It plays well with everything from apple pie to roast chicken to barbecue sauce.
It started with Whole 30.
In January 2017, I had to acknowledge that I had done a deep dive into truly, epically bad eating. Using the election as an excuse for ordering takeout at scale not seen since college and a complete loss of control at every holiday function, I awoke in the New Year in need of something drastic to get my relationship with food back on track. And so, despite feeling a bit like a lemming, my husband and I agreed to give Whole 30 a shot.
Not being one to stop my impulse to entertain just because I had decided to jump on the January reboot bandwagon, and believing that dessert is an essential part of every day, no matter what, I needed to find ways to serve something sweet to guests that fit my program but were still delicious.
Since sugar was on the no-fly list, fruit became my salvation. Slow roasted, caramelized in its own juices, spiced with sweet spices like cinnamon, or enhanced with fresh vanilla, bringing out their natural sweetness, and garnished with toasted chopped nuts or unsweetened coconut flakes, maybe some whipped coconut cream, I figured out that while it wasn’t chocolate cake, it was still satisfying.
For one dinner I had decided to stuff whole apples with a combination of hickory nuts and dried cherries and poured some unfiltered and unsweetened apple cider into the pan to keep them moist while roasting. By the time they were finished, the cider had reduced to a thick syrup and intensified in flavor, almost like an apple caramel. I drizzled it over the apples, and it took them next level. There was about a half a cup left in the pan at the end of the night, and not wanting to waste it, I stored it in the fridge.
Craving sweet and sour cabbage soup, as I tend to in winter months, and wondering how to replace the brown sugar in my recipe, I turned to that apple reduction. It made for a soup that was, with all apologies to my grandmother, even better than it had ever been with the sugar. For the final two weeks of our Whole 30 experience, I reduced apple cider to syrup and used it for everything from a sweetener for my hot tea, to replace the pinch of sugar or dollop of honey I usually put in my salad dressings for balance, to making a Whole 30 barbecue sauce. It was a really versatile ingredient, but as tends to happen, once the month was over, it was easier to just return to my previous methods of using readily available sweeteners, and not taking the time to make the reduction.
Then, on vacation on the East Coast, shopping in a gourmet store, I spotted a bottle of a dark liquid amongst the endless rows of maple syrup, marked Boiled Cider. I grabbed it and read the back. Turns out, my accidental dessert byproduct is actually something New Englanders have been making for centuries.
Seriously, the settlers called it apple molasses, so I was about 400+ years late to the boiled cider syrup game. You can still sometimes find boiled cider puddings on menus of super old-school restaurants out east.
Delighted to have found it pre-made, I stocked up on a couple of bottles and brought it home, where I have continued to find interesting uses for it. It’s great on pancakes or French toast, because it has a lovely balance of acid and sweet, so less cloying and one note than maple syrup. It is a superior addition to your apple pie filling, since it simply deepens the appleness of your apples and doesn’t layer basic sugar on top. A little brush on the skin of your roasting chicken both helps it to brown and gives it that little something extra. I find I now prefer my barbecue sauce made with it instead of sugar. And ribs basted with a boiled cider mopping liquid are just about one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. But one of my all-time favorite uses is to mix it with melted butter and white miso paste and glaze sweet potatoes or butternut squash in it. Glorious.
Boiled cider is pretty widely available in New England, especially in small adorable country markets. And Amazon will of course send you a bottle for about 22 bucks. But it is also not awfully hard to make. This recipe makes a sort of fancy version, but I just get a gallon of unfiltered unsweetened fresh apple cider and let it boil away in a heavy bottomed pan until it reduces to a syrup the consistency of maple syrup, and then chill it and store it in the fridge.
While it can go anywhere honey, maple syrup or agave syrup can go, and a lot of places sugar is used, be careful when using it as a replacement in baking, since it also adds liquid. But a teaspoon or two in your next batch of apple muffins or apple cake loaf is going to be a gamechanger.
Whether you make it homemade or buy a bottle, it is going to be a new favorite ingredient to experiment with.