Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Apple Jack

Waaaaaaay back, at least last fall and maybe further, I left a comment on a food blog about making apple jack and having apple jack cake. Since then I regularly get the odd question and e-mail about it, so I'm dumping the info here in the hopes a google search will pop it up for people and I won't have to get homesick every fall, wishing I could make apple jack without getting arrested. Ah, for a nice rural area with laid-back cops. The ones around here get so touchy about home distilling.


Apple jack is distilled hard cider. Historically, it is said to have been invented in the US Colonies in the 1700s, but apples aren't native to N America and the human race has been eating them since the stone age, so I find it veeeeeerry hard to believe that the Founding Fathers were the first guys to come up with the idea. Especially considering the stuff makes itself in the proper environment. Apple Jack may well be the easiest distilled liquor ever made. I sure can't think of any others that are simpler.

The process, as done by me and my friends when we were in our teens: (No, we did not DRINK the stuff, are you crazy?? We SOLD it to our parents and friends, and used the money to go on trips the whole following year. Drink it. Please. A waste of good money.)

It starts off like normal cider harvesting. In fact, it IS normal cider harvesting. Broadly speaking (regulations vary, especially when you consider international laws), apple juice is pasteurized and squeezed from a single type of apple. Cider is unpasteurized and squeezed from anything that's not red hot or nailed down. The way the orchards did it, in my experience, was they'd send through pickers to hand-pick all the pretty apples for sale in grocery stores. Then they'd go through with mechanized tree shakers (really) and rattle all the rest of the apples out of the trees, sweep up all the fallen apples (which are by now bruised to hell and starting to ferment) and send them off - in dump trucks sometimes - to cider mills. There the apples are handled just as rudely (I've seen guys shovel them), chopped into bits, and the juice pressed out. THAT juice is cider, and what you need to make apple jack. My friends and I used to help harvest the windfall apples for a share of the cider. Lots of barter-for-work went on, we were in Mennonite/Amish country. It's traditional. And a good way to build community, which is why they do it.

While I didn't appreciate the entire process at the time, it is kind of cool. During all the rattling and throwing and shoveling and laying around in the orchard, the apples have picked up all kinds of interesting microbes, including natural yeasts. Without the pasteurization process to kill them, the yeasts will happily take up residence in the cider and start doing their thing; eating sugar and producing ethyl alcohol. This is where 'hard' cider comes from. Well. Real hard cider. The manufacturing process for the newly fashionable bottled stuff is kind of ridiculous because they legally have to pasteurize at some point. But that's not our problem.

Once you get hard cider - there's a trick to getting it right on that edge between very hard cider and vinegar, which we did old school, by taste - you freeze it. Very old, very traditional method, freeze distillation. What happens is, the water freezes, but the alcohol doesn't. So once the hard cider is frozen, you smash it up with some hammers (preferably clean hammers) and save the runoff. The runoff is apple jack. Ditch the ice. Or shove it down each others' shirts. Whichever seems most appropriate.

The real beauty of this method is, if you're in a temperate climate, mother nature does it for you. Get a jug or fifty of cider (we used plain old plastic gallon jugs, like milk comes in), and let them sit outside in Indian summer (the last warm days of autumn, usually hitting NE Ohio at the end of September) and the cider gets hard. Leave it sitting there, eventually it will freeze (back in the day, that was usually in mid-October - often the first snowfall of the year was on my birthday in mid October), and all you really have to do is smash it up and save the runoff. No need to go running around between warm basement and freezer, or anything. (Thanks to global warming, I'm betting this process isn't so perfectly simple any more, but back in the day it worked beautifully.)

Traditionally, apple jack was drunk like whiskey. By the time I got into manufacture, it was more often used as flavoring, or in mixed drink type concoctions. There was a guy in my church who was very well known for his apple-jack cake. I've searched for something similar, and while I don't have THAT recipe, I think I've got something that comes close - it's an Amish recipe for apple cake, with the jack added. I suspect Mr. R didn't actually COOK with the jack, but poured it over top. 'Cause I swear that cake was flammable. (Of course we sold home-distilled liquor to the deacons of our church... didn't you?)

*3 T butter
*1 c sugar
*1 egg, beaten
*1/2 t cinnamon
*1/2 t nutmeg
*1/2 t salt
*1 t baking soda
*1 c flour
*1/4 c chopped nuts (walnuts would be traditional, I say pecans)
*3 c diced apples (alternately, you could squeeze the excess liquid out of the apples, then replace the liquid with apple jack)
*1 t vanilla extract
*apple jack, to taste

Cream butter and sugar, add egg, mix. Sift in dry ingredients, add diced apples, nuts, vanilla. Pour into greased 8x8 inch pan. Bake at 350 F for about 45 min. While still warm, poke holes in it with a skewer and pour apple jack over the top; how much is up to you, I suspect the guy I knew used a half cup or so.

Unfortunately Mr. R passed on about twenty years ago and never did divulge the secret of his cake before he died. But I know he made it with jack I made, so the secret wasn't in the jack itself.

There is another, older, recipe here. If you use it, be careful not to light your house on fire. An entire cup of apple jack. eek.

Furthermore, poking around over on Recipezaar, I suspect that any recipes calling for Calvados (French apple brandy) could be made with apple jack as a replacement. Or of course you could use Calvados for the above recipe, instead of apple jack, if you didn't want to make your own jack. But what's the fun of that?

I wonder if the grocery store has some unpasteurized cider...


Cara said...

You sure know a lot of cool stuff! I really enjoy that about your blog.

Terby said...

I can check at the farmer's market on Friday, or you could check the one downtown on Saturday...

Alwen said...

I love living in cider country. My husband used about 40 gallons in the bourbon-barrel cyser. Which is aging nicely, BTW.

Louiz said...

yum. Nice thing about going on holiday when I was in my late teens to Cornwall. Scrumpy. Like apple jack... with attitude (I suspect, not having drunk apple jack:)

Donna Lee said...

Apple Jack was a favorite around her while I was growing up (not that I ever imbibed? Me,a Girl Scout? Never!). We live close to Amish country (Lancaster,PA) and I think we could probably find some if we looked hard enough. It's not as readily available as I seem to remember it as being.

And it sucks to hear that you have to start all over again with another doctor. I think that many of them have their common sense and humanity surgically removed after med school.

Amy Lane said...

That was cool enough for me to shove my 14 year old in front of the computer and say "Here--read this. It's good for you."