Cool Beats and Cider Treats
If you were a fledgling teen in the mid-60’s and thought you were fairly wordly in a “beat generation” sort of way, there was only one really hip, alcohol-free place to hang on a Friday or Saturday night in Milwaukee: the Avant Garde, located on the fashionable East Side on Prospect.
It was as adventurous as sliding down a rabbit hole. In this case, you wound up a dark stairway into a darker room where you could barely make out, through the smoky haze, tiny tables with Allen Ginsberg look-alikes crouched over steaming mugs, all engaged in really cool conversation.
I was there with a small cadre of my high school mates. We were all decked out in what we thought was our best underground garb: burlap jeans, thick flannel C.P.O. jackets, and sporting as wild a mop of hair as our high school regulations would allow.
I’d listen to the poetry with a seemingly knowing gaze, but in reality, I didn’t have a clue. My real reason to be here was the music. It was most often for the low-down, dirty blues that weren’t available anywhere else. Five feet away, the chest-grabbing strains of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were miraculously recreated by local talent who were barely a year or two older than me.
We would order our steaming mugs. My drink of choice was not the dark, rich, bitter coffee preferred by most of the audience. I had the boiling hot cider served in an irregular pottery mug. Its heady aroma was infused with spices. The drink was exquisitely garnished with a real cinnamon stick stirrer, which turned it into an exotic cocktail of the coolest proportions. I would take small sips of this viscous elixir, the essence of a deeply caramelized apple. The cause of this flavor was probably the unintended reduction of the cider from the pot being over a continuous low flame to keep it hot throughout the evening. But the result was magnificent.
Apples have always been a large part of my cuisine, and I had a smattering of experience with different apple varieties since I was brought up in a grocery family. When I moved back to Milwaukee from New York City in 1980 and started to frequent the West Allis Farmers Market, my apple I.Q. exploded. My first stop at the market was always with Genevieve from Weston’s Apples of New Berlin. The first time I met her was on a late summer’s day, and she enthusiastically led me through the daily offerings trying to pinpoint what specific flavor profile I was looking for. I would buy one of each variety offered and sit on the side and crunch away. I quickly fell in love with Pink Pearls. Their creamy yellow-green, pink-blushed exterior enrobed gorgeous electric-magenta flesh. They have a juicy, lush apple intensity cut with a tart lash of acidity. As autumn progressed, I fell in love many more times as the apple cupid, Genevieve, suggested King David, Northern Spy, Esopus Spitzenbergs, Tydeman’s Late Orange, and Golden Russets, to name a few.
Those tart, crisp apples and the seductive flavor profile of the reduced cider from my youth became the base for a dessert, Cider-Glazed Apples with Spiced Cider Soup. This time, the intense result if fully intended as I reduce the cider by two-thirds along with white wine, ginger, Middle Eastern spices and a touch of chipotle heat for a very refined, grown-up, limpid broth that is a cohesive partner for cider-glazed tart apples and silky nutmeg cream.
Try this out with the best local, tart baking apples you can find and a fresh-pressed local cider. If this dessert doesn't get finger snaps from around the table, you might need cooler friends.