fall festivals and apple cider donuts.

I can’t pass up a good fall festival. It’s in my blood, I think, born of the years as a river rat growing up along the Missouri River bottoms, a levee running through my back yard. Missouri dazzles in October, her craggy bluffs draped in rich shades–burgundy, cinnamon, and orange spice. Remarkable scenery calls for a Saturday morning parade, the beat of a high school marching band, hot coffee warming the fingertips.

What came first, the pumpkin festival or my appreciation for autumn, I can’t be sure. Maybe the summers were just hot and boring, so we were ready for anything that signaled an end to the heat.
Excitement was in the air with school starting and fall sports, but the true sign of the season was our small town’s (population teetering at just over 100) annual pumpkin fest.
Pre-pumpkin fest preparations included three weekends of peeling and slicing apples for apple butter. In the evenings, the men with crank apple peelers sat at a table, spinning the red peel into curly strips. Kids would run bowlfuls of bright naked-white apples to the ladies who sat in a circle around the room, paring knives in hand and baskets and tubs lined with clean linens at their feet. There, each volunteer held their bowl in a towel-draped lap and made small talk while hands kept busy. The apples were cored and sliced as quick as a wink and the fruit dropped into the bins below them.
The conversation was lively, the snacks were plentiful, and I never felt like I belonged more than when Mom handed me my own paring knife to join the party. (Of course I hid that first bloody finger by taking a break to eat summer sausage and Ritz crackers and sneak a band-aid, but my apple paring skills today are unpare-alleled.)
Saturday mornings were crisp and bright, the old men in overalls or suspenders, each equipped with a long wooden paddle, stirring copper pots over fire. They turned the apples into a cinnamon brown magic “butter”, a scent so heavenly I couldn’t bear to ride my bicycle home and risk missing even a minute of excitement. Their VFW counterparts, the ladies’ auxiliary, then canned the concoction inside the American Legion hall, all to be sold to raise money. Farm women fixed lunch and bustled about, their bushel-to-jar apple butter business a worthy but bone-wearying endeavor.

Meanwhile, down the road the pumpkin farmers were beginning to pile up gourds of every variety in huge piles. In that river bottom town where it was only supposed to flood a major flood every hundred years, there were farmers tilling the rich soil and planting pumpkins. Then they’d harvest their crop and organize their goods: tiny decorative squash next to the warty, oddly shaped and oddly colored. A pile of average-sized and average-shaped–most popular for gracing a front porch, a pile of pumpkin pie babies (many with faces painted on), and the most desirable: a flatbed trailer of pumpkins exactly the right size for every child’s dream jack-o-lantern. Last of all, the wow factor–an enormous stack of wrinkle-free, electric orange behemoths. Families regularly coaxed their children to climb the giants for a striking photo (and were regularly disappointed when their terrified toddlers refused to mount the pumpkin).

I myself was in the lemonade business, and planned to exceed $200 in sales at the festival. As they say in real estate, location, location, location! And my stand was at the crossroads of the bike trail and 1st Street (the street numbers only went up to 2nd Street). Fate was begging me to become an entrepreneur. I sold a cup of lemonade once to the governor of Missouri. He and his wife were biking the trail. She pulled a quarter out of her sock and I handed them drinks. (I’ll never, ever forget the dirty little faux pas of pulling a sweaty quarter out of one’s sock. It still scandalizes me.)
This is where my enterprising life began, and also where it petered out, but it was glory in its day, complete with business cards and itemized financials.

After I’d worn my poor mother out over the weekend of selling lemonade to festival goers (she was the brawn behind it, to be sure), I would take some of my cash and browse the craft booths. Festive painted tin signs on twine, woodcarving, turquoise jewelry. The inevitable and weird knickknacks and the interesting people who sold them. I’d always settle for a funnel cake or curly fries, an entire paper plate covered with one potato, peeled and carved into a perfect fried slinky.

The Pumpkin Festival was the pinnacle of my childhood; forever beloved in my mind. So it is with great hope and intention and fond memories that I grow pumpkins here on Honey Creek and muse about the day I might clean out the barns and host our own fall festival.
Last weekend I invited my mom and sister to come test out donut recipes with me, because it feels nostalgic and somehow satisfies that need in me to be sort of enterprising and epicurean (and, let’s admit it, still remain faithful to my roots of fried food and apple butter days).

In the spirit of fall festivals, here are two Apple Cider Donut Recipes (one yeast, one cake):

Apple Cider Fritter Donuts (modified from the October 2016 Southern Living magazine)

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1 cup apple, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup apple butter
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. softened butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp. ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

Combine cider and apple in a small pan and simmer, reducing to 3/4 cup. This should take 20 minutes or so. Let cool. Add apple butter and lemon juice. In a mixing bowl, beat together sugar butter. Mix in egg and vanilla and apple mixture. Sift in dry ingredients. Mix, but do not overmix. Drop dough by spoonfuls into hot oil. Flip when the first side turns brown. Let cook another minute. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with white sugar.

Apple Cider Yeast Donuts

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. yeast
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup peeled, diced apple
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ginger

Heat milk and butter till warm but not hot. Add yeast, allow to proof a minute or two, then add sugar, apple butter, apple, and egg and beat together. Mix in dry ingredients. Attach dough hook to mixer, knead 8 minutes. Let dough rest and rise for an hour, then carefully drop by spoonfuls into hot grease, being careful not to pop the air bubbles as you scoop. Flip to the other side when the first side turns brown. Drain on paper towels. Roll hot donuts into a mix of cinnamon sugar.

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