I held a whole cider donut between my teeth as I loaded a gallon of fresh apple cider and a mixed bag of heirloom apples – Frostbites, Somersets of Maine and Sweet Tarts – into my car at Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland. I wasn’t going to eat it all in one bite, mind you. Cider donuts are a fall delicacy I savor. I savor them very slowly. I’d simply stuck it in my mouth to free up a hand to find my keys.

“Thank you!!” I heard someone shout. I felt a bit like a squirrel caught with a just-planted tulip bulb in its mouth as I popped my head up over the Jeep to see a lovely lady perched on a lawn swing set on the grass behind the roadside stand, knitting.

I’d been listening to a TED Radio Hour segment on how journalist A.J. Jacobs, as an exercise in gratitude, set out to thank every person who played a role in bringing his cup of coffee to his lips, from bean picker to barista and everyone in between. I set my donut on the seat and sauntered over to the swing to see if the friendly lady played a role in bringing me my cider donut. I would certainly give her my thanks if she had.

“Ohhh, aren’t they just so good?” said Connie Sweetser, matriarch of the farm family that has tended the orchards for some 200 years. She invited me to sit with her and talk about the wonders of cider donuts fried in lard. She explained that her family contracts with HiFi Donuts in Portland to make the donuts sold at the stand. Sweetser’s cider is a key ingredient, of course.

Boiled cider has a sweet-sour flavor that adds a pleasant pucker to many dishes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It’s not fresh cider straight up that gives most cider donuts their appley, sweet and sour zing. Rather, it’s fresh cider that’s been reduced by 400 percent into a syrup over a low flame. Also called apple molasses, boiled cider dates back to colonial America; European settlers in Massachusetts recorded making and using it as far back as 1670s. Valued for its long shelf life, boiled cider preserved an apple crop beyond the autumn harvest. Then, it could be reconstituted as a beverage if the water on hand was safe to drink, and used as a locally sourced sweetener, as opposed to molasses, which was made from sugarcane in the West Indies. Colonists used it sweeten baked beans, squash dishes and, of course, apple pie.

There are a few commercial makers of boiled cider – Apple Acres Farm in Hiram sells 12-ounce bottles for $14.95, and King Arthur Baking Company sells pint-bottles of a Vermont-made product for $16.95. You can also find bottles at the store at the Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. But if you have about three hours to keep a watchful eye over a simmering pot of syrup, you can easily make it at home.

Most recipes on the Internet (the King Arthur site gives the most details), tell you to take one gallon (16 cups) of sweet apple cider and simmer it down to 2 cups of boiled syrup. I find, though, that making it in smaller quantities – like the quart of cider left in the gallon jug of cider after a party – is worth the effort, too. It yields a smaller amount, yes, but it also takes less time and means the cider doesn’t go off as it sits forgotten in the back of the fridge.

Where maple syrup offers a direct sweetness, boiled cider is more puckery, with earthy undertones of caramel. I add it to autumnal foods that taste flat as a way to perk them up, as I would a lemon. I’ll stir it into a pork or poultry gravy, perhaps. Or shake it into a salad dressing to replace some of the vinegar and all of the honey. And stream it into a whipped cream frosting on a spice cake. Maybe even tip it into a glass of warm bourbon for a hot toddy. Oh, and I’ll certainly pour it over apple-filled pancakes like these.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige dips apple slices in batter to make Boiled Cider Apple Pancakes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Boiled Cider Apple Pancakes

They may look like donuts, but they aren’t deep fried. Amp up the apple surprise inside with more boiled cider when the pancakes are served. If you don’t have any spelt flour, use a half and half mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flours. Cooked pancakes can be held in a warm oven (200 degrees), but, like cider donuts, they are best eaten immediately.

Makes 15 pancakes

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Maine Grains Spelt flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2/3 cup whole milk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons boiled cider, more for serving
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Vegetable oil
3 eating apples, cored and cut into 1/4-inch circular slices

Boiled Cider Apple Pancakes.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In a small bowl, combine the sugar with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, remaining 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, salt and allspice. In a measuring cup, combine the milk, egg, boiled cider and melted butter; beat the mixture until thoroughly combined.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.

Preheat your skillet over medium heat and brush with vegetable oil. Dip each apple slice into the batter, allowing the runoff to fall back into the bowl. Place the rings on the hot skillet with a half-inch between them. Cook until small bubbles form on the surface of the batter, 1-2 minutes, and then flip. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook on the opposite side for about 1 minute, or until golden brown.

Sprinkle each pancake with cinnamon sugar and serve with more boiled cider.


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