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A is for Apple Cider
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by Jan Gjestvang-Lucky, Merchandiser
I’ve always thought October is a wonderful month. There’s a refreshing crispness in the air that brings with it a feeling of excitement and change. It’s also the time of year when one of my favorite beverages, fresh apple cider, starts to appear at the farmers’ markets and stores. This month I will attempt to answer the age-old question: what’s the difference between apple CIDER and apple JUICE? Along the way, we’ll also learn about the history of apple cider and some of its health benefits, how it is made, and, for the adventuresome, how to make your own.
What IS the difference between cider and juice? After consulting many wise and venerable sources, I finally have an answer: I’m not sure. It seems there are almost as many different answers to this question as there are people answering it. Some say there is no difference between the two, and according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this is true. Apple cider fans would strongly object to this, saying it verges on blasphemy. A good basic definition seems to be: pure, fresh, unfiltered juice from cider apples, straight from the press. Cider apples have less sugar and more acid and tannins than other varieties, which makes cider more tart and tangy than juice. Cider is also traditionally unpasteurized, but just when I thought I had it figured out, I found that many ciders are pasteurized and not all juices are filtered. Some sellers, bowing to the laws of marketing, call their juice cider in the fall, even though it is the same product sold as juice the rest of the year. One final twist: in Britain, cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage. This is what we in the States call hard cider, which may be fun to drink, but the focus of this article is on regular cider, which is also fun to drink!
Not only is it fun to drink, it’s also good for you! Both apples and their juice (which includes cider!) are rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients (phyto = plant). The health benefits of cider include: improved lung function and reduced risk of asthma, even in smokers; reduced risk of lung and other cancers; and reduced risk of heart disease. The most impressive research I found was about high levels of antioxidants in apple juice helping to preserve brain health and cognitive function, even when confronted with poor diet or genetic predisposition to problems like Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, apple cider helps our brains and memories work better. So it seems to be true what they say about an apple (or two) a day, and apple cider, too!
Cider has been helping people stay healthy for a long time, although most of the history I found seems to be about hard cider. In 1676, a British man named John Worlidge wrote: “constant use of this liquor...hath been found by long experience to avail much to health and long life; preserving the Drinkers of it in their full strength and vigour even to very old age.” Over 2000 years ago it seems, the Celts in Britain first made cider. Invading Romans helped spread it to the rest of Europe. In Medieval times, cider making developed into a major industry, with monasteries making and selling large amounts to the public. Orchards were planted specifically to grow cider apples, and farm workers were even paid part of their wage in cider. Apple cider became a popular beverage in the New World after seeds were brought over by early colonists. Settlers and Native Americans planted seeds widely, and a colonial town’s prosperity was often judged by its cider output.
The first step in making good apple cider is choosing the right apples. A blend of cider apples is often used to get the perfect combination of flavors: sweet, tart, and acidic. Many producers jealously guard their recipes. After being washed and sorted, the apples are then chopped or crushed into a pulp, or “pomace.” This pulp is then pressed through a cloth or filter to keep the leftover solids out of the extracted juice, aka “must.” This “must” can then be filtered, pasteurized, or both, before being bottled and sold. Purists and traditional cider makers will do neither. Hard cider is made by allowing the natural yeast in the apples to ferment, which produces alcohol. If you are like me, you may have already unintentionally made your own hard cider out of fresh by using the mysterious processes at work in the back of your refrigerator.
Food is often heat treated to kill harmful organisms. Boiling will completely sterilize food, but can also change much of its flavor and consistency, not to mention its nutritional value. Pasteurization is a compromise: a lower temperature heat-treating process used to kill certain bacteria and disable certain enzymes, without affecting taste or nutrition as much. Heating cider to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for several seconds will pasteurize it. The types of pathogens that may be found on apples are mainly a risk to children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, because they may not be able to fight off any infection on their own.
Pasteurization can be a good thing for these folks. On the other side of the argument are those who believe that heat-treating not only kills the harmful contaminants, but essentially changes the character of the food from living and nutritious, to dead and low on vital nutrients and enzymes, not to mention flavor. Thankfully, with apple cider we often have a choice, so we can each decide for ourselves. The FDA requires that unpasteurized cider be clearly labeled, so it should be easy for you to tell the difference.
Making your own cider, although very simple, requires a rather large and unwieldy fruit press to make in any quantity, and describing the process will take more space than I have here. I can give you a website, however, that has a downloadable article on making cider at home: http://www.thriftyfun.com/tf482287.tip.html
Once you have your own cider, homemade or purchased, you can use it in any number of ways. Drink it fresh, straight from the jug (my favorite), heat it and spice it to make a mulled cider (also my favorite), or even use it in cooking and baking. Here are some recipes to get you started. To your health, bottoms up, and enjoy!
Pour one gallon of fresh cider into a large pot on the stove or into a crockpot or slow cooker. Add a half cup of brown sugar. Place 1 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of whole allspice, and 3 cinnamon sticks on a square of cheesecloth and tie up. Add to the pot.
Heat the cider to a boil, stirring regularly. Leave the pot uncovered so you can smell the delicious aroma.
Once the cider boils, lower the setting to simmer for at least another 15 minutes to allow for thorough infusion of the spices. Stir occasionally. Remove the spices from the pot and enjoy the delicious cider.
Tips: If you don’t have cheesecloth on hand, use a tea ball or a coffee filter to hold the spices. Add a splash of rum or brandy to really warm up a chilly day. For a decorative touch, you can stud an apple with cloves and allow that to float in your cider pot instead of adding cloves to your spice bag.
(Makes 8 servings)
4 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and
cut into 1-inch chunks
2 1/2 cups unsweetened apple
1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
2” piece of cinnamon stick
Instructions: In a large nonreactive saucepan, combine the potatoes, cider, brown sugar, 6 tablespoons of the butter and the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are very tender, about 45 minutes.
Let cool slightly, remove the cinnamon stick, and pass the potatoes through the medium disk of a food mill or puree in batches in a food processor. Transfer to an ovenproof serving dish. The potatoes can be prepared to this point up to 4 days ahead.
Cover tightly and refrigerate. Return to room temperature before proceeding.
Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Dot the potatoes with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, cover with foil and bake, stirring once or twice, for about 20 minutes, until steaming. Remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes longer.
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