Fresh-picked apple cocktails

Special to The Times

WITH all the snappy apples -- rosy Rome Beauties, flowery Splendors, tart Pippins -- spilling out of farmers market stalls this time of year, it's hard to resist dreaming up excuses to buy them by the bushel. It's a great time for baked apples, tarte Tatin, apple strudel -- and apple cocktails.

Forget those glow-stick green apple martinis, a concoction only a grinch could love. Instead, check out the fresh fruit-forward apple cocktails making the Southern California bar scene this season. Mixologists are using fresh-pressed juice, muddled apples and even syrups infused with skins and cores, then shaking up these apple essences with spirits that bring out their warm autumnal character.

"A good cocktail balances tartness against sweetness, just like a peak-of-season apple, so they're natural partners," says Jonny Raglin, bar manager at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco where his Jonny Apple Seed cocktail combines freshly made apple syrup, Calvados (apple brandy) and sparkling rose wine. "Look for varieties that are tart and sour, not overly sweet, because you want that sharpness to stand up to the alcohol."

Tart-sweet varieties such as Rome Beauty, Granny Smith, Pippin and Pink Lady are good choices for muddling, pureeing or juicing because their tang keeps the fruit's sweetness from cloying.

Fresh apple cocktails are perfect for entertaining. Make enough fresh cider, apple syrup or puree for four, then shake up the cocktails two by two.

If you don't have a juicer at home, look for flash-pasteurized apple cider (fresh-pressed, unfiltered apple juice) in the refrigerated section of many grocery stores and at farmers markets' apple vendor stands. But commercial ciders are typically pressed from sweet apples, so add a little lemon juice in recipes calling for tart apple juice.

David Myers, executive chef and owner of Sona in West Hollywood, pairs fresh cider with light spirits such as vodka to showcase the crisp, clean apple flavor. Recently he's been muddling tart cider with litchi and mint, a refreshing combination that's perfect for sipping on a sunny winter afternoon. For a more robust drink, choose a full-flavored whiskey, brandy or rum to complement apple's tangy sweetness. At the Hungry Cat in Hollywood, lead bartender Tim Staehling mulls fresh-pressed cider with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves over low, slow heat to really concentrate the flavor and adds warm, spicy spirits such as apple brandy and dark, aged rum.

"The base of your cocktail should enhance apple's aromas and flavors," says mixologist Drew Levinson, manager of 22 bars at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "It's like picking spices that complement an apple pastry. Choose a bourbon with vanilla, cinnamon, or citrus notes, spicy rum or a fruity brandy to bring out the apple flavors."

Levinson shakes up his Apple Frost cocktail with fresh-pressed cider, house-blended cinnamon and vanilla-scented bourbon, plus pear brandy, falernum (sweet ginger lime syrup) and lemon sour for balance. A lighter alternative is the Apple Pie cocktail at Boa Steakhouse in Santa Monica. Assistant general manager Kevin Travis pairs fresh cider with dry white wine and cinnamon-clove syrup for a spicy winter sangria.

Travis recommends experimenting with texture to change a drink's flavor. "Try blending peeled apples and substituting the puree for half the juice in a cocktail recipe," he says. "It lends body and a more intense, fresh apple flavor."

Pureeing apples in a blender is a cinch to do at home, and for holiday entertaining, the puree can be prepared an hour or two ahead of time. It's the foundation for an honest apple martini created for the Four Seasons Resort, Maui, by cocktail consultant Kim Haasarud that could win back a good name for the drink.

Haasarud, the Los Angeles-based author of "101 Martinis," purees Granny Smith apples with simple syrup and lemon juice, then shakes up the puree with apple liqueur and vodka. It's a tangy green-apple martini that's all about big, bright orchard flavors.

But apples don't have to be juiced or pureed to give character to a cocktail. Muddling diced tart apples lends a delicate flavor and a lingering apple aroma.

"Muddled apple has a subtle essence so it pairs well with softer flavors," says Sara Southern, consulting mixologist to Red Pearl Kitchen in Hollywood.

Southern recommends finely chopping peeled apples to extract the most juice when muddling. If you need to chop a large quantity of apples in advance, sprinkle them with lemon juice diluted with water to keep them moist and prevent browning.

Southern's Jade Mistress cocktail, a Thai-inspired mojito, starts with muddled Granny Smiths, Thai basil and homemade sour mix. The drink gets a spicy kick from chile-steeped vodka and the apple offers an understated sweet-tart note that lingers against the heat.

Keep the peels and cores left over from all that muddling and juicing. At Absinthe, Raglin turns Rome Beauty skins and cores into rosy-red simple syrup. It's the star ingredient in his Jonny's Apple Seed, beautifully bridging the layers of Calvados and sparkling rose. The apple flavor, subtle at first, is unveiled as the rose gives way to the apple brandy.

Take another sip, just to be sure.

food@latimes.com

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Jonny's Apple Seed

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Jonny Raglin, bar manager of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco. Choose apples with a deep pink hue to lend color.

2 Rome Beauty or Red Rome apples

1/2 cup sugar

6 ounces Calvados

1 ounce fresh lemon juice

4 ounces sparkling rose wine

1. To make the apple syrup, peel and core 1 of the apples. Set aside the flesh for another use. Combine the skin, the core, the sugar and three-fourths cup water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, until the syrup is reddish-pink. Cool and strain. This makes one-half cup (4 ounces) syrup, which can be stored in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

2. In a pitcher, combine the Calvados, lemon juice and 2 ounces apple syrup. Pour half the mixture into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into two chilled martini glasses. Repeat with the remaining mixture and pour into another two glasses.

3. Make 4 thin slices by cutting horizontally through the center of the remaining apple. Float an apple slice in each glass and gently top each drink with 1 ounce of sparkling rose (do not stir).

Each serving: 275 calories; 0 protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 3 mg. sodium.

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Green apple martini

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Kim Haasarud for the Four Seasons Resort, Maui. To make a simple syrup, combine equal amounts of sugar and water over medium heat in a small saucepan until the sugar has dissolved; cool before using. Berentzen's apple liqueur is available at Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, Wally's Wine & Spirits in West L.A. and online at www.bevmo.com.

2 large Granny Smith apples

2 teaspoons lemon juice, plus a little more if needed

3 teaspoons simple syrup, plus a little more if needed

10 ounces Skyy Citrus vodka

6 ounces Berentzen's apple

liqueur

2 teaspoons lime juice

Peel of 2 apples for garnish

1. Using a paring knife, peel each apple in one long continuous peel. Set peels aside for garnish. Core the apples and cut into 1-inch dice.

2. Place the apple cubes in a blender with the lemon juice and simple syrup. Puree until smooth. Add additional lemon juice and simple syrup if needed for a puree that is slightly thicker than applesauce. Makes three-fourths cup. Use immediately; it will change color if left standing.

3. Combine 5 ounces vodka, 3 ounces apple liqueur, half the apple puree and 1 teaspoon lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Shake over ice until chilled. Strain into two chilled martini glasses through a fine mesh strainer to eliminate apple chunks, pressing with a wooden spoon to extract juices.

4. Hang half an apple peel spiraling over the rim of each glass for garnish. Repeat to make two more cocktails.

Each serving: 333 calories; 0 protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 4 mg. sodium.

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Jade Mistress

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Sara Southern for Red Pearl Kitchen. To make the red chile vodka, steep 1 to 2 Thai red chiles (dried), depending on how spicy you want it, in 10 ounces vodka at room temperature for one day. To make a simple syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves; allow to cool before using.

2 ounces lime juice

1 ounce lemon juice

1 ounce orange juice

1 ounce plus 4 teaspoons

simple syrup, divided

1/2 cup peeled, finely diced Granny Smith apple, plus extra for garnish (about 1 apple)

16 Thai basil leaves, torn

10 ounces chile-steeped vodka

1. In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice and 1 ounce simple syrup. This makes 5 ounces sour mix.

2. In a pitcher, muddle the diced apple, 12 of the basil leaves and the remaining 4 teaspoons simple syrup. Add the vodka and 4 ounces of fresh sour mix, discarding the remaining sour mix.

3. Pour half the mixture into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain it into two chilled martini glasses. Garnish each with a Thai basil leaf and diced apple. Repeat with the remaining mixture to make two more drinks.

Each serving: 190 calories; 0 protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.

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Apple-litchi cocktail

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From David Myers, executive chef and owner of Sona restaurant. Evolution brand refrigerated flash-pasteurized apple juice is widely available at Ralphs, Whole Foods and Gelson's.

1 bunch mint

4 litchis (canned in syrup if fresh is not available)

6 ounces fresh pressed apple juice from Granny Smiths

(or substitute refrigerated, flash-pasteurized juice plus

1 teaspoon lemon juice per

8 ounces)

8 ounces premium vodka

1. Wash the mint and set aside four sprigs for garnish. In a cocktail shaker, muddle about 14 mint sprigs and 2 of the litchis with 3 ounces of the apple juice and 4 ounces of the vodka.

2. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into two ice-filled glasses and garnish with fresh mint. Repeat with the remaining mint, litchis, apple juice and vodka to make two more cocktails.

Each serving: 153 calories; 0 protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 2 mg. sodium.

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