(Theguardian) – Cider’s a great drink, but its sweet, acidic appley-ness means it’s a fantastically versatile cooking ingredient, too
Where I live, in the south-west, they’ve been making cider of exceptional quality for centuries, plus there’s a bit of the rough stuff knocking around, too. So it would be a crime if I didn’t take a draught now and then, wouldn’t it? October, the traditional cider-making month, is a good time to enjoy a drop (it also happens to be Camra’s Cider & Perry Month), but the outlook is good in general for cider drinkers. There’s been a cider renaissance in recent years and, while the West Country remains the top producer, quality ciders are now as far north as Yorkshire (other rich hunting grounds include Wales, Kent, Herefordshire and eastern counties).
But even good cider is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it drink. For many, it’s one of the most delicious, quaffable alcohols there is. Others just don’t “get” it – too full-on, perhaps, a bit too redolent of rotten apples. Even so, whenever I pour cider into a pan or bowl, rather than into a mug, it wins universal applause.
It’s a deliciously versatile ingredient, which is no surprise – good cider apples have sweetness and acidity, as well as a spectrum of wonderful flavours ranging from the tannic to the perfumed. Crush the fruit and ferment its juice, and those flavours gain a whole new boozy, toasty, sweet-sharp dimension. Using cider in cooking is a bit like using fruit and wine and perhaps a little vinegar and a pinch of sugar all at the same time. No wonder it can bring a dish alive.Advertisement
Cider is one of my favourite bases for a very quick gravy after frying a pork chop or sausages: a slosh into the pan dissolves and absorbs those lovely browned bits left by the meat; add a drop or two of cream, some salt and pepper, and maybe a smidge of redcurrant jelly to balance it all out, and you have a delicious sauce. Cider is fabulous in stews – I adore rabbit cooked with cider and cream, pork in cider is a classic, and lamb works well, too (see today’s recipe). Once mellowed by long cooking, that fruity flavour mingles beautifully with the richness of the meat – a glassful added to the dish in which you roast a leg of lamb or a chicken will help produce a gorgeous gravy. It’s also fabulous as part of the brining liquid for a home-cured ham.
It’s not just meat that benefits from cider’s fruity kick; you can cider-up fish, too – one of my favourite mussel dishes is a cidery version of moules marinières. It also works in bread – yeasted breads, where it seems to help the yeast along, and quick soda breads alike – and is fabulous in a cheesey Welsh rarebit sauce. And, of course, this most appley of liquids can lead to a lovely pud. It makes fruity things taste more fruity – try it in an apple cake or for poaching pears.
In fact, there’s something to be said for making cider your cooking booze of choice rather than wine – at least for an experimental phase. All it generally needs is a bit of heat to drive off some of the alcohol and mellow its flavours, and the right partners. A touch of honey is a great seasoning in both sweet and savoury applications, then there’s mustard, cream, cheese, earthy veg, autumn fruit, herbs such as rosemary, bay and thyme, spices such as cinnamon… All go down a treat with a slosh of scrumpy.
Of course, there’s cider and there’s cider. I’d love to stipulate that you use only the traditional drink, made by crushing apples and letting the juice ferment naturally – nothing added, nothing taken away – but that wouldn’t be realistic. While such unprocessed stuff is increasingly easy to find in pubs (see Camra’s website for a listing), it’s not what you’ll get in most retailers.
There are decent bottled ciders to be had (Sheppy’s Organic, Westons Wyld Wood and Dunkertons Black Fox are my favourites), but they are usually filtered, pasteurised and carbonated, as well as clearer, smoother, fizzier and sometimes sweeter. They’ll still give good results in recipes, though. Choose one made with real apples (the big brands are often made from concentrate) and stick to drier ciders for optimum flavour.
Lamb stew with cider
Cider is often paired with pork or chicken, but it works a treat with lamb too. Serves four to six.
2-3 tbsp sunflower, rapeseed or olive oil
2 large onions, peeled, quartered and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
2 celery stalks, thickly sliced
1kg stewing lamb, such as neck, cut into large chunks
Salt and pepper
1 heaped tsp English mustard
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
Heat the oven to 130C/260F/gas mark ½. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large casserole dish over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery, and start them cooking. Once they are sizzling nicely, turn down the heat and let them sweat, stirring often, for a good 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a third to half the lamb (depending on the size of your pan), season and cook, stirring from time to time, until well browned. Transfer to the veg pot and repeat with the remaining lamb, adding a little more oil if need be.
With the now empty frying pan over a moderate heat, deglaze with the cider, scraping up the brown bits stuck to the base. Add this to the casserole with the mustard and herbs, pour in enough water barely to cover the meat and veg, bring to a simmer and transfer to the oven. Cook until the meat is tender: about two hours, but start checking after an hour.
Season again to taste, then serve with creamy mash and lightly cooked greens. Apple sauce or some lightly fried slices of apple are a very nice addition on the side.
Cider apple cake
A lovely, light, egg-free fruitcake, made in the mould of a traditional vinegar cake – that is, it’s the baking powder in the flour, combined with a splash of cider vinegar, that creates the “rise”. Serves eight to 10.
250g self-raising flour
125g cold butter, cubed, plus extra for greasing
125g soft brown sugar
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1 large cooking apple (such as a bramley), peeled and sliced
Demerara sugar, to finish
Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Butter a 20cm, round springform cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.
Put the flour in a bowl, add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mix resembles breadcrumbs (or do this in a processor). Stir in the sugar and sultanas. Combine the cider and vinegar, pour into the dry ingredients and mix lightly but thoroughly. Finally, fold in the slices of apple.
Spoon the cake mix into the prepared tin, smooth it out until reasonably flat and scatter the top generously with demerara sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool before serving.
Parsnip soup with cider
A deliciously rich and warming autumn soup. You can finish this in all sorts of ways, but I like to scatter some butter-fried diced apple and a few thyme leaves on top. You could make a similarly delicious soup with pumpkin or squash. Serves four.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 knob butter
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
500ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 large sprig fresh thyme
50ml single or double cream (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sweat the onion gently for a few minutes while you prepare the parsnips. Peel them, quarter them lengthways (remove the cores if tough or woody), and roughly chop. Add to the onion with the garlic, and sweat, stirring a few times, for five to 10 minutes.
Pour in the cider and stock, add the thyme sprig, bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, until the parsnips are soft. Remove the thyme, then liquidise the soup, adding a splash more stock (or water) if you think it needs it, but keeping it nice and thick. Return the soup to the pan, stir in the cream (if using) and adjust the seasoning to taste. Reheat if necessary and serve sprinkled with croutons, bits of crisp bacon or some little cubes of fried apple.