Cape Coral and Southwest Florida Feature Stories
Written by Eric Taubert
Living The Season: Hot Mulled Apple Cider
Apple picking is an autumn tradition for many New England families. The parents herd all the children into the car and head out across the hills and valleys of winding country roads.
The apple orchards exude colonial storybook qualities. Gnarled trees, ripe with fruit, stretch out in a semi-symmetric maze. Tourists with wooden bushel baskets walk amidst the rickety barns and log fences. Migrant harvesters with their wheelbarrows and ladders tend to their seasonal employment. Most often there's a petting zoo on the premises where the children torment innocent farm animals. Sometimes a hayride pulled by a tractor will serve as the mode of transport to the main picking area. The journey is bumpy, with rustic scents of mud, falling leaves, and farm animals giving way to fresh air among the apple trees.
There's usually a farm store, front doors flanked with dried corn stocks and pumpkins. Inside, caramel apples and fresh-baked apple pies are on display. And somewhere, simmering on a counter top, perfuming the air with the smell of the season, you'll find the hot mulled apple cider.
The word "mulled" means heated and spiced. Mulling is the traditional practice of steeping various spices and fruit essences into heated wines, ales, and juices. The ingredients infused in this concoction are known as mulling spices. There are countless variations on the recipe for mulled cider, but in general they include nutmeg, allspice, clove, cinnamon, star anise, and dried citrus peels.
It's always preferable to use actual apple cider, rather than apple juice. Apple juice is clear and golden as the result of a filtration process, and is available year round in the juice aisle of your local supermarket. Apple cider is the darker, unfiltered juice of apples, commonly available during the autumn and winter months. Apple cider is stronger in taste than filtered apple juice, making it the appropriate choice for mulling.
They've been enjoying apple cider in Great Britain going back to the time of the Celts. The early English colonists in America brought a great quantity of apple seed with them to plant in the New World resulting in an abundance of apple trees. By as early as 1630 there were a multitude of apple orchards in Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The reason for all this growing of apple trees was not to eat apples, but to drink them in the form of hard cider. During colonial times apple cider was consumed as the main beverage with meals because water was often unsafe for drinking.
In Europe, most mulled cider recipes call for hard cider, which is a fermented and alcoholic drink. Lots of families in New England, with access to fresh-pressed and unpasteurized apple cider will allow it to ferment. Raw apple cider has wild yeast which will convert the sugars to alcohol if left alone for a couple weeks. Here in Southwest Florida, all the apple cider available to us is pasteurized and/or treated with preservatives, so it won't ferment on its own. But it still tastes great when simmered with the right blend of mulling spices.
The proper way to mull your cider is a topic of much debate. Some prefer to gather their mulling spices into a cheesecloth bag before placing them into the simmering cider. This process allows the spices to simply flavor, but not mix with the mulled cider. Many mulling purists use a more primitive approach to infuse their cider with the desired flavors...they just drop their mulling spices right into the juice. Some of the mulling spices may dissolve readily in the heated cider, while others may need to be skimmed out before serving. This form of mulled cider will be unfiltered and offer more pronounced flavor characteristics. Whichever way you do it, the essence of the dry ingredients will blend with the tart sweetness of the apple cider, resulting in a warming and complex blend of spice and citrus certain to lift your mood.
Some care should be taken in choosing the appropriate mulling vessel. An aluminum, copper, or cast iron pot will react with the acids in the cider, creating an unpleasant metallic taste. The best choices are stainless steel, heatproof glass, ceramic, or nonstick pots. A crock pot, or slow-cooker, is also an excellent container to mull your cider in.
Mulled cider is generally served in a beer or coffee mug. The drink is usually garnished with a cinnamon stick or thin slice of orange.
It is not uncommon, on the really cold nights, to drop a splash of bourbon, brandy, or rum into your mug before adding the hot mulled cider. Which, and how much, is your choice. Whatever it takes to keep you warm.
Live the Season:
We may not have an authentic apple orchard experience available to us in Southwest Florida. Still, we can fill our house with the fragrance of a traditional autumn just by slowly mulling some cider on our stove tops. The next time a cold front dips down from up North, and a slight chill cools off our palm trees, put a pot of cider on the stove and let it mull away. Let the aroma of the spices evoke a sense of fall and winter traditions. Take a sip with your eyes closed, let the flavor send your mind to pleasant memories of past holidays. Let the flavor add to the joy of the present season.
Although the etymology is clouded, the popular phrase "mulling it over," meaning to consider an idea carefully, is most likely derived from the slow and deliberate process of creating mulled beverages. Take your time with the process. Cook it slow. Enjoy handling the ingredients. Recognize the coziness the aroma of mulled cider brings to your house. Sip the warm beverage in a state of mindfulness. Ponder the memories and thoughts the layers of infused flavors evoke. Stop planning ahead for the moment and live the season while it's still here.
Everyone's got a different way of making mulled cider. Cookbooks and the internet offer a plethora of secret family recipes and techniques. There is no right or wrong way to mull cider. Experiment. Try out a few to see which recipe has the perfect blend of spice, citrus and juice for you.
Here is one hot mulled cider recipe that I enjoy:
1/2 gallon apple cider
A few slices of Florida Orange
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 whole nutmeg, broken into large pieces
1 teaspoon whole clove
1 small piece of fresh ginger
1 small dash ground cardamom
1. Place all ingredients in a large stockpot and cover.
2. Warm slowly over medium heat until steaming and hot.
3. Keeping covered, reduce heat to low and serve hot.
4. Garnish with cinnamon stick.
5. On really cold nights (the few we get), don't hesitate to spike it up with a dollop of bourbon, brandy, or rum.
-- writing and photography by Eric Taubert
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