Friday, October 21, 2011

Apples: The True Taste of a North Country Autumn

Fall is upon us and that means many things here in the North Country. The leaves are starting their annual burst of color bringing in the leaf peepers, the pumpkins are starting to become fixtures on porches, cool comfortable days are followed by crisp nights and, of course, apples are ready to be picked. Everywhere one looks there are apples and apple products. The apple harvest is one of the glorious aspects of autumn here in New Hampshire. Biting into a just-picked apple is one of life’s true pleasures.

Of course, eating a fresh apple is not the only way to enjoy the splendor of the harvest. Among the other products and preparations of apples are cider, apple juice, apple butter, apple jam and, perhaps most famously, apple pie.

Here in the States, apple cider generally refers to what other countries call apple juice. To keep things clear, hard cider is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple cider; apple cider is the unprocessed liquid extracted from apples; apple juice is cider which has been filtered and frequently sweetened. Different flavor profiles are determined by using any of the dozens of different varieties of apples grown in the area.

Cider is essentially apples which are cored, chopped, mashed and pressed into a liquid. This unfiltered drink is rich with a deep, fresh apple flavor. Served warm or cold, cider tastes almost as good as an apple straight from the tree. Once the liquid is filtered, it becomes apple juice. Sometimes sugar is added and the resulting beverage is much less tart and usually more kid-friendly. The juice is of course clearer and cleaner tasting. While very refreshing, it does lack that right-off-the-tree taste.

Hard cider is the term used for fermented cider. This was perhaps the most popular beverage in North America in the early- to mid-1800’s due to its availability, low cost to produce and freshness stability. The decline of its popularity started when Americans moved from rural towns to urban areas, cutting down apple orchards as the production of cider became less profitable. Then the new immigrants brought more of a taste for beer than cider, further contributing to its demise. Ironically, it is the renewed interest in craft beers that has led to the revival of the cider industry as well.

There are several other products made from apples, the most popular of which is applesauce. Making applesauce is perhaps one of the easiest things to do. With a mixture of sweet and tart apples, about the only other ingredients you will need are a cinnamon stick and some water. No extra sugar is needed when the apples are at their peak of flavor. I simple cut and core the apples and put them in a pot with just one-half inch of water and a cinnamon stick. Add a pinch of salt, cover and simmer until the apples are completely soft. Run it through a food mill. Check for desired sweetness and either leave as is or flavor with rum, bourbon or any other flavoring of your choice.

Another simple, though a little more labor intensive product is apple butter. Depending on the recipe (there seems to be as many recipes for this as there are varieties of apples), make your applesauce using cider instead of water, process through the food mill, add sugar and spices, then cook down until very thick — a crock pot works wonderfully for this. Apple butter is a beautiful spread full of spiced apple flavor that can add a special touch to many dishes.

Then, of course, there’s apple pie, one of the most enduring American desserts. While the pie has English origins, its original source probably goes back centuries before.

Finding only crabapples in the New World, (they are the only apple native to North America), English colonists brought over seeds and planted them in the rocky soil of New England, which was the perfect condition for them. Because of the great apple crops and the many varieties of apples that grew, apple pie soon became a favorite dish of the settlers. While there are differences in recipes depending on the country of origin — English, Dutch, Swiss, etc. — the basic recipe has changed little through the years. The addition of sugar is perhaps the biggest change to the basic recipe as people’s taste and desire for sweeter foods has increased. Apple pie in America is still one of the great treats of fall, though it certainly tastes wonderful all year long.

So, as autumn is in full swing, go pick some apples, eat some right off the tree and use the rest to savor the true taste of fall here in the North Country.

New England McIntosh Cake
This easy-to-make apple cake is good either as a dessert or for breakfast.
3 McIntosh or other New England apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 c sugar
1-1/2 cups canola oil
3 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped
2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9" x 13" baking dish. Beat sugar and oil with a whisk or electric mixer. Add eggs and beat well. Mix in dry ingredients. Stir in apples, nuts, and vanilla. Pour into baking dish. Bake 60-70 minutes. Cake should be golden brown and firm. Top with cinnamon cream cheese frosting and enjoy.

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