Small, Good Things: Uncommonly Sweet

By Joe Dizney

Boiled cider: not very glamorous-sounding, is it? More a process description than some clever, Food TV-friendly marketing term, boiled cider is simply a culinary reduction of pure, sweet apple cider. No frills, no additions.

My fellow food scribe, Celia Barbour, skirted around the issue in her recent recipe for Apple Cider Caramels (Mouths to Feed: Sugar Mommy) but I thought it deserved a closer look especially around this holiday season.

Cider Mouths to FeedBackstory: apples have inspired scientists (Isaac Newton), storytellers (Johnny Appleseed) and more since the beginning of time (Garden of Eden, anyone?). Henry David Thoreau wrote that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,” and nowhere is that more true than here in New York and the Hudson Valley where apples are a fact of life and icon of our true-to-life creation myth.

The botanical facts of apple propagation – that apples never grow true from seed and in order to be consistently edible must be conscientiously, intentionally hybridized, grafted and cultivated – infuse them with both a wildness and preciousness that only begins to hint at their centrality to the foundation of our country. In the opening chapter of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, he points out, “the apple was ‘the true democratic fruit,’ happy to grow just about anywhere,” and it provided the deprived American colonists with a coveted, if not necessary, civilized comfort: sweetness.

Before colonization and for some time after, there were no honeybees in North America, therefore no honey. The Native Americans of the northeast had relied on maple syrup and sugar as a primary sweetener. Alternatively, sweetness came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. In colonial America, that increasingly meant the apple, lovingly transported from the old world and naturalized in the new. (One of the first, if not the first American hybrid – the Newtown Pippin, still grown locally – was discovered and hybridized in the late 17th century in Flushing, N.Y.

Pollan’s other point as regards the apple is that it provided another possibly more coveted “need”: alcohol, by way of the fermentation of apple juice and its alchemical transformation into hard cider, applejack or apple brandy. Locally, Glynwood Farm’s continuing Apple Project and its most recent and highly successful celebration of Cider Week have done much to encourage the preservation and economics of Hudson Valley orchards through the craft production of hard cider and apple spirits.

Cider Mouths to FeedBut back to sweetness and boiled cider: While plentiful maples did – and still do – provide a distinctive native source of sweet palatability, it is a seasonal harvest and apples provide an almost perfect counter-seasonal alternative.

Boiled cider is a very simple means of preserving the harvest. Pressed and filtered sweet cider is simply boiled and reduced to approximately one-seventh to one-tenth its volume producing a sweet-tart (depending on the apple variety) syrup similar in consistency and color to maple syrup but presenting a distinctive and useful apple character.

And boiled cider (can we agree to call it apple syrup?) can be used much like maple syrup: in baking, poured on pancakes or waffles or drizzled on things like ice cream or yogurt. But it has a culinary distinctiveness that deserves a wider use, a fact recognized by the American Slow Foods movement, which has placed boiled cider on “The Ark of Taste,” an honor roll of disappearing but worthy American foodstuffs.

Outside of occasional farm stand products, the only commercial New York producer of note is Allens Hill Farm, which offers “apple syrup” and apple molasses (a thicker version). Vermont’s Wood’s Cider Mill –  offers boiled cider and a boiled cider/maple syrup blend. Otherwise, it’s simple enough for the home cook to boil a gallon of fresh, unprocessed sweet cider (I like Soon’s, available at Philipstown Market, aka Vera’s) down to its pure apple sweetness.

Then what? Marinate or glaze pork tenderloin of ham with it or add a bit to a compound sauce for either; glaze squash, pumpkin or purée sweet potatoes. The addition of any-or-all traditional apple spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, star anise – gives new meaning to the idea of “holiday season-ing.” (I recently made a drink syrup of spiced boiled cider, maple syrup and unsweetened cranberry juice which virtually “screamed” Christmas when mixed with plain soda water. The addition of rum or hard cider would be a logical spirited version.

In keeping with the holiday theme, I offer you a recipe for boiled cider and apple-cranberry relish using boiled cider, fresh and dried apples and cranberries which could deliciously be paired with pork, turkey or duck or the vegetables mentioned above for a festive holiday meal or simply enjoyed with toast or baked goods when you just need something uncommonly sweet.

Basic Boiled Cider or Apple Syrup

1 gallon sweet cider

1) Bring cider to a simmer in a large non-reactive (stainless steel) pot. Simmer until reduced to 2-3 cups, taking care that the pot does not boil. (Depending on how high your simmer is and how closely you watch the process, this could take up to six hours.) Strain through cheesecloth into a glass container. Boiled cider will keep refrigerated for six months.

Holiday Apple-Cranberry Relish

Note: If you are serving this alongside meat or vegetables, it’s better to err on the side of tart than sweet, so you can omit the sugar depending on the tartness of the apples. The optional shallots, sautéed in a tablespoon of butter before simmering the fruits and cider is a really nice savory touch. Makes about 2 cups relish.

1 cup boiled cider

Zest and juice (½ cup) of one large orange

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

5 allspice berries, smashed

10 cloves, smashed

5 star anise pods

¼ cup chopped dried apples

½ cup dried cranberries

2 large apples, peeled, cored, chopped into ½-inch dice (1½-to-2 cups)

2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)

2 tablespoons minced shallots (optional)

1) Bring boiled cider, spices, sugar, orange juice and zest to a simmer in a 2-quart non-reactive pot. Simmer for 15 minutes and allow to cool off heat or overnight and strain mixture.

2) Bring strained cider mixture back to a low simmer with dried apple and cranberries for 10 minutes. Add chopped fresh apples and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remember: you’re not making candy. Add a little water as necessary to thin mixture – there’s a lot of natural pectin in apples and this can jell very easily. Cool and serve at room temperature.

Photos by J. Dizney

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