By Lauren Chatman
A train of thought can bring you to tasty places. I was on my way to King Kullen a few weeks ago when I saw a sign outside of Bay Burger announcing that it will be open year round. What great news! Now I would have a place to buy premium ice cream through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Immediately I started to think about seasonal sundaes. What would be the best dessert sauce for pumpkin or gingersnap ice cream? Before I knew it, I found myself not at the supermarket but at the Milk Pail in Watermill, buying a half-gallon of local apple cider. Then I rushed home to make some apple cider caramel sauce.
Apple cider should never be confused with apple juice. Unlike juice, cider hasn’t been filtered to remove pulp or sediment. That’s why it is dark and cloudy while apple juice is golden and clear. Another difference: Thanks to some heavy-duty processing, apple juice is shelf-stable for 2 to 9 months, depending on packaging. Cider is perishable and must be refrigerated so it doesn’t begin to ferment. Even in the refrigerator, it will become slightly carbonated over the course of a week.
But the biggest difference between the two is their flavor, or lack thereof. When juice is filtered, much of its apple character is removed along with the pulp. Cider, in contrast, retains its fruitiness because it is unfiltered. Apple juice is heated to 160 degrees during pasteurization, which further dulls its flavor. Cider from the Milk Pail is unpasteurized. Instead, it is treated with ultraviolet light (an FDA-approved alternative to heat pasteurization), to protect against the remote possibility of bacterial contamination. During apple season at the Milk Pail, cider is pressed daily from local apple varieties selected to ensure a balance of sweet and tart.
When the weather is warm, as it has been for most of September and October, there’s nothing like a tall glass of chilled cider over ice. As temperatures drop, make mulled cider by warming it on top of the stove with some orange peel, a cinnamon stick, and a little maple syrup (rum is optional but highly recommended).
Yes, cider is a beverage. But it has many culinary uses. On the savory side, it can be used instead of wine to make turkey gravy or to deglaze a pan of chicken breasts. It can also sub in for wine in a classic cheese fondue recipe. It makes a great braising liquid for a pork roast or sausages and sauerkraut. Or try pureeing sweet potatoes or squash with some cider instead of heavy cream. There are just as many uses for cider in sweets. Add it to cake, muffin, and doughnut batters in place of some milk. It makes a great poaching liquid for apples, naturally. Cider can be used to make a refreshing granita or sorbet.
Caramel made with cane sugar is notoriously tricky, seizing up and becoming grainy if mishandled at any point. Sugar crystals may form if your pan isn’t spotless or if you stir it too much while it’s cooking. It is also very easy to burn this type of caramel. If you don’t remove it from the hot pan at just the right moment, it will burn and become bitter seconds afterwards.
Caramel sauce made with apple cider, in contrast, couldn’t be easier or more foolproof. Just boil the cider until it’s been reduced by half, stir in some butter and sugar, and boil some more. The liquid prevents the sugar from burning and the fat added during cooking prevents crystallization. Let your caramel sauce cool to warm room temperature before pouring over ice cream. Otherwise you will have apple and ice cream soup.
Apple Cider Caramel Sauce is also good over pancakes and waffles. It would be really incredible on top of French toast made with Breadzilla’s cinnamon-raisin loaf, another local specialty that we lucky year-round residents can enjoy as the seasons change. So I’m headed over to Sagaponack right now to pick up a fresh loaf.
Apple Cider Caramel Sauce
Makes about 1 ½ cups
4 cups unfiltered apple cider
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup packed light brown sugar?4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bring the apple cider and lemon juice to a boil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat and boil until until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the sugar, butter, and salt and cook until the sauce thickens, another 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof glass measuring cup and let cool to warm room temperature before pouring over ice cream, waffles, or pancakes. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight jar for up to 2 weeks.