Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Adventures with Hard Cider

I have always had an interest, however passing, in brewing. Back in my study-abroad days, I was enrolled in microbiology… and not all of it was scary stuff. Some of it was really amazing and delicious! Cheese and beer. Worth the hype.

Now that I am more-or-less grounded once again (and happily so), I have wanted to attempt some sort of easy, non-risky fermenting. Perhaps you don’t share my fascination, but feeling the intoxicating effects of something I have fermented myself was a bucket list bullet point until now. Like Steve McQueen’s potato concoction at the Fourth of July party in The Great Escape, but tastier and with less burning.

What is the gateway homebrewed beverage? CIDER, my friends. Hard apple cider is the answer.

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It is hard to even call this a recipe, and others have given an even easier method (“leave the cider in your basement and forget about it for 2 weeks”). But here is what I did after some amount of actual research and a trip to our trusty local home brewing store for airlocks (about $2 each) and champagne yeast (about $1 for a packet that can handle 5 gallons). I procured my apple cider at Costco for a meager $4 per gallon. I haven’t seen it cheaper (and still preservative-free) anywhere else.

Homebrewed Hard Cider

Yield: About 1 gallon

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon pasteurized, preservative-free apple cider
  • 2 cups white sugar (optional, for higher alcohol content and/or sweeter cider)
  • Champagne yeast

Directions:

  • Sterilize (or not) a clean glass jug (or other container that can accept an airlock (or not). Add 2 cups of sugar and enough champagne yeast to the jar. Add half of the cider, and swirl to dissolve the sugar. Add the rest of the cider (or until the jug is full with a bit of space for bubbles, as shown) and close with the sterilized (or not) airlock. If you don’t have an airlock and you don’t want to let any other microbes in, you can cover the top with a balloon, and just poke several holes to allow the air pressure in the jug to remain positive (so air only flows out). Apparently you can leave it loosely capped without an airlock too, but I understand it is best practice for the most predicable results.
  • Leave the cider at about room temp (or slightly cooler… 55-65 degrees) for 5-21 days. It will start to bubble and release CO2 through the airlock in a day or two. The shorter fermenting times will yield sweeter, slightly sparkling ciders with lower alcohol content. At a certain point, around the 14 day mark (depending on temp and sugar content), the yeast will have consumed all the sugar and the cider will be dry and still (not my favorite, but good for mixing with fresh cider). I think 7-11 days is a good fit for my general reference for sweeter cider and moderate alcohol content.
  • Whenever you decide to drink it, it should be cooled to help the yeast settle out, and then siphoned off directly into glasses or a secondary storage container to avoid drinking a lot of yeast. Alternatively, it could be bottled then with or without extra sugar to make it sparkling, but that sounds laborious and not as easy to get a buzz (safely) while so doing. You choose.

This is a fun process and my kids greatly enjoyed watching the airlock (as did I). Here is the airlock in action (it is sort of mesmerizing to watch the bubbles… when it really got going, a bubble escaped about every 7 seconds #nerdalert):

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Since I have been making my own cider, I have been saving some of the yeast that settles out as a starter for my next batch (obsessed much?). My new sorta-secret plan is to make a BIG batch of this for our annual Thanksgiving party. Homemade booze in bulk? Yes, please. And thank you!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Adventures with Sourdough (or, Meet my New Pet)

Hello there. I’m easing back into blogging by sharing with you my growing fascination with cultured foods. Today: homemade sourdough bread.

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First things first… allow me to introduce you to Maxwell, my sourdough starter:

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I must preface this next section by telling you that talking about Maxwell the Sourdough Starter embarrasses the pants off my 10 year old daughter. I can’t even talk about it with family members without eye rolls and groans, so imagine her plight when she one day realizes I am blogging about it. I have to laugh. Because this is the ninja girl in question who never ever does embarrassing things of her own (love you, honey!):

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Maxwell lives alternately in my fridge and on my counter. I like to imagine Maxwell is the microbial equivalent of a sheepdog. Here is a pet who earns its keep by performing work I couldn’t otherwise do alone. I have many skills, but converting sugar to tangy acid in a suspension of flour and water is just not one of them. And since I don’t have sheep, a sourdough starter just made more sense than a sheepdog. To each, his own…

I attempted to make my own sourdough starter some months ago when the local wild grapes were ripe, using a naturally-yeasty grape skin to inoculate my would-be starter. I gave it a week of regular feeding, then feared the worst when it was not rising much and smelled funny. Now, however, having successfully grown a store-bought dry starter (I purchased Sourdough Starter'>this one from Breadtopia on Amazon; affiliate link, FYI), it might have been fine and I just panicked as newbies are wont to do when faced with the unknown. I may try again with the wild starter next year, or I may not. Maxwell is enough to care for right now, and I’m not sure I need two pets.

It has been almost 2 months since I rehydrated the unassuming packet of starter, fed it daily, watched it, smelled it, prayed that it would bubble, faithfully fed it more trusting that eventually it would rise, hoped it would double in bulk after a feeding, was disappointed when it got hoochy, gave it a time out in the fridge (to develop a more sour taste), and prayed some more that it would eventually mature. You know, sometimes all you have to do is wait. And wait. And wait.

{{ The short story on starter care and feeding is that, each day, you mix equal weights of starter, water and all purpose flour. You mix it up, and let it sit. It will bubble and rise, and maybe produce a yellowy liquid called hooch. When it is done rising (has “eaten” all the food), it deflates and you do it again. You need to discard, share, or use the excess starter (usually half) so as to not have it multiply exponentially. When you want to use it, you just keep more around until you have the volume called for in your recipe (you have to plan ahead!), then save and feed some to keep around and use the rest. If you aren’t making bread all the time, you can keep the starter in the fridge and just pull it out to warm up, divide, feed, start to rise, then re-refrigerate for another week. Once mature, it is pretty hearty. It could go longer than a week without a feeding in the fridge, and isn’t going to die the moment you let it get hoochy. You can even dry then freeze some of it as insurance in case starter negligence is a real fear. It's really not as scary as I thought when I first got into this alternative lifestyle. }}

Finally, one glorious day after several weeks of feeding, dividing and waiting, Maxwell actually got puffy and bubbly and I knew that THE DAY HAD ARRIVED. It was time to attempt to actually make some sourdough bread.

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I used a recipe from the ever-inspiring King Arthur Flour website for my first go at it: Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread. Except I didn’t make it extra tangy (I omitted the citric acid). It was worth the wait! Definitely as good as store bought sourdough… same distinctive tangy flavor. I am too lazy after all that waiting to reprint the recipe, but I can tell it is going to be a standby. You should definitely check it out if you are interested in a basic sourdough and you have a starter. If you know me in real life and live close enough, I’d be glad to share my starter so you can have your own adventures with sourdough. I suppose the goal, eventually, is to make sourdough bread at home that is even better than store bought sourdough bread, but this still felt like a real win in a world of infinite opportunities to fail.

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There are recipes everywhere for authentic sourdough foods… bread, waffles, buns, English muffins, popovers, biscuits, pretzels, and even cake (!). I really enjoy BREAD, so I haven’t branched out yet. Maxwell and I are just getting to know one another, and I don’t want to jump the gun on a risky recipe and add any extra awkwardness into the mix. I am not in a hurry, and I don’t get the impression Maxwell is either. These loaves took me three days from starter to finish, and I am OK with that. I have since made some more loaves whereby I cut a couple corners to make it fit into my schedule, and, as anyone else might have foreseen, it was not as successful. Back to square one: follow directions :) Also, plan when to start based on when you need to sleep. It just makes sense…

Coming up soon thanks to my obsession with fermenting will be Adventures in Brewing! Hard cider… easier than you think…

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