Many traditional New England recipes call for molasses, an ingredient that’s rooted in trade with the West Indies during Colonial times. It has a deep, dark, almost minerally flavor, and is what gives such dishes as baked beans, gingerbread and indian pudding their particular taste. In searching for a more locally-produced substitute, I discovered an almost forgotten one, boiled cider. We have local honey and maple syrup, sometimes even birch syrup, but only boiled cider comes close to matching the caramel-like sweetness of molasses. When I found that it’s also known in some parts as apple molasses, I felt I was on the right track.
With further thought, I realized that boiled cider is simply another way of preserving apples for scarcer times ahead. Recipes abound for boiled cider pie (with or without additional apples), boiled cider applesauce, and “jelly” water — a beverage made of a spoonful of boiled cider or its jelly stirred into a glass of water, and drunk as a substitute for apple cider. I was already convinced by Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire of the versatile utility of apples, and boiled cider adds to its reputation as the king of fruit.
I’ve become reliant on the rich, tangy flavor boiled cider contributes to dishes, however, the farm I’ve gotten it from has changed hands, and it isn’t known if the new owners will continue its production. With my last bottle of boiled cider reaching its end, I set about making some of my own. It’s nothing more than what the name implies — apple cider boiled down until it’s become concentrated to a syrupy consistency. Proportions range, some say 5 to 1, while others suggest 7 to 1. In any case, making boiled cider promised to be an easier endeavor than making maple syrup, with its jaw-dropping yield of 40 to 1.
I started with four gallons of fresh, organic apple cider, poured it into a non-reactive pot, and set it on the stove. Once it commenced boiling, I skimmed off the froth collecting on top and, as recommended, continued boiling it down as quickly as possible. As I waited, I went about with other chores, while at the same time kept alert for any changes in sound or smell that would warn of over-boiling. It took several hours for the level to drop sufficiently, and then the cider reaches a point where it quickly turns into syrup. Apples contain naturally high levels of pectin and sugar, and I let this first batch go too far, inadvertently becoming cider jelly (bottom of photo). This happy accident yielded four pints to add to our pantry.