Nothing tastes as sweet as cider fresh from the press

As with so many other things in life, you get out of the apple cider exactly what you put into it. And for Jack and Jan McEwan, who make and sell the beverage at their Rose Farm in Lyndeboro, N.H., that also holds true for what doesn'tm get put into it.

Good cider, say the McEwans, is the result of only one ingredient: good apples. A simple notion perhaps, but one that ensures that the amber liquid flowing out of their trusty wooden cider press will taste as tangy and sweet as the Baldwins, McIntoshes, and Cortlands that went into it.

During the six years they've been in business the McEWans have always had a good number of customers trooping into their barn to buy apples and cider, or out into the orchards to pick and press their own. This fall, however, they have come in unprecedented numbers, and throughout such prime apple growing regions as New England and the Pacific Northwest, cider is rapidly becoming a household staple like milk and orange juice.

"I think the interest in natural foods has a lot to do with it," muses Jan McEwan as she takes a minute to relax in her farmhouse kitchen, while neighbors who help during cider season stream in and out. "People like the idea that cider has no additives or preservatives, that it's nutritious, and, of course, that it tastes good."

While all that is true of the cider produced at Rose Farm, some of the more commercial makers do add preservatives to slow the inevitable fermentation process. Without preservatives, cider will stay sweet for two weeks if stored in the refrigerator in a plastic jug. It can also be quite successfully frozen in plastic jugs for an entire year by removing a pint from each gallon to allow for expansion.

Because of modern refrigeration methods, sweet cider is no longer just the fall beverage it once was. Some of the larger cider operations now produce it all year, using apples from cold storage. Some aficionadoes attest that the tartest and most flavorful cider is not available until February when apples stored at controlled temperatures have reached maturity.

Cider is often confused with apple juice, but there is an important difference, says Jan McEwan. "Apple juice is always pasteurized, which gives it a longer shelf life and takes away some of its body and flavor, while cider is just what comes out of the press. That's why it's so important that it not be made from any dirty or rotten apples. Bad cider will leave sediment at the bottom of the jug, taste musty, and turn hard very quickly."

Most cider is made from a blend of sweet and tart apples, so the flavor won't be too much of either.The McEwans blend McIntosh apples with either Cortlands, Baldwins, or Golden Delicious, depending on what is being harvested.

Customers enjoy using the three antique cider presses, dating from 1880, that stand out in the McEwan's orchard, but are often startled that the first batch comes out of the press green. "That's just because the juice hasn't had a chance to oxidize yet and turn brown," says Mrs. McEwan. "My husband loves to walk around and kid them by saying, 'I wouldn't drink any of that stuff.'"

The press the McEwans use for their retail business is much newer and larger, but still involves the same basic two-step process. First the apples are ground into a pumice that is then crushed to extract the juice -- an operation with a remarkably high yield since the average apple is 80 percent juice.

Of course, most of that cider will end up in chilled glasses or steaming mugs , but some of it may also go into soup pots, cake batters, meat sauces, and an array of other recipes. Two books recently published, "The American Cider Book, " by Brest Orton (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux) and "The Cider Book," by Lila Gault and Betsy Sestrap (Seattle: Madrona Press), explore the drink's remarkable history, folklore, and culinary uses.

In addition to imparting ways of using cider to enhance other foods, both books point out that recipes using apples are more flavorful when cider is added. Applesauce, for instance, is tangier and more robust when prepared with cider instead of water.

The following recipes are from "The Cider Book." Apple Butter 1 cup sweet cider 8 cups apples, peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped 2 1/2 cups sugar 1 cinnamon stick, broken into bits 1 whole clove 1 whole allspice

Place cider and apples in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until apples are soft. When apples are cooked put them through as sieve.

Combine the sugar with strained apples and blend well. Put in casserole or baking pan. Place cinnamon, clove, and allspice in a small mesh bag and hide in center of apple mixture. Cover pan and bake at 300 degrees F. for 1 hour, stirring frequently, until desired thickness is reached. Remove spice bag and spoon into jars. Glazed Apples and Sausage 1 pound small pork sausages 2 cups sweet cider 4 medium sized, firm apples 1/8 teaspoon salt

Place sausages in a medium frying pan, pout in cider, and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes or until sausages are cooked. Remove sausages from pan and bring liquid to a boil over high heat. When liquis if reduced to about 1 cup in volume, pour half of it into another pan. Return sausages to original pan and simmer over medium heat until browned on all sides.

Core apples, cut into thin slices and saute in the second pan for several minutes over medium low heat until tender. Sprinkle salt over apples, combine with sausages, and pour remaining glaze over top and serve. Cider Walnut Pie 2 cups sweet cider 1 cup dark brown sugar 4 tablespoons butter, melted 4 eggs, well beaten 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1/2 cup walnuts, finely ground Baked 9-inch pie shell Whipping cream

Pour the cider into medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add sugar, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring continually, until sugar dissolves and mixture becomes slightly syrupy. Pour in melted butter and stir well. Remove from heat and let mixture cool.

Beat eggs until frothy, then pour in cooled cider mixture, stirring well. Add lemon juice and stir, then add walnuts. Pour entire mixture into baked pie shell and bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 minutes or until center of pie is firm. Serve either warm or at room temperature with whipping cream on top.

This delicious pork chop recipe is originally from Martinelli's, a cider business in California, and is included in "The American Cider Book." Normandy Pork Chops 6 pork chops, 3/4 inch thick 1 teaspoon salt Flour 4 apples 2 cups cranberries 1 cup brown sugar 1 1/2 cups sweet cider

Sprinkle pork chops with salt. Dredge with flour. Saute briefly until golden brown. Slice apples thinly and mix with cranberries and brown sugar. Place in the bottom of a buttered casserole. Lay chops on top of fruit, then add cider. Cook 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees F. or until pork is tender. Turn chops during cooking so both sides are flavored with the fruit.

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