WHETHER SWEET, HARD or packing an inebriating whollop, apple cider is the potion to down by the dram when foliage flares to ochre and red. It is the lacquer which paints a plain roast chicken with a glaze of just fallen fruit. And it's the jug on the pantry shelf which calls us to luxuriate in another harvest before winter settles in.
Cider is made by crushing apples into a pulp and then pressing the pulp to extract its juice. After that, the juice can be bottled and sold immediately, in which case it is called "sweet cider," or it can be stored in barrels to ferment in the same way that grape juice is fermented into wine, after which, it is called "hard cider." Hard ciders range in alcohol content from three to seven percent. Fermentation beyond seven percent results in apple wines or in distilled apple brandies, like applejack or calvados.
Ciders vary immensely in flavor, clarity and kick. Typically made from a blend of apples, 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. Such lack of uniformity means that product consistency fluctuates with the quality of the harvest and the standards of the cider maker.
Aside from the flavor variations of different apple types, 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 ciders give the product a natural full flavor, while others find the same quality unpleasantly rough.
We do not claim to have a definitive resolution, but we do recommend if you are planning to heat cider for mulling or for making glazes and sauces, that you use products which are at least partially filtered, otherwise the resulting scum of apple debris which rises to the surface of the cider as it comes to a boil will be difficult to clear.
After filtration the cider can be pasteurized which improves its shelf life, but diminishes much of 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 manufactured in France and England where the alcohol content of cider is much higher than typical American ciders.
The most readily available apple ciders in America are still and sweet. They make a thirst-quenching soft drink, and are equally good hot or cold.
Chicken Braised with Apples and Cider
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 carrot, sliced
3 large greening apples
1 roasting chicken, weighing about 6 pounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Leaves from 1 fresh sprig rosemary, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
6 fresh sage leaves, chopped, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Leaves from 1 thyme branch, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 cups apple cider
6 slices whole wheat toast, in large dice
1/2 of a 6-ounce can of frozen apple juice concentrate
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Arrange one of the chopped onions, one of the chopped ribs of celery, and the carrot in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Chop one apple coarsely. Add 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 apple cider and the whole wheat 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. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and return the chicken to the oven. Roast for another hour or until done, basting with the juices in the pan every five 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.
Coquille St. Jacques
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