Apple Cider, Fall Flavor By The Jug

Posted: November 01, 1989

Whether sweet, hard or packing an inebriating wallop, apple cider is the potion to down by the dram when foliage flares to ocher and red. It is the lacquer that paints a plain roast chicken with a glaze of just-fallen fruit. And it's the jug on the pantry shelf that calls us to luxuriate in another harvest before winter settles in.

Cider is made by crushing apples into a pulp, then pressing the pulp to extract its juice. After that, the juice can be bottled and sold immediately as sweet cider. Or, it can be stored in barrels to ferment into hard cider, the way that grape juice is fermented into wine. Hard ciders range in alcohol content from 3 to 7 percent. (Fermentation beyond 7 percent results in apple wines, and the liquid can be distilled into apple brandies, such as applejack or Calvados.)

Ciders vary immensely in flavor, clarity and kick. Cider manufacturers can be quite selective, combining specific apple varieties to achieve a desired balance of sugar, acid and astringency. Or they can use any apple classified as a cider apple, which means only that the apple is too blemished, gnarled or sour to be sold fresh and whole. The product consistency fluctuates with the quality of the harvest and the standards of the cider maker.

Ciders can be filtered to greater or lesser degrees, producing liquids of crystalline clarity or lake-bottom murkiness. Debates rage over which is preferable. Some cider fans insist that the sludge of unfiltered cider gives the product a natural, full flavor, while others find the same quality unpleasantly rough.

If you are planning to heat cider for mulling or for making glazes and sauces, it is best to use cider that is at least partially filtered. Otherwise, the apple debris that rises to the surface as the cider comes to a boil will be difficult to clear.

After filtration, the cider can be pasteurized, which improves its shelf life but diminishes its perfume.

Sparkling ciders are bottled in the same method as champagne, allowing some of the fermentation to take place in the bottle so that gases are not lost. Most of these are made in France and England, where the alcohol content of cider is much higher than that of typical American ciders.

The most readily available apple ciders in America are those that are still (non-carbonated) and sweet. They make thirst-quenching soft drinks, and are good hot or cold. Because of their full body and substantial sugar, sweet ciders are not appropriate for all dishes. They work well in hearty desserts; fruitcakes, stewed fruits, syrups, pies and spiced cakes all can be infused with sweet cider. In addition, they can have a pronounced, if limited, role in cooking poultry, pork or veal, especially in braising and stewing.

In Brittany, a province of northern France, cider is more popular than wine and is used in preparing a wide variety of foods, particularly fish. Delicious as most of these preparations are, it is important to note that our sweet cider is a poor substitute for the very dry, clear ciders typical in Brittany. Therefore, when working with one of the many cider-sauce dishes from this region, substitute equal parts white wine and sweet cider along with a splash of apple-cider vinegar to equal the amount of apple cider listed in the recipe. The flavor will be very close to authentic.

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The following recipes include a braised chicken that's pure Americana, a Breton recipe for scallops simmered in cider, a hearty entree salad that uses apple cider in a bacon dressing for a surprising sweet and sour result, and two desserts - prunes stewed with apple cider, apple brandy and citrus zest; and a flan glazed with a syrup of apple cider. Note that the same syrup is perfect over ice cream, waffles, pancakes or French toast.

CHICKEN BRAISED WITH APPLES AND CIDER

2 onions, coarsely chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 carrot, sliced

3 large Granny Smith apples

1 roasting chicken, about 6 pounds

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons butter

Chopped leaves from 1 sprig rosemary

6 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Leaves from 1 branch thyme

3 cups apple cider

6 slices whole-wheat toast, diced in large pieces

3 ounces frozen apple juice concentrate

1 teaspoon apple-cider vinegar

Arrange one of the onions, one of the celery ribs and the carrot in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Coarsely chop one of the apples and add it to the pan.

Wash the chicken inside and out, and dry thoroughly. Season the cavity and skin of the chicken with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put the giblets and the neck of the chicken in the roasting pan. Place the chicken breast-side down on the rack of vegetables and giblets. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Turn breast side up, and roast for another 30 minutes.

While the chicken is roasting, peel, seed and chop the remaining two apples. Heat the butter in a large skillet, and cook the remaining onion and celery in it over moderate heat until softened and lightly brown. Add the apple, the rosemary, sage and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add one-third cup of the apple cider and the pieces of toast. Mix to moisten uniformly.

Remove the chicken from the oven. Spoon the stuffing into the cavity of the chicken. Pour the remaining apple cider into the bottom of the pan. Reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees, and return the chicken to the oven. Roast for an hour, basting with the juices in the pan every five minutes.

Baste the surface of the chicken with half the apple juice concentrate and roast 10 more minutes. Baste with the remaining apple juice concentrate and roast another 10 minutes. Remove chicken from the pan to a carving board and

allow to rest. Remove the giblets and neck from the pan, and degrease the liquid in the pan. Puree the contents of the roasting pan in a food processor or blender. Adjust seasoning with the apple-cider vinegar, salt and pepper. Strain into a serving bowl and keep warm. Carve chicken and serve with stuffing and sauce. Makes six servings.

This recipe is derived from a regional dish of Brittany in which scallops are simmered in the dry, hard apple cider of the region. Because this type of cider is difficult to get in the United States, we have reworked the recipe with equal parts of white wine and sweet cider and a touch of apple-cider vinegar.

COQUILLE ST. JACQUES AU CIDRE

2 leeks (white part only), thinly sliced, washed and dried

1 tablespoon butter

1 1/2 pounds bay scallops, cleaned

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup white wine

1 cup apple cider

1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar

1/4 cup creme fraiche, sour cream or yogurt

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

In a large nonstick skillet, saute the leeks in the butter until softened. Add the scallops, and cook until they begin to lose their raw look. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine, and simmer until the scallops are just firm, about two minutes. Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the apple cider and the vinegar, and cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced to one-third cup.

While the cider is reducing, mix the creme fraiche, sour cream or yogurt with the cornstarch, and set aside.

When the cider is reduced, put the scallops back into the hot liquid to reheat. Reduce the heat to low, and whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Heat for an additional 30 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. Serve over rice or pasta, if desired. Makes four servings.

GREENS WITH BACON AND WARM APPLE CIDER VINAIGRETTE

4 slices bacon

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 apple, stemmed, cored and medium diced

1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar

1 head escarole leaves, cleaned and torn into bite-size pieces

1 head romaine leaves, cleaned and torn into bite-size pieces

5 ounces spinach, cleaned and torn into bite-size pieces

1/4 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

4 scallions, thinly sliced

In a skillet, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon, and drain on paper towels. Add the onion and apple to the hot bacon fat, and stir until the onion softens slightly, about one minute. Add the cider, vinegar, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

Combine the escarole, romaine, spinach, mushrooms and scallions in a large salad bowl, and toss with the hot dressing. Serve immediately. Makes four servings.

WARM POACHED PRUNES IN APPLEJACK AND CIDER

1 pound pitted prunes

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 orange

Julienned zest of 1/2 lemon

Julienned zest of 1/2 orange

1 stick cinnamon

2 whole cloves

1/2 vanilla bean

5 tablespoons honey

2/3 cup apple cider

1/3 cup applejack brandy

In a heavy saucepan, combine the prunes, juices, zests, cinnamon stick, cloves, vanilla bean, honey and apple cider. Bring to a boil, and add the applejack. Remove from heat, and cool for five minutes. Serve the warm prunes in small dessert dishes, over ice cream or in pre-made pastry shells. Makes eight servings.

APPLE CIDER FLAN

4 cups milk

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

4 extra-large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups apple cider

Scald the milk with one-half cup of the sugar and the salt in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl with a whisk or an eggbeater until frothy. Pour the scalded milk into the eggs in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly. Stir in the vanilla.

Pour this custard into eight individual six-ounce ramekins. Place the ramekins in a large pan of water, and bake for one hour in a preheated 350- degree oven. When a knife inserted in the center of one of the custards comes out with just a speck of custard clinging to it, they are done. Cool to room temperature on a cooling rack, and refrigerate for several hours until thoroughly chilled.

While the custards are baking, combine the remaining quarter-cup of sugar with the cider in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Skim off any

scum that rises to the surface, and continue to boil until the mixture reduces to three-quarters of a cup. Set aside to cool.

Pour a thin layer of the syrupy apple cider over the top of each custard, and serve. Makes eight servings.

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