There's something about the aroma of apples and spice. Even in sunny Arizona a cup of warm cider soothes the soul, calms the nerves, and welcomes guests in a wonderfully primal way. If the cider is spiked the welcome is merrier.
When I make cider I'm often asked for the recipe. But, until today, I'd never actually committed my cider recipe to writing. As a practical matter, my next batch of spiced cider won't be the same as the last batch. I'll never refer to the written recipe because I work off a template that's in my head. There are ingredients that I always include when I make hot cider, and there are ingredients I use if they're on hand.
The one thing I do every time, no matter what goes in the pot, is to simmer the cider for at least an hour. When I have the time I like to put the cider on several hours before guests arrive. The longer the cider cooks the better it tastes (and the better my house smells), because the sugar in the cider caramelizes.
I like to use a mesh tea ball to hold the spices. The flavor of the spices steeps into the cider, but I don't have to strain it so that no one ends up with a whole clove or chunk of cinnamon stick in her cup. I like to put some chamomile tea in my cider, and the mesh ball saves me from having to strain a huge pot of hot liquid.
Chamomile is not my only less-than-standard ingredient. I like to add some whole black peppercorns, a pinch of salt, and a bay leaf or two to the spice blend. Savory spices add depth to what otherwise runs the risk of tasting like hot apple juice.
I always add a tablespoon of butter to the cider as well. If butter makes hot rum taste good there's no reason why it can't be enlisted for spiced cider. Butter gives the cider body and a richness that's often missing.
Because cider can be cloyingly sweet I add a couple of cups of lemonade. The acid cuts the sweet. Instead of lemonade I'll sometimes make the cider with white wine (plus or minus a shot of brandy).
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And, while I don't want floating cloves or peppercorns in my cup, floating apple slices, raisins, and/or dried cranberries are nice edible additions that add eye appeal as well as flavor to the pot.
A cup of steaming spiced cider is festive. It says welcome. It's says happy holidays. It makes us feel a particularly holiday kind of warmth.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.