It’s that time of year when the early apples are appearing at pick-your-own farms and at grocery stores, and for those of us lucky to have our own trees, in our yards. One of my favorite things about fall are the new batches of sweet apple cider. If you're lucky enough to have a plentiful source of apples, you can easily make your own cider. Or you can take advantage of the season, and pick up a few gallons. I say “a few,” because you're going to want enough for drinking now, and some for fall baking and cooking. Cider is not only a super way to add apple flavoring to all sorts of things, it’s an easy way to help reduce the use of refined sugar, and convert recipes that call for milk into vegan suitable alternatives. I’m going to assume that you are using plain non-alcoholic “sweet” cider, but for many purposes, fermented “hard”Apple cider will work too.
Apple cider is a good substitute for recipes that call for wine or brandy. To substitute apple cider for brandy, wine, port or sherry used as an ingredient (rather than as a flambé), simply use the same amount of apple cider instead of the wine or brandy that the recipes calls for.
You can also use apple cider as a substitute for water when you cook brussels sprouts, green beans, spinach, collards, kale or broccoli. Use the same amount of cider instead of water. This works with steaming vegetables in a microwave, too. The apple cider adds a hint of apple, and just a touch of sweetening. Next time you make oatmeal or another hot cereal that calls for water, substitute the same amount of apple cider. This works just as well when you make instant oatmeal, or use a crockpot, whether you're cooking rolled oats or steel-cut oats Irish oatmeal. Try cooking rice for rice pudding in apple cider instead of water. The rice is slightly sweet and has a definite apple flavor. Cookie recipes that call for water or milk are often improved by directly substituting cider, using the same quantity of cider instead of milk or water that the recipe calls. Oatmeal cookies made with cider are fabulous, as is zucchini bread. So is stuffing; just use cider instead of broth or water. Consider substituting cider instead of some of the broth when you make fall soups too.
There are also lots of excellent recipes for apple cider cakes, apple cider doughnuts, apple cider pancakes and apple cider coffee cakes. These use cider as a sweetener and flavoring. One of my absolute favorite ways to enjoy apple cider is hot mulled apple cider; this is lots of fun to make for a party or take to the office, it’s perfect for the crisp nights of fall, and ideal for making in a crock pot. Use enough cider to almost fill your crock pot, and add a few cloves, a couple sticks of cinnamon, and whatever other spices appeal to you (nutmeg, mace, orange slices, lemon slices, and possibly rum or brandy are popular choices). Let it simmer gently for at least an hour, then taste it. Adjust the spices as needed. You can add a little honey or sugar if your mulled cider needs a little sweetening.
Try glazing meat or squash with a sweet apple cider glaze using a little melted butter and a little flour as if you were making gravy or a roux. Once the butter thickens and the flour starts to brown, add about a cup and a half of apple cider. Keep stirring over low heat. Once your glaze starts to thicken, taste it and possibly add a table spoon or so of sugar, stirring it in. When the sugar has dissolved, pour the glaze over ham, or pork or squash or sweet potatoes, or ice cream or pound cake, pancakes, French toast, or waffles. Think about scattering some raisins or dried cranberries on top as a garnish.
The next time you have a recipe that calls for you to soak dried fruit in water, use apple cider instead. Try making stewed fruit with apple cider. Just use the cider instead of water, and simmer the fruit gently; you want to slightly thicken the cider but not turn it into syrup or turn the fruit into mush.
(Originally written for 404media.net)