Cider by any other name, of course, is apple juice. And therein lies a confusion. Usually, it is the liquid squeezed from fruits and vegetables that we call "juice." But commercial apple juice is a processed product - pasteurized, filtered, and sometimes loaded with preservatives to give it a longer shelf life. If you want the real stuff, you must look for "cider" - available fresh only in the fall and occasionally well into the winter.
In this area, it is sold in farmers' markets, at roadside stands, and some produce stores. (Although there is a product called cider available year-round at the grocery store, it has been flash-pasteurized and the taste is somewhat like apple juice.)
A traditional American drink, cider has been produced here for more than 300 years. Like tobacco, it was often used as a medium of exchange, and many farmers estimated their wealth in barrels of cider.
Since unpasteurized cider begins to ferment two to four weeks after coming from the press, our ancestors usually enjoyed it as "hard cider" with an alcoholic content similar to beer. Sometimes it was distilled into a more potent cider brandy commonly called "applejack."
Although fresh, sweet cider is fairly easy to find in this area, rarely can you watch the actual pressing operation. One of the few places is the Landing Road Cider Mill Farm (phone 301/788-9595) in Howard County, Md. First opened in 1916, the mill went out of operation in the late 1960s. It was reopened four years ago.
At the rustic-looking mill, you can see 1,000 pounds of apples at a time thumping down a wooden chute into a special apple-washing machine. They are ground, spread on wooden frames, wrapped with cloth, and squeezed by a 48-ton hydraulic press to release the sweet, dark-colored fluid. The cloth allows bits of pulp to get through, which gives the drink its characteristic appearance.
After pressing, the cider is pumped into a 500-gallon holding tank. Visitors are free to sample some of the freshpressed drink directly from a spigot. In addition, there are usually free samples from a kettle of mulled cider heating on the stove.
For best flavor, owner Tom Owens explains, a variety of apples must be used in making cider because the sugar content of the apples varies from year to year. Owens uses a hand press to run off individual batches of cider from a selection of apples - Stayman Winesap (or Jonathan), Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and York Imperial. Then he tries various blends until the best combination for the year is found.
Sweet cider must be stored in the refrigerator, since no preservatives have been added. Owens notes that it can be kept without turning "hard" up to a month, although even if the cider begins to "turn," it "won't hurt you . . . it just has a different taste."
If you like the taste of hard cider, Owens says it's easy to make your own. The slower the fermentation process, the better the flavor. Owens suggest putting the sweet cider in a cool place - about 50 degrees Fahrenheit - with the cap unscrewed. The top shelf of the refrigerator or a cool basement are suitable.
"Once it starts to 'change', move it to the bottom of the refrigerator where it's cooler," he says. "The way you know if the process has started is to tap the countainer. When lots of bubbles come to the top, it's started."
Keep tasting every few days to see if you have gotten the flavor you want, Owens advises. The length of the process will vary, depending on when the cider was pressed and how long the apples had been stored.
Fresh-pressed apple cider is available into March at some local outlets. If you want cider for cooking (or drinking) later in the year, it can be frozen in the original jugs, freezer containers, or glass bottles. Just be sure to leave enough head room for about 10 percent expansion.
Hard cider can also be frozen. As a matter of fact, if you pour off the concentrated cider when it begins to thaw, you'll have a beverage with a higher alcoholic content.
If you don't have room to freeze fresh, unprocessed cider, the grocery store pasturized product can be used in the following recipes. However, the flavor will not be as rich.
(10 to 6 servings)
Mulled cider - spicy and served hot - is suitable for cold-weather entertaining. At informal gatherings, leave a huge pot on the stove and invite guests into the kitchen to ladle some up. You can also serve it from a crock pot, or keep it warm on a hot tray. This recipe is used at the Landing Road Cider Mill Farm. 1 gallon cider 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves 2 sticks cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Heat for at least half an hour before serving, but do not boil. Serve warm.
CIDER GELATIN SALAD
(6 servings) 1 envelope unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons cold water 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 3/4 cups hot cider 3 tablespoons honey 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts 1 1/2 cups diced tart apples 1 celery rib, diced
Soften gelatin in the combined cold water and lemon juice. Add hot cider and stir until gelatin dissolves. Mix in honey. Refrigerate mixture until it begins to thicken.Fold in remining ingredients. Turn into a wet 5-cup mold, and chill until firm. Unmold before serving.
CHICKEN WITH CIDER SAUCE
(6 servings) 3 pounds chicken pieces (about) 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 tablespoons applejack whiskey (optional) 1 1/2 cup chopped onions 1/2 celery slices 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms 2 tablespoons minced parsley 1 teaspoon thyme 1 teaspoon salt Few grinds fresh pepper 1 cup cider 2 egg yolks 2/3 cup light cream
Clean chicken pieces well, removing as much fat as possible, and the skin, if desired. Pat completely dry with paper towels.
Melt butter with oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Brown chicken pieces on all sides, then remove skillet from heat.
In a very small saucepan, heat applejack. Ignite and pour it over the chicken, gently shaking the skillet until the flames die. (If you prefer, you can simply add the applejack to the chicken and let the alcohol boil off.)
Remove the chicken from the skillet to a platter. Add onion and celery to skillet and saute until soft. Stir in mushrooms, parsley, thyme, salt, pepper and cider. Heat until simmering. Add chicken pieces, turning them so that they are coated with the liquid. Cover and simmer, basting occasionally, for another 30 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken to a heated serving platter.
Beat yolks and cream together in a small bowl, then gradually add some of the cooking liquid. Add this mixture back to the skillet, while constantly stirring. Heat gently, while continuing to stir, until sauce thickens slightly. Do not boil.Pour some sauce over chicken pieces, then pass the rest. Serve over rice or wide noodles.