applesLast weekend’s fat harvest moon flipped a switch, and all of a sudden, it’s fall. Tomatoes still shine in the garden, but now’s the time to gorge on (or can) what’s ripe, and accept that what’s green now will still be green at Thanksgiving. At the farmers’ market, grapes, figs, pomegranates, and winter squash are muscling out the last peaches and melons of the season.

If you’re a Northeast transplant like me, you can’t cross off the first week in October without craving the first bite of a snappy fresh apple, all crunch and tang. And any apple is better when you’ve picked it yourself right off the tree, blue sky painted between the branches and the promise of hot cider and fresh cider doughnuts to come.

As a kid, every autumn held a sunny October weekend where my mom would toss my sisters and I into the back of the Volvo (ah, the jouncing-around, sister-jabbing joys of the pre-carseat era!) and head out to the country to go apple picking. This was the Garden State in the 70s, and there was still a lot of working farmland around. Even my hometown, an otherwise drab suburb whose last exciting moment happened in 1780, had a small farm smack in the middle of it, right across the street from my elementary school.

It didn’t take long to shake loose from the strip malls and find a place where we could run through the trees, getting stung by yellowjackets drunk on fermenting fallen fruit, and filling bag after bag with Winesaps and Macouns. Always next to the dusty parking lot was a little farm market selling cloudy, fresh-pressed apple cider, boxed apple pies and best of all, cider doughnuts. They were popped fresh out of a greasy, batter-spattered contraption that moved rings of batter along a conveyor belt of bubbling oil, flipping, frying, and finally spitting them down a chute to be sugared and sold.

What’s a cider doughnut, you ask? Oh, you poor deprived child, you. Yes, here in California you had sunshine and skateboarding, while we had slush and mittens, but the doughnuts, and the snow days, were worth it. Cider doughnuts are nothing more than cake doughnuts made with apple cider in the dough, usually rolled in cinnamon sugar and best served minutes from the fryer. For East Coast kids, though, they have a mythical connection to autumn, all part of the memory of deep blue skies and the crunch of leaves underfoot, geese flying in V’s overhead and the first smell of woodsmoke after dinner.

Recreating this experience on the West Coast can take a little doing. For the full sticky-fingered, apple-and-doughnut experience, you need to hit the road and head up to the gold country northeast of Sacramento, near Placerville. To Apple Hill, to be exact, where the foothills of the Sierras offer the warm days, chilly nights, and colder winters that apples like. Apple fritters, hayrides, cider and u-picks abound, although the varieties of apples lean more towards Galas and Fujis– sweeter, milder apples that don’t need as many below-freezing winter chill hours as their hardier East Coast cousins. Most likely to scratch that East-Coast itch is the charming Rainbow Orchards, in Camino, which offers excellent fresh-pressed cider and hot cider doughnuts in their barn, along with sprawling acres of apple trees, live bluegrass music, and lots of room for picnicking.

Closer to home, you can take a meandering drive on the back roads west of Petaluma to the Chileno Valley Ranch. Here, between folded hills still lion-colored from summer’s long dry days, are sprig-headed quail skittering across the road while hawks ride the rising air currents overhead. Herds of black Holsteins and buff Jerseys drowse beneath the oak trees.

You can see the small organic orchard as you drive up, planted on a gentle slope running down to the barn. Nearby are chicken coops, some vigorously baah-ing goats and sheep, and a lavish flower garden brimming with roses. Sally Gale, who owns the ranch with her husband Mike (the ranch property has been in her family since 1856), is usually on hand to walk pickers through the trees, pointing out green, grapefruit-sized Mutsus (great for baking) and dainty lunchbox-sized Pink Ladies and Pinovas, along with Molly’s Delicious and fat, late-ripening Arkansas Black Twigs. In the barn, where you go to pay for your haul ($2/lb) is a small table with some of the ranch’s other products, which might include eggs, tomatoes, red pears, dried beans, and the ranch’s own grass-fed local beef.

If the scene at Chileno Valley is a little low-key for your taste, then don’t miss the signs for the Peter Pumpkin Patch on your way back. Follow the (naturally) pumpkin-shaped signs to Spring Hill Road, where the otherwise cow-centric Spring Hill Cheese Company dairy is decked out in full haybale-and-pumpkin drag through the end of October. There is an acres-wide field dotted with fat orange jack-o-lanterns on the vine, each more carve-worthy than the last. And then there are stacks of edible winter squash in all sizes and shapes (carnival, acorn, rouge vif d’etampes, munchkin, banana, and more); pyramids of hay to climb and jump from; a tractor-pulled wagon; even a very patient cow to milk. The air, it’s true, is tangy with the smell of cow pat (a scent that always made a rancher friend breathe deep and exhale with satisfaction, saying, “Ah, the smell of money!”), but there are plenty of picnic tables nonetheless.

What’s actually the most fun, though, is the dig-your-own-potato patch. The appeal isn’t immediately apparent–walk across the road from the pumpkins, and you’ll find yourself in a field of scrubby weeds. Pick up one of the long gardening forks provided, however, and look for a dried-out stalk, remnants of what was once a green and growing potato plant. Jab the fork in about 8 inches from the stalk, dig, wiggle, and lift, and voila! Buried treasure, in the shape of silky-skinned Yukon Golds. It is oddly satisfying and hard to stop, not quite this kind of gold, but a lot easier to find, and only $1/lb.

Apple picking, pumpkin patching, & the joys of the cider doughnut 30 October,2012Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

  • Kim

    I too grew up in Central Jersey. We had a cider mill in the village near where I grew up and I sure miss it. It’s pretty hard to get fresh (unpasteurized) cider in CA, and somehow it never tastes the same – too sweet, not musty enough. I think it was the winesap apples that made that particular flavor I’m pining for.

  • Caroline

    After reading your post, we made the drive to Spring Hill Cheese Company’s pumpkin & potato patch yesterday and had a great time! We dug up nearly 7 pounds of potatoes (you’re right; once you start finding those treasures in the ground, it’s hard to stop)! We picked our own pumpkins from the patch (pumpkins still attached to the vines in the field) too. Thanks for the great tip!

  • Thanks for the comments! I agree, Kim, West Coast apple cider never quite has the same deep tang of the NJ/New England cider–it’s always a little too thin and sweet. And Caroline, so glad you enjoyed the pumpkin patch! It was a great find and all the kids there seemed to be having an excellent time. Another fun place in the area is the Ardenwood Farm in Fremont. It’s a historic farm/ranch dating back to the late 1800s–they have farm animals, a blacksmith forge, docents in costume explaining what life was like when the farm was in full swing back then. I think there’s also a farm stand and pumpkin patch, too. It’s part of the E Bay Parks & Rec.

  • Nicole

    Stephanie, I went online to see if I could find cider doughnuts in, or near Petaluma, and this article popped up. I laughed outloud when you mentioned Apple Hill, as this is where I experiened my first cider doughnut last autumn. I have been waiting for this time of year to savor another one….but didn’t want to make the drive with the kids this year. Thanks for the tips on this area, especially about the Pumpkin Patches. I will definitely visit Spring Hill Cheese in search of those temting, tasty morsels. (By the way, your writing is hilarious!)

  • Kristina

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I grew up in NY in the Hudson Valley and just moved to SF three months ago. The moment October hit so came my gnawing hankering for cider doughnuts. Now I know where I am going this weekend. Thank you for all this wonderful information! I cannot wait to bite into the beauty of a warm cider doughnut!


Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists’ residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.

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