Autumn is in full swing and with the cool nights and crisp mornings comes all the smells, flavors, and sights that the season has to offer. I particularly enjoy the comfort of warm, rich flavors after the lightness of summer fare. As the thermometer drops I dig out my cinnamon, cloves, honey, molasses, and nutmeg and start shopping for apples, pears, and winter squash to satisfy my cravings.
One of my favorite fall ingredients is apple cider. I use it in cakes, cookies, frostings, as a sauce for poultry and pork, and as a great drink in it's own right. Once September hits the apple trees around the property are groaning with the weight of the crop, and this has almost been begging me to try making my own cider for quite some time now.
The cider making process itself is very simple. One merely needs to grind the apples, place them in the press, then gradually add pressure until the juice stops flowing.
These kind of things are never quite as simple as they seem, however. My primary roadblock was finding a method to grind the apples. While I had the press, I had no apple grinder and was not in the market for a $400 commercially made apple grinder. I considered a food processor, but dismissed it due to the volume of apples I was processing. My ideal apple grinder needed to be able to continuously process apples without stopping to empty anything. It also needed to do so relatively quickly, seeing as I was starting with seven crates of apples. Finally, it had to create a fine enough pomace, the term for the ground up apples, to maximize juice extraction.
After much research and tossing several ideas around I hit on a winner. I discovered that many cider makers use a new garbage disposal to grind their apples. Initially I tried an inexpensive model, which proved to be too timid to power through the quantity of apples I was using. Once I upgraded to a stronger model it was full sail ahead.
The best cider is made by mixing several varieties of apples so that you're able to utilize each variety for it's virtues. Some provide sweetness and others provide tartness, and when mixed together they created a balanced cider. After I had a batch of mixed apples ground up, I loaded them into the apple press. Prior to this I lined it with cheesecloth so that the pomace wouldn't leak out of the slats in the press. Then it was time for pressure. Lot of it. I learned the hard way that if you don't apply the pressure slowly, the pomace leaks out around the edges, so gradual increases in pressure are the key. At the end of the day I was left with a bucket of fresh squeezed apple cider, and a lot of dried out, compressed pomace, which the goats and alpacas seemed to enjoy. I pressed seven crates of apples and wound up with eight gallons of cider, a pretty good yield in my book!
I knew that I wanted to turn the bulk of the juice into hard cider, the topic of a future post, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to utilize some of it while it was fresh, so I created this fall punch. The primary ingredient is cider, of course, but then I paired it with fall spices, warming cognac, and just enough orange liqueur and lemon juice to balance everything out. In the end it's the perfect drink for fall parties, weekend picnics, or just sitting home by the fire.
Note: It's best to make the punch at least a day ahead so that the spices have time to flavor the cider. The punch will also keep for up to five days in the refrigerator.
Makes ten 8 oz servings
1/2 gallon cider (8 cups)
12 oz. cognac or brandy
4 oz. Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or other orange liqueur
2 lemons, juiced and rinds discarded
2 cinnamon sticks
3 pieces fresh ginger, 1/2'' thick
Combine all ingredients in a covered glass, plastic, or stainless steel container. Avoid plastic. Let macerate at least one day, or up to two. Strain out the spices and store for up to five days total. Serve over ice.