I don't like to play favorites among the seasons, but autumn has a fragrant glory all its own, despite its shorter days and the hints of cold weather yet to come. When the temperatures begin to tumble at last and I reach for a cozy sweater, I want to smell crisp, sweet-tart apples and warm apple cider (preferably mulled with cinnamon, cloves, and a hint of orange peel, thanks).
Here in Northern Ohio we have more than our fair share of apples, and at any local orchard you're sure to find the classic varieties of Macintosh, Jonathan, Cortland, and Golden Delicious, as well as the less familiar names of Honeycrisp, Freedom, Northern Spy, and so many more. The orchards in my neck of the woods also pile up gallons of cider at this time of the year, a lush dark amber liquid that has not been pasteurized by heat and so retains its full intensity of apple flavor.
But I'm not really here to talk about the fun of an apple-picking party, though that's worth a try if you've never done it before; nor can I tell you how to make your own apple juice or cider since I've not done it myself, though my fellow Ethicureans have previously shared their own experiences of orchard visits.
No, the apple product that completely knocked me off my feet at my local farmers market this year and left me begging for more has been cider vinegar.
You wouldn't think vinegar would be exciting. True, balsamic vinegar has developed a gourmet following, and I enjoy using it now and again myself. But aside from that, vinegar has previously only had a couple of minor uses in my kitchen: white vinegar for cleaning and for making herb vinegars for salad dressing, and the rare bottle of cider vinegar for one or two recipes. The vinegar you find at the local grocery store is never anything to sing to the skies about, and so I'd never really given it much thought.
When I first spotted the cider vinegar at the farmers market, though, I decided that in the interest of stocking up on local foods whenever possible, I'd give it a try. I knew I'd need it for pickling and making relish over the summer, so I tucked it in the refrigerator until I started bringing home the produce.
The first whiff changed my mind about vinegar completely. This stuff was real, alive, and practically dancing its bubbly way around me, making me dizzy with delight. This vinegar actually smelled like apples and fresh cider, a realization that startled me. (Yes, I know that cider vinegar is made from letting cider ferment over several months. But the store-bought vinegar I'd always used before never offered that real connection for me.)
Vinegar this good, with a refreshing balance of sweet and acidic flavors, needed to be highlighted, not hidden away, in recipes. So I started digging through my cookbooks, notebooks, and files to find ways to use that first half-gallon.
In poring over one of my favorite whole-grain baking books, I discovered that not only is vinegar used as a way to leaven baked goods -- when used with baking soda, it reacts to produce carbon dioxide for a light, bubbly texture in quick breads and cakes -- but apparently one tablespoonful of vinegar in a yeast bread recipe can serve as a preservative and mold retardant. In hot, humid weather, that's a useful thing to know, but the vinegar can also add a pleasant mouth-puckering note in a yeasted bread that showcases a variety of dried herbs.
I expanded my baking experiments with a vegan coffee cake recipe I've used for a number of years, the Date-Pecan Coffee Cake from "The Voluptuous Vegan." I've made variations on it before, but this summer I made a peach and black raspberry version for brunch at a friend's bed-and-breakfast inn.
The "King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking" cookbook contains a recipe for an all-oat cookie (no flour) that uses vinegar to similar effect, resulting in a light and tender (though crumbly) cookie, and the cidery tang of the vinegar balances well the sweetness of the sugar-and-spice nature of oatmeal cookies.
And in rustling through my family cookbook, I discovered a cousin's old recipe for "Wacky Cake," something I hadn't heard about in ages until an NPR podcast this summer reminded me of it. This chocolate cake, surprisingly vegan, is a model of baking efficiency: you sift together the dry ingredients in the baking pan, dig three furrows to add the vanilla and vinegar and oil, top it with water, mix it all up, and bake it. It's easy to make, and if you decide to take the time to whisk together a simple chocolate sauce for the topping, it turns into a luscious vegan pudding-esque cake.
Of course, I didn't want to ignore vinegar's potential for making savory dishes sparkle. Though I had planned not to make any herbal vinegars this year (I still have three different varieties from last year's herb garden), I thought that this local cider vinegar would work well when simmered with some of the black raspberries I had dried last summer. Making berry-infused vinegar is easy: just heat vinegar and berries together, allow them to simmer five to ten minutes, and strain. The result is great in salad dressings, and the fruity tang adds just the right note to a lush squash saute with carmelized onions.
With all these "experiments," I've had to stock up on even more vinegar, much to the amusement of the fellows from the local orchard. (One stopped me to warn, "That's vinegar, you know, not cider." I think I surprised him with my enthusiasm for the sour stuff!) I'm looking forward to using it more in baking this winter, and maybe I'll even try my hand at a late-harvest pickle or relish or chutney. Every time I open the jug, my mouth starts watering!
I think that, for many locavores, baking staples represent the most difficult area of the pantry to fill with local goods, and I know I'm very fortunate to be able to source many of my ingredients from the farmers market (yes, even in small-town Ohio!) and a local grist mill. But if you can find a local orchard, chances are you'll be able to find local vinegar, and who knows what possibilities that might open up for you?
Wacky Chocolate Pudding Cake
Derived from a family recipe and the Ultimate Chocolate Sauce found in "Great Good Desserts Naturally!" (Shown above without sauce.)
Sift together all dry ingredients in a 9" x 13" baking pan. Make three furrows through the dry ingredients. Into one, pour the vinegar. Into the second, add the oil. Into the third, pour the vanilla. Pour cold water over all and mix thoroughly.
Bake at 350 F for 25 to 30 minutes, until cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.
Sift together cocoa, maple sugar, and salt. Mix liquid ingredients and whisk into dry, blending until smooth. Pour over cooled cake; refrigerate. The sauce will be partially absorbed by the cake.
Cut into squares and serve cold or at room temperature.
Herbs and Honey Bread
Recipe derived from Sesame Honey Bread from People's Company Bakery, Minneapolis, as found in "Uprisings."
Makes 1 loaf
In large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Stir in honey until dissolved. Add 1 c flour, whisking until dissolved. Add remaining flour, oil, salt, and herbs. When dough is easily handled (not too dry), turn onto floured board or counter and knead until it is smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes). Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down dough and shape into loaf. Place in greased loaf pan, cover, and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes, until golden brown. Turn loaf onto wire rack to cool.