is simple enough that she can do it all by hand (though when making big batches for the restaurant, she usually relies on the stand mixer to save her some time). She starts by melting a fist-sized lump of grass-fed butter — which is more nutritious and arguably better tasting than regular butter — over the stove. “I don’t know of any other restaurant baking with grass-fed butter,” DeMasco says, but it’s the only butter Canora uses at Hearth.
As the butter liquifies, DeMasco whisks together white sugar and dark brown sugar. Both are organic, which means they’re slightly less refined than the standard Domino stuff. The white sugar has an ivory tint, and the brown sugar has a richer, brighter molasses scent. DeMasco has been trying to use more alternative sugars — maple syrup, honey, date syrup — but those can be tricky to work with, and the organic sugar is a good in-between.
After stirring the butter into the sugars, DeMasco adds four eggs and whisks the mixture into a thick sludge. Setting that aside, she briskly grates a whole nutmeg over her bowl of measured flour, then adds salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. After a few strokes to combine the dry ingredients, she grabs another bowl to combine the remaining wet ingredients: milk, apple cider, apple cider vinegar, and vanilla paste.
“Apple cider doughnuts always drove me crazy because they didn’t taste like apple or cider” says DeMasco, “So I figured out a few tricks to fix that.” One of those tricks is adding as much apple cider vinegar as she does apple cider: “It really brightens the flavor up.”
Another trick is adding “tons” of fresh apple, which DeMasco grates by hand. After gradually adding the dry ingredients and the liquids to the sugar mixture, she folds in an enormous mound of shredded apple, gently working the dough until it’s laced with fruit. The she scoops half the dough out onto a piece of parchment paper, and lays another piece on top. With a few gentle strokes of the rolling pin, she flattens the dough into a rough oval, smooshing it level between the pieces of paper. She repeats the process with the other half of the dough, then puts both in the fridge to rest.
Resting is a crucial step for pastries made with freshly-milled flour. AP flour is dry and thirsty, but fresh flour takes longer to absorb moisture. The doughnut dough needs several hours to fully hydrate and become soft and supple rather than crumbly, so DeMasco waits.
When the dough is ready, DeMasco uses circular cutters to cut out miniature doughnut shapes. Usually these would go back in the fridge, but only because they’re fried to order during dinner at the restaurant. They’re ready to go at this point, and DeMasco has a pot of oil heating on the stove.
When the oil reaches about 360F, DeMasco gently lowers the doughnuts in one by one, fingers precariously close to the shimmering surface. As they gradually turn golden, she turns the doughnuts a couple times with a spoon, watching and waiting until they’re the color of chestnuts.
After pulling the doughnuts out and setting them down to drain on paper towels, DeMasco mixes up a batch of cinnamon sugar. The organic white sugar is a bit too coarse to stick to the doughnuts, so she whizzes it with the cinnamon and a hefty pinch of salt in a Vitamix until it’s as fine as sand. Then she tosses the still-warm doughnuts in the sugar and places them carefully in a bed of creme fraiche and apple butter on her favorite vintage plate. They arrive at the table like this, sweet and unassuming, one of the city’s most distinctive doughnuts hidden under a cinnamon sugar coating.