Homemade Citrus Cider: The Simmering Scent of the Holiday Season

For the past three nights it has been flurrying. It hasn’t been cold enough during the day at the cottage yet for the snowflakes to stick around or to pile up, but three miles up the road it is a different story. There, the slight rise in elevation provides the slightest advantage – a few extra degrees of cold temperatures yields a fairytale frosting on all the trees.

A week into adapting to our new northern climate, it is starting to feel somewhat strange and far away when we say that we used to live in the South. There, as soon as the weather dipped to 50 degrees we were ready to celebrate cold weather season with abandon… sweaters, scarves, soups, stew and all the hot chocolate one could drink in a semi-tropical city. Tonight it’s going to be 28 degrees in Pennsylvania. This is the frigid and fitting pre-Thanksgiving weather we’ve been waiting for for over a decade. So what’s on the menu? A hearty New England-style soup? A big bowl of chowder? Boston baked beans? No way. Tonight we are making something Southern.

Irony aside, two components that make this a distinctly Southern recipe as opposed to a more traditional New England apple cider are the inclusion of a few additional citrus fruits and fact that the recipe came from a vintage cookbook called Wild About Texas.

Published in 1989, Wild About Texas was put together as a fundraising endeavor by the ladies of the Cypress Woodlands Junior Forum, a philanthropic group that was (and still is) dedicated to improving the lives of children, senior citizens, and the disabled in the Houston area. Representative of the varied cuisine that makes up the Lone Star state’s food landscape, this cookbook combined a range of recipes that included Tex-Mex, creole, cowboy cooking, southern fare, southwestern flavors, and south of the border spices, along with highlighting local fruits and vegetables that grow naturally well within the Texas landscape.

What was especially fun about this cookbook, apart from the beautiful watercolor illustrations of wildflowers peppered throughout, was the Forum’s focus on selecting local recipes that were ideal for sharing and entertaining. Many of the dishes featured serving sizes suitable for a crowd and also smidge of storytelling. A favorite recipe of Lady Bird Johnson’s made an appearance (spoon bread!), easy to throw together party pleasers were included, curious concoctions like Hillbilly Bean Soup were shared, and a discussion on local wines encouraged further exploration.

Watercolor wildflower illustrations painted by Austin artist Rosario Baxter.

It was in the beverage section that I ran across the apple cider recipe. Beautifully described as a holiday simmer, it’s an especially lovely drink for this time of year when friends and family are visiting for the holidays or neighbors are dropping by to say hello and you’d like to have something hospitable on hand. Similar to a party punch, it was recommended to make this recipe in a large batch (serving for 25), but if your get-togethers aren’t quite as elaborate, you could half this recipe and keep it in the fridge for quite a few days. Either way, it’s a warm welcome on a cool day, a versatile indoor/outdoor treat, and a cup of cheer that can be served hot or cold depending on which type (or temperature!) of climate you live in.

Considered a national beverage, the founding flavor of this recipe is apple cider which has been a part of the American culinary landscape since the early settlement days when water was feared to be contaminated and cider and beer were the most common drink available. In those days, the first apple trees of North America were saplings carefully transported from England by the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower. As a result of their careful treatment and adaptability, apple trees became one of the first revered crops in early America, a must-have staple of homestead gardens around New England. Whether you lived on a sprawling farm or a tiny in-town city lot, an apple tree was a common sight no matter the neighborhood. By the 1900s, apple trees were grown around the country, a source of continued curiosity and study on ways to improve growing conditions and create new varietals.

From the Cornell University Library archives this apple tree was photographed in 1911. Certain varieties can reach up to 30 feet tall!

The oldest, still-operating, still-family run cider mill in the country dates to the early 1880s and is located in Mystic, Connecticut, a stalwart symbol, that America’s love affair with this autumnal beverage has never left our hearts nor dissatisfied our palates.

Photo courtesy of B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill. Read more about them here.

Traditional apple cider is made just from the juice of pressed apples, but spiced cider contains the addition of aromatic spices, most commonly cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg. This vintage holiday simmer recipe contains other fruit juices too. Ones that feature trees commonly grown in the south – oranges, pineapples and lemons, so it’s a delicious mix between two distinct regions in the U.S., each celebrating the combined flavors and scents of the season.

So simple to make, it takes only about 5 minutes to put together and about 30 minutes to simmer on the stove. Guaranteed to warm the spirit and the belly, what is especially great about this recipe is that there is no added sugar. The sweet-tart balance between the oranges, pineapple, lemons, and apples is all that’s needed. It also acts like a natural stovetop potpourri, lightly scenting the air with the fragrance of cinnamon and clove.

Holiday Simmer

Makes 25 cups

2 quarts apple cider

2 cups orange juice

1 cup lemon juice

2 (46 oz) cans of pineapple juice

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon whole cloves

In a large pot over high heat, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and let simmer for 20-30 minutes. Remove spices and serve hot.

Kid-friendly in its as-written state, you could also turn this into an adult beverage by adding a splash of brandy to each glass if you prefer an extra dose of cheer to brighten your holiday spirit. Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, and reheated as needed. If you live in warm climate, this is also lovely served cold but make sure you initially simmer all the ingredients as directed, as the natural sugars carmelize in the cooking process and dissolve the spices for a more rich, well-rounded flavor.

Add an extra bit of holiday flourish on your mugs or glasses with an orange slice and pine spring garnish. Or if serving this for a crowd punch bowl-style, float some apple and orange slices in the bowl along with a sprinkle of star anise, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and allspice berries for a hint of seasonal color. Whether you are bundled up and huddled around an outdoor fire pit or sitting under a swaying palm tree at the beach, I hope this adds just the right bit of sweetness to your holiday season.

Cheers to the South and the North and all the foods that bring the two together!

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