In my mind apples and apple cider are practically synonymous with fall, an arrival to eagerly anticipate as the leaves turn and the autumn crop of MacIntoshes and Cortlands appear. After a childhood spend going to the annual apple festival it’s probably woven into my DNA.
We’d take the backroads, avoiding the line of cars snaking over the hill, to make sure Dad made his shift running the antique cider press on time, then scatter to meet our friends, snoop through the crafts (raffia terror-level: high), and see who was working which food tent. If you were lucky someone you knew would slip an extra fritter - generously sanded with cinnamon sugar, best eaten piping hot - in your paper bag. The two churches in town competed semi-seriously to see who would sell the most pies and the tally at the end of the weekend was a news item of note.
Pie is a classic, but savory dishes like this one that uses both the whole fruit and hard cider put a new spin on apples and take them into new territory. This recipe is simple and thanks to the low and slow method the chicken develops great flavor braising in mustard, thyme, with hard apple cider standing in for white wine.
Cider Braised Chicken & Apples (serves 4)
4 (2 pounds) bone-in, skin-on medium chicken breasts
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium firm apples such as Rome, Spy, or Mutsu
2 cups (1 1/2 bottles) dry hard apple cider (I used Angry Orchard Stone Dry)
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs, plus 2 teaspoons minced thyme leaves
1/4 cup heavy cream
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F and position a rack in the center.
Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season both sides generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot in a straight-sided 10 or 11 inch oven-safe sauté pan with a lid.
Place the chicken pieces skin side down and cook until deeply browned, about 5 or 6 minutes. Resist the urge to move the pieces around. When the skin comes away easily from the pan, they’re ready to turn. Use tongs and cook on the other side for 3 to 5 minutes more until browned. Transfer the chicken to a plate and discard all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Set the pan aside to cool for a few minutes.
While the chicken is browning, peel, cored, and cut the apples into sixths. Return the pan to medium-high heat, add the apple pieces, and cook, turning once, until both cut sides are golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a different plate.
Carefully pour the hard cider into the pan and bring to a boil, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Whisk the Dijon mustard into the cider until well combined, then add the thyme sprigs, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Return the chicken to the pan skin side up, along with any juices that have accumulated and cover. Transfer the pan to the oven and braise for 20 minutes. Nestle the apples in among the chicken pieces and continue to braise 25 to 30 minutes more or until the chicken reaches 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken and apples to a large serving dish and cover loosely with foil. Discard the thyme sprigs and skim off as much fat as possible from the remaining sauce. Bring the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat and whisk in the cream. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Check for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper.
Pour the sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with the minced thyme leaves, and serve with butternut squash puree or mashed potatoes.
Re-written and lightly adapted from Fine Cooking’s Braised Chicken Legs with Cider, Apples & Mustard by Jennifer McLagan.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
100%. I used a large, deep stainless steel sauté pan with a lid, tongs, a slotted spoon, wooden spatula, a whisk, a liquid measuring cup. A small cutting board, chef’s knife, two plates, paper towels and aluminum foil will do it.
Unlike other braised dishes, which can sometimes be heavy, this one balances comforting cold-weather food with tangy cider and mustard. I particularly liked the combination of the tart, sweet apples with butternut squash puree – all the flavors of harvest-time on one plate. This meal doesn’t take a lot of time or hands-on effort and still feels special enough for company. I can’t wait to make this again and again in the coming months!