Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh sets record for world’s largest pierogi

Guinness World Records adjudicator Michael Empric samples the giant pierogi he declared a world record, weighing in at 123 pounds. Photo by Bob Donaldson/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chefs at Rivers Casino on Wednesday put Pittsburgh in the record book by preparing and serving what Guinness World Records has verified to be the world’s largest pierogi.

More than a year in the making, the giant dumpling weighed 123 pounds, far exceeding the 110 pounds, 3 ounces needed to establish the record. It was so big that the North Side casino’s facility team had to craft a 27-by-36-inch stainless-steel vessel in which to cook it.

“This is the largest thing I’ve ever made, period,” said executive chef Richard Marmion after Guinness adjudicator Michael Empric made it official at Wednesday’s 10 a.m. news conference in the casino’s second-floor lobby. “And I’ve made a lot of stuff.”

Added assistant executive chef Adam Tharpe: “Only in Pittsburgh would there be so much excitement over pierogies.”

The project was presented to them a little more than a year ago by Shenandoah, Pa.-based Mrs. T’s Pierogies, which six years ago founded National Pierogi Day through Chase’s Calendar of Events.

The chefs started rolling out the 42-pound ball of dough at about 5 a.m. Wednesday. Shaping it by hand to fit the specialty vessel, they then filled the giant disk with 82 pounds of cheddar cheese-flavored mashed potatoes. Then they flopped the dough over on itself to create a half-moon dumpling. After rolling and crimping the edges by hand, the pierogi was lowered into a kettle of hot water.

Pierogies typically are boiled until they float, “but we kept it to a simmer because we weren’t sure if it would blow apart at a hard boil,” said Mr. Marmion. Then it was into the oven for 90 minutes. By 8:35 a.m., it was ready to be weighed.

Perfecting a pierogi dough that was both strong and pliable but still nice to roll out took some doing, said Mr. Tharpe. The winning recipe includes more than 25 pounds of flour, 1 gallon of water, 16 eggs, 3 cups of oil and 2 1/2 pounds of sour cream.

Much as they would have loved to fry the boiled pierogi as per tradition, doing so would have proven too dangerous, said Mr. Marmion.

This is where things got complicated. Minutes after images of the giant, golden-brown dumpling hit social media, PGH Pierogi Truck took to Twitter with a formal protest. “We have fundamental problems with this ‘pierogi,’ ” read the tweet. “Because it isn’t one. It’s pagach,” a traditional Lenten dish that truck owner Lynn Szarnicki describes as a “pierogi calzone.”

n National Pierogi Day, chefs at the Rivers Casino carry their giant pierogi from the oven for weighing. It weighed in at 123 pounds, a Guinness record. Photo by Bob Donaldson/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Except . . . it isn’t. Pagach (pronounced puh-GHACH) — dough-wrapped bundles of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut or shredded sweet cabbage — always are made with a yeast dough, notes Helen Mannarino of Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks. Pierogi dough has flour, eggs, water and salt.

“Personally, I wouldn’t do it” — bake them — said Ms. Mannarino, who emigrated from Poland in 1974 and has been making (and boiling) pierogies for 50 years. “But there are many different ways to prepare pierogies. Each country has its own recipe.”

Pumpkin: One of fall’s favorite flavors

Pumpkin cheesecake/Gretchen McKay photo

My beloved pumpkin has been getting a bad rap lately.

More than a few of my fellow food-lovers have been calling it out on Twitter, bemoaning what they consider the over-exposure and over-commercialization of one of fall’s favorite fruits.

“You know what’s great about drinking green tea?” a friend recently tweeted. “No one has tried to make it pumpkin-flavored yet.”

So she might have a point. Pumpkin spice no longer is relegated to ales, Starbucks lattes or that (really delicious) cream cheese spread at Bruegger’s that I love to pair with a pumpkin bagel. It’s practically everywhere, even where it might not logically belong.

Pumpkin-spice Oreos are now A Thing. So is Quaker Oats Pumpkin Spice Instant Oatmeal, Chobani Pumpkin Spice Greek Yogurt and Nestle Toll House Pumpkin Spice Morsels. From Wrigley’s — a name we associate with spearmint, peppermint and Juicy Fruit — we get a seasonal pumpkin-spice variety of Extra gum.

Heck, there’s even a pumpkin-spice-flavored dog treat from Twistex.

“Pumpkins used to signal the start of fall. The harvest. Thanksgiving. Half-zip mock turtlenecks,”  Mike Foss recently lamended in USA Today. “Now pumpkins announce the arrival of corporate America over-saturating the market.”

So true. But still, as much as I agree it’s time to stop the madness, I also just can’t get enough.

While I’ll pass on a slice of pumpkin pie every time during the holidays (I can’t stand the texture), anything and everything else into which I can stir a little Libby’s pure pumpkin is a winning dish in my book. Puree adds body to sauces and gives baked goods added moistness.

“When you begin to think of pumpkin as both a flavor and a softening and moistening superstar, your baking world will open up wide,” writes Averie Sunshine in the new “Cooking with Pumpkin: Recipes That Go Beyond the Pie” (Countryman, 2014, $16.95). And she’s not just talking traditional cakes and cookies, of which she shares many recipes. The cookbook entices with pumpkin brownies, doughnuts, dinner rolls and shortbread, too.

Understanding we’re all pressed for time, she presents each recipe in a way that maximizes success with the least amount of time and energy spent as possible, and that results in modest quantities.  (Do you really want four dozen cookies tempting you after work? I know I don’t.) “I want you to make these recipes, not just talk about making them,” she writes.

Pure pumpkin, it should be noted, is pretty good for you.  Low in cholesterol, calories andsaturated fat, it’s a great source of dietary fiber, and completely knocks it out of the park when it comes to vitamin A, key for good vision and a healthy immune system — one serving provides more than 200 percent of  daily requirements.

Got a little more time for slicing and dicing? The silky, delicate flavor of fresh pumpkin is even better, if tackling its thick skin with a paring knife takes a bit of courage. Cubed pumpkin is terrific in soups and stews (I recently added it to a pot roast), and also makes a great filling forravioli and empanadas. Cut a hollow in the center, it also can be stuffed.

Perhaps you’d rather focus your culinary skills on that aromatic mixture of cinnamon, ginger,allspice, cloves, nutmeg and mace that makes the house smell so good at Thanksgiving. Holisitic nutritionist Stephanie Pedersen has come up with a collection of recipes that bring these warming spices together. The autumnal delights in the new “The Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookbook” (Sterling, Sept. 2014, $12.95) include everything from pumpkin crostini and spicy pumpkin waffles to savory dishes such as slow cooker pulled pork, pumpkin sloppy Joes and Afghani-style sweet stew.

“While wonderful on their own, it’s when you bring these spices together that true magic happens,” she writes. “Combined, these ingredients create a symphony of flavor and aroma so powerful, so deeply comforting, that the world smells like a special occasion.”

Amen, sister!

There’s nothing like the flavor of pumpkin or pumpkin spice to bring warmth to a crisp, fall day.

Pumpkin Syrup

Pumpkin syrup/Gretchen McKay

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One of fall’s quintessential drinks is a pumpkin-spice latte. But why put money in Starbucks pocket when you can flavor your coffee at home so easily? And with no artificial ingredients?

This simple, spicy pumpkin syrup comes together in minutes and keeps in the fridge for up to a month. If you don’t like floaters in your coffee, you’ll probably want to strain the syrup through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove the undissolved spices before transferring to a jar. But even unfiltered, it’s delicious.

They syrup also can be drizzled over ice cream, pancakes, waffles, cake … anything you’d like to punch up with a little pumpkin flavor. It also can be stirred into hot chocolate, milk or smoothies. Yum. 

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

2 tablespoons pumpkin puree

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin-pie spice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until sugar is dissolved. Add pumpkin and spices and whisk to incorporate.

Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently so mixture does not come to a boil. Mixture will thicken and reduce in volume. Turn off heat and allow syrup to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes before transferring to a glass jar or heat-safe container with a lid.

Syrup will keep airtight in the fridge for at least 1 month.

Makes about 1½ cups.

— “Cooking with Pumpkin: Recipes That Go Beyond Pie” by Averie Sunshine (Countryman, Oct. 2014, $16.95)

Spicy Pumpkin Waffles

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1½ cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice

1 pinch salt

2 large eggs

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 3/4 cups dairy or coconut milk

4 tablespoons butter or coconut oil, melted and cooled

Optional toppings: Sauteed apples, cranberry sauce, jam, honey, maple syrup or powdered sugar

Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt in a large bowl.

In a second bowl, add eggs, sugar, pumpkin, milk and butter. Beat well.

Gently fold in the flour mixture. Cook according to your waffle iron directions.

Serve hot, with your choice of topping ingredients.

Makes about 8 waffles.

— “The Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookbook” by Stephanie Pedersen (Sterling, Sept. 2014, $12.95)

Soft Buttery Pumpkin Pretzels

Pumpkin pretzels/Gretchen McKay

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This easy-to-make yeast dough also is extremely easy to work with, so don’t go telling me you can’t replicate Aunt Annie’s pretzels at home! Canned pumpkin gives the soft knots a pale orange color. I sprinkled them with salt but cinnamon sugar would be delicious, too. If you want to get really fancy, drizzle a little icing on top. Perfect for breakfast. 

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/4-ounce packet instant dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1 egg

1/2 cup pumpkin puree

2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, or melted butter

1 teaspoon salt

2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface

1/4 cup melted butter for brushing, divided

Kosher or sea salt for sprinkling

Heat milk to lukewarm. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine warm milk and sugar and sprinkle the yeast over it. Allow it to proof, getting bubbly and foamy, about 5 minutes.

Add the egg, pumpkin, oil and salt and mix briefly with the paddle attachment on low speed to combine, about 1 minute.

Add 2 1/2 cups flour and switch to dough hook when dough comes together and can be kneaded (or knead by hand). Knead for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. This is not a sticky dough and should be smooth.

Turn dough out into a large mixing bowl coated with cooking spray, turning dough over once togrease the top.

Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Prepare 2 baking sheets by lining them with nonstick baking mats or spraying with cooking spray; set aside. Punch dough down. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 6 equally sized portions. (If you are making the dough ahead, wrap dough balls in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 48 hours.) For smaller pretzels, divide dough into 12 equally sized portions.

With your hands, roll each portion of dough into a long, thin rope, 24 to 28 inches long, and twist each rope into a pretzel. (Envision making a heart, with a twist in the middle,) Place 3 pretzels on each of the 2 prepared baking sheets. Cover with plastic wrap and allow pretzels to rise in a warm, draft-free place until nearly doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Before baking pretzels, brush with melted butter; reserve remainder.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they’re golden, puffed and done.  For firmer pretzels, allow to bake a little longer.

After baking, immediately brush pretzels with reserved melted butter and sprinkle with kosher salt. For a sweeter pretzel, dredge the buttered pretzels in a cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Serve immediately, either as is or with mustard, horseradish, cream cheese or hummus. Pretzels are best warm and fresh, but will keep airtight for up to 48 hours.

Makes 6 large or 12 small pretzels.

 — “Cooking with Pumpkin: Recipes That Go Beyond Pie” by Averie Sunshine (Countryman, Oct. 2014, $16.95)

Curried Pumpkin Pastelitos

Pumpkin pastelitos/Gretchen McKay

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You might not associate the Caribbean with pumpkin, but these Jamaican pastries — made with chunks of fresh pumpkin instead of canned puree — are so good. The butter crust, which is easy to make and forgiving under nervous fingers such as mine, practically melts in your mouth. 

The original recipe calls for calabaza, a pumpkin-like squash that’s popular in the Caribbean and South and Central America. I couldn’t find one (you may at a Latin market) so I subbed a pie pumpkin. 

For pastry

1 pound all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 pound cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 cup ice-cold water

1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water

For filling

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup finely chopped onions

1/4 cup finely chopped scallions

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon peeled, minced fresh ginger

1/2 Scotch bonnet, seeded and minced (I used a red jalapeno)

1 tablespoon curry powder or ground turmeric

2 cups cubed pumpkin, preferably calabaza

1 handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1/2 cup coconut milk

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make pastry: Stir together flour and salt into a large bowl. With your hands, gently rub butter into the flour mixture until it achieves a sandy texture. Add water all at once and mix just until flour is incorporated and dough forms a mass. Warp dough in plastic and chill in refrigerator overnight. Remove 1 hour before use to let dough come to room temperature.

Prepare filling: Warm oil in large saute pan over medium heat. Saute onions, scallion, garlic and ginger. When onions are wilted, stir in hot pepper and curry powder and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until aromatic.

Add cubed pumpkin and cilantro. Quickly toss with onions mixture, then pour in coconut milk, and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. (It took my pumpkin about 10 minutes to become tender enough to smash.)  Season with salt and pepper. Smash pumpkin mixture with a potato masher and let cool before filling the patties.

Make patties: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Divide dough into 4 portions. Roll out each portion 1/8-inch thick and cut into 4-inch circles, creating as little waste as possible. Leftover dough may be tightly wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to 2 weeks.

Fill each circle of pasty with about 1 tablespoon filling, then fold pastry in half and crimp edges with a fork to seal. Score top of each pastry and brush with egg wash. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until tops are golden brown.

Makes 18 to 20 patties.

— “Caribbean Potluck: Modern Recipes from Our Family Kitchen ” by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau (Kyle, June 2014, $24.95)

Pumpkin Soup with Crispy Brussels Sprout Leaves

Pumpkin Soup with Crispy Brussels Sprouts

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Vegans, unite. This soup recipe just might make believers out of us meat eaters.

Coconut milk imparts the broth with a silky smoothness while cayenne adds just the right amount of heat.  Roasted Brussels sprout leaves give my favorite soup topping — potato chips — a run for the money. Plus, they add vitamins. 

I kicked the soup’s flavor up a notch with double the amount of cayenne.

For soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 apple, unpeeled, cored and sliced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 teaspoons sea salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

3 cups vegetable broth

15-ounce can pumpkin puree

3/4 cup canned coconut milk

2 tablespoons brown sugar

For crispy leaves

4 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and leaves separated

1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For soup: In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat and saute onion and apple until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Add garlic, salt and cayenne and let cook for 1 minute more, until fragrant. Add broth and pumpkin, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and in batches, transfer soup to ablender and puree until smooth. Return to pot, stir in coconut milk and brown sugar, reheat and season to taste.

For crispy leaves: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread Brussels sprout leaves on a large rimmed baking sheet and toss with oil. Season with salt and pepper and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned and crisp.

To serve: Divide soup into bowls and top with a spoonful of crispy Brussels sprout leaves.

Serves 4.

— “Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen: 150 Pizzas, Pastas, Pestos, Risottos & Lots of Creamy Italian Classics” by Chloe Coscarelli (Atria, Sept. 2014, $19.99)

Gingersnap-Pumpkin Cheesecake/Gretchen McKay

Gingersnap-Pumpkin Cheesecake

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My daughter Catherine is continually asking me to make her cheesecake. Too bad she’s now off to college, because this super-rich recipe from country star Martina McBride is a winner. I think it’s because of the 3-ingredient crust, which swaps gingersnap cookies for traditional graham crackers. The flavors of spicy ginger and pumpkin marry beautifully. 

If you don’t have all the ground spices on hand, substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice. I ended up eating my Heath bar long before the cheesecake finished chilling in the fridge, so sprinkled crumbled gingersnaps on top.

Perfect for National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day on Oct. 21!

For crust

2 cups crushed gingersnap cookies, plus extra for garnish

1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar

6 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

For filling

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 large eggs

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Crushed toffee bar, such as Heath, optional

Prepare a 9-inch springform pan by tracing it onto a sheet of parchment paper. Lightly grease bottom of pan. Cut out round of parchment and place it in the greased pan and then lightly grease the paper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place crushed gingersnaps and brown sugar in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add melted butter and process until thoroughly combined. Press the mixture into the bottom and up sides of the springform pan. Chill for 10 to 20 minutes.

Beat the cream cheese and granulated sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg and mix until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing just until yolk disappears. Add cream, vanilla and pumpkin puree, mixing to just combine.

Remove crust from the refrigerator. Pour cheesecake batter into prepared crust. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until center is almost set. Run a sharp knife around the edge of cheesecake to help prevent it from cracking as it cools. Let cheesecake cool at least 30 minutes. Cover and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

To serve, remove cheesecake from pan and transfer it to a serving plate. Slice into 10 to 12 wedges and top each with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of crushed gingersnaps or finely crushed Heath toffee bar.

Serves 10 to 12.

— “Around the Table: Recipes and Inspiration for Gatherings Throughout the Year” by Martina McBride (William Morrow, Oct. 2014, $29.99)


The pressing business of hard cider

Bob Antanitis first started making hard cider in his basement 30 years ago. In 2006, he bought a commercial press and opened Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery and Ciderworks in Benton, Pa./Gretchen McKay photo

BENTON, Pa. —  Come September, when apples hang ripe and heavy on the tree in this tiny, rural corner of Columbia County, Bob Antanitis stands ready. No doubt there’s a giant smile spread across his mustachioed face. Time to make cider!

Not the sweet and cloudy, kid-friendly variety sold at farm markets and roadside stands, mind you. (Though who can say “No” to that classic taste of autumn?) We’re talking the good stuff from Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery, the small cidery he started four years ago.

In 2007, on what he cheerfully admits was a whim, the Luzerne County native purchased a commercial cider press at auction. Friends and family loved the cider he’d jugged in the past, and with this hydraulic system, he figured he could make a ton of it. He even had a ready place to put it: a three-sided building his father-in-law, Miles, had used as a wood-drying kiln for his lumber biz, the Little Lumber Co.

As he played around with the press and different apple combinations over the next two years, however, the seed of an idea grew in his head. He really could fill a lot of barrels with the press, a big green monster of a machine capable, at full throttle, of turning 40 bushes of apples into about 130 gallons of cider. Why not ferment and bottle it, and then try to sell it?

Locals have been pressing, fermenting and aging small batches of traditional hard cider for generations in this northeastern part of the state. Mr. Antanitis himself started making hard cider in his basement as a hobby some 30 years ago, after he married his wife, Debbie, and moved from Trucksville to Benton.

Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider is aged for up to a year in 55-gallon Jack Daniel’s barrels/Gretchen McKay photo

“That was my introduction to moving there,” he says with a chuckle, describing how his father-in-law led the way. “It was one of the things guys would do — make it, put it in jugs and give it away to friends.”  At one time, he had two barrels in his cellar.

Mr. Antanitis knew, then, there was a taste for the alcoholic drink, and not just in and around Columbia County. Thanks to America’s growing love affair with craft beers and cocktails, hard cider is experiencing something of a renaissance across the U.S.

According to The Beer Institute, American hard-cider production has more than tripled in the past two years, exploding from 9.4 million gallons in 2011 to 32 million in 2013. And a 2012 Neilson Report says that hard cider is “poised for great growth” because it appeals to more affluent, nontraditional beer drinkers —  women, who prefer its sweeter taste, and Gen Y-ers, who have gravitated toward wine, spirits and craft beer.

“Innovative cider offerings keep the millennials engaged,” notes the report.

Blessed with a head for business — he ran two lumber yards over 23 years for his father-in-law before the business closed in 2000 — Mr. Antanitis realized cider’s potential.

“I was thinking there was no reason we couldn’t sell it,” he says. “I liked it, and my friends liked it. In fact, I thought it was interesting no one had ever tried to bottle and sell it.”

When it came to naming the cider he’d eventually start selling at the big white Green Acres Barn at the north end of town, at the corner of Route 487 and Green Acres Road, one local name immediately came to mind. Native son Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts was a Civil War veteran-turned-lumber baron/land speculator who’d won honors for his valor on Cemetery Hill on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  After his death in 1918, many of his 66,000 accumulated acres were sold to the Pennsylvania State Game Lands, and that became the nucleus for Ricketts Glen State Park. Opened in 1944, it’s one of the state’s 20 “must-see” parks, thanks to the trails Col. Ricketts built along its 24 named waterfalls.

Says Mr. Antanitis, “Everyone knows it.”  Why not capitalize on that famous name?

A throwback drink

Hard cider has a long, if sometimes forgotten, history in the U.S.

Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider tasting room is located in an 80-year-old bank barn in Benton, Pa.

Apple trees for cider production were among the first fruits planted by British colonists upon arrival in the New England. Public sources of water were not fit to drink from back in merry-but-unsanitary old England, notes Dave Williams of George Mason University, so the colonists initially distrusted the streams and rivers in the new world, too. Cider sanitized dirty water.

Plus, it tasted good. More stable on pantry shelves than fresh-pressed juices and cheaper to make than beer or whiskey, hard cider quickly became the alcoholic drink of choice.

By the 1670s, Mr. Williams writes, orchards in New England were producing up to 500 hogsheads (a barrel containing up to 63 gallons) of cider annually in some communities. “From the early 18th century to 1825 even children drank hard cider with breakfast and dinner.”

A few famous people loved it, too. Our second president, John Adams, reportedly drank hard cider regularly at breakfast to “soothe his stomach.“ And during his “log cabin campaign” for president in 1840, William Henry Harrison promoted himself as the  “hard cider candidate” from the rough-and-tumble West. He lost, but the point was made: Cider was the drink of the common man.

Tastes changed as the country grew more urbanized and industrialized. A rise in the number of German immigrants brewing beer in the late 1800s took a hard toll on hard cider, which typically was produced on site near the orchards or in towns surrounded by apple trees. By the time Prohibition rolled around in the 1920s, the once-popular drink had all but disappeared.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s, on the smoking hot heels of the craft-beer revolution, that hard cider started making a comeback. The more people tasted it, the more they wanted it. Along with Vermont’s top-selling Woodchuck — purchased by C&C Group of Dublin for $305 million in 2012 — some of the biggest names in the brewing business now offer the drink, includingAnheuser-Busch (Johnny Appleseed), Boston Beer Company (Angry Orchard) and Miller-Coors (Crispin and the brand-new Smith & Forge).

“It’s sort of a darling right now,” says Mr. Antanitis. “Big alcohol producers want to see what they can do that’s a little different.”

While making cider is fun, all the red tape involved in getting the business up and running was not. Before he could sell his first bottle, Mr. Antanitis needed a winery permit, a process that took more than six months. He also had to jump through hoops with the label, which features a picture of the distinguished colonel late in life, with white hair and mustache.

The first ones simply read “Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider.” Problem was, the government defines “hard cider” as a subset of wine containing less than 7 percent alcohol by volume —  and his product ranges from 9.3 to 15 percent alcohol by volume. So they were rejected.

The solution?

“We had to add two words,” he says. “Table wine.”

The process of cider-making is fairly simple: After sorting, washing and chopping the apples, they’re ground into pommage, then pressed in a rack of trays seven layers deep for 15 minutes. As the juice flows out of the trays, it drains to a reservoir, where it’s pumped to a stainless-steel storage tank. It’s then filtered, fermented and aged for up to a year in 55-gallon oak barrels. Before the finished cider is bottled, it’s filtered three more times.

What sets Colonel Ricketts’ product apart from the competition, says Mr. Antanitis, is the fact it’s aged in Jack Daniels’ barrels. Charred on the inside, the whiskey-infused wood imparts a unique flavor into the cider.

First, you smell the barrel. Then, you taste it.  Each sip finishes with a “Jack aftertaste,” he says.

Also, it’s not carbonized like the Woodchucks and Angry Orchards of the world, he added. Because his is a “true” hard cider, it’s also not pasteurized.

At a time when simple, locally sourced food is the rage, Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider is about as simple a product as you can get. All the apples comes from local orchards — spicy McIntosh, tart Stayman and Red and Golden Delicious are common varieties — and the only other ingredients are sugar, yeast and salicylic acid, which prevents sediment from forming.

Also, nothing goes to waste. The cake-like remains of the ground-up apples (each layer of pommage weighs about 2 1/2 pounds after pressing) is given to local farms to feed pigs.

Each year brings new flavors, depending on the available apple varieties and growing conditions. Best-sellers typically include Colonel Ricketts’ semi-dry “Original” cider, made with a blend of five apples, and Fuji Fantastic, a semi-sweet cider with a tart finish. The 750-milliliter bottles are priced from $10.50 to $18.

Not sure what you like? From Memorial Day through the first weekend in November, you can get a free sampling of five varieties at the cidery’s tasting roof in Green Acres Barn, which in summer also hosts the Benton Farmers Market. Purchased in 1960 to store lumber and other products, it’s about as charming a place to enjoy a drink as you’ll ever find. All kinds of farm tools, antique vehicles and other found art are displayed under its lofty roof, along with local honey for sale and quirky tin sculptures by local artist Rich Dumond. The rest of the year you can sample and buy at the winery a few blocks away on Third Street (they’ve had visitors from as far away as Russia and Switzerland), or at a second location in Lewisburg manned by Mr. Antanitis’ son, Robert, who liked making cider with his father so much that he got his own winery permit.

Neither is making a living off it quite yet, but sales are brisk enough that there’s hope, along with some money in the checking account, Mr. Antanitis says with a laugh.

“It’s a labor of love,” he says, “and fun.”

Metal sculptures by local artist Rich Dumond greet visitors at the Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider tasting room/Gretchen McKay photo

Colonel Ricketts Ciderworks and Hard Cider Winery is located at 126 S. Third Street in Benton, 15 miles north of Bloomsburg and 8 miles south of Ricketts Glen State Park. From April through the first weekend of November, you can buy and sample the cider in the big white barn at the corner of Route 487 and Green Acres Road (Benton Farmers Market); the rest of the year you can buy and sample at the winery.

Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Fri., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat., and noon to 4 p.m. Sun. For more info: 1-570–854–1948 and col­o­nel­rick­ettshard­cider­win­ery.com.


Autumn shows its colors at Ricketts Glen State Park

The main attraction in Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern Pennsylvania is hiking the Falls Trail, a 7.2-mile loop that follows along most the park’s 22 beautiful waterfalls. The park’s crown jewel is the “wedding cake” Ganoga Falls, which descends 94 feet in a series of small steps. Photo: Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau

BENTON, Pa. — Fresh air and blue skies are easy tonics for the stressed-out city life.  Still,  I was in a pretty foul mood when I rolled into Ricketts Glen State Park in this scenic, woodsy corner of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Equally distracted by my growling stomach and the country tunes wailing on my car radio, I’d missed the rustic carved-wood entrance sign opposite Red Rock Scoops ice cream shop on Route 118. Google Maps had vaporized along with my cell phone service and, seriously, who still keeps paper maps in the glove box?

Even after a kindly park ranger provided step-by-step directions to the Lake Rose Trailhead Parking lot, the best place from which to start a hike to the park’s famed Ganoga Falls, I’d managed to get turned around in the wrong direction. (I later learned there’s a really cool interactive map on the DCNR website that could have come to my rescue.) A couple of times. But finally, I found it. The road leading to Waterfall Heaven.

Three and a half miles north on PA Route 118 after it intersects with Route 487 (look for the Red Rock Corner Store), up a VERY steep mountain, Main Park Road snakes off to the right. Five minutes later, I was backing into a space at the crowded Lake Rose lot. Or so I thought: I’d actually pulled into Beach Lot #2, where boaters, swimmers and anglers go when planning a day on the park’s 245-acre Lake Jean. This actually turned out OK for two reasons: The concession stand had $3.25 cheeseburgers, and a friendly couple from upstate New York I met in the parking lot had great words of advice, along with directions to where I wanted to go.

Don’t forget a water bottle, they cautioned, as there’s no refreshment on the trail. And go for the 3.2-mile upper loop of the Falls Trail instead of the 7.2-mile full loop, which took the pair almost 3 hours to complete. You’ll still see most of the good stuff, including the majestic 94-foot Ganoga Falls, in a picturesque glen among  towering pines, hemlocks and oaks, but with half the effort — a physical exertion, they assured me with damp brows and quivering legs, that’s quite substantial when you hike the entire, rocky distance.

After hiking it, I would recommend ditching the flip-flops and sneakers for sturdier shoes or hiking boots and resist the urge to take short cuts or venture out on ledges. Some of the terrain is pretty treacherous.

Adventurous hikers have been sweating their way throughold-growth timber to Ganoga Falls for decades, even before the park and its many recreational facilities open for business in 1944. Discovered in the 1860s by fishermen exploringKitchen Creek in neighboring Luzerne County, they date to the last ice age, when increased flow in the Huntington Laketributary from glaciers enlarged its drainage basin and cut deep gorges.

It wasn’t until Col. Robert Bruce Ricketts named and built a system of trails connecting the series of 22 waterfalls in the early 1890s, however, that they became one of Pennsylvania’s treasures — and the ideal setting in which to enjoy the fall colors.

Ricketts Glen State Park’s Falls Trail is a 3.2 mile loop that showcases most of the park’s 22 named falls/Gretchen McKay

Ricketts Glen State Park — which covers more than 13,000 acres over Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties — is gorgeous any time of year. But it’s particularly fetching in autumn, when its many black tupelo (gum), dogwood and oaktrees — some more than 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter — turn glorious shades of brick-red, maroon and  brilliant scarlet. This year has provided a very favorable growing season so trees across Penn’s Woods are healthy and vigorous, assuring a very colorful autumn; colors in and around Columbia County are expected to peak between Oct. 8-14. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.leafpeepers.com/pa.htm or call the visitPA hotline at 1-800-847-4872.)

The park also has a nice sense of history.

A Civil War veteran who distinguished himself at the Battle of Gettysburg, Col. Ricketts grew up in nearby Orangeville, a tiny hamlet nearby that today is famous for its twin covered bridges. Built in 1884, the picturesque East and West Paden bridges are one of the only two remaining twin covered bridges in the country.

After the war (where he led the defense against a Confederate attack on Cemetery Hill on July 2,1863), Col. Ricketts starting buying timber land in Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties, eventually acquiring more than 88,000 acres. Much of it surrounded Ganoga Lake, Lake Jean and what would eventually become known as the Ganoga Glen area.

A member of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, Col. Ricketts named many of the falls after the Indian tribes that at one time lived in the area: Delaware, Seneca, Tuscarora, Huron. Others wear the names of family members or friends. Ganoga Falls, which cascades 94 feet onto the rocks below, is the highest and most spectacular. It means “water on the mountain” in the Seneca language.

Hiking the falls trail at Ricketts Glen State Park in Benton, Pa., involves climbing up (and down) hundreds of stone steps/Gretchen McKay

After his death, Col. Ricketts’ heirs sold much of the land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But not all: It wasn’t until 1942 that they finally sold 1,261 acres, the Falls and the Glens area to the state for use as a state park. The Glens became a registered National Natural Landmark in 1969, and in 1993 was slated a State Park Natural Area.

Most of the glen’s 22 waterfalls, scattered along 26 miles of trail marked by zig-zaggy switchbacks and dramatic drop-offs, are visible from the Falls Trail. In all, there are 11 individual well-marked trails that range from less than a mile to more than seven, with varying difficulty for hikers.

The trails can be deceptive. A quarter of a mile into the Falls Trail, with the very soft, fairly level terrain cushioning my Mizunos, I was marveling at how great the path would be for a trail run. Then I started down the hill toward the first of the seven falls I’d eventually encounter on my hike, Mohawk Falls, and all bets were off. I was praying I wouldn’t slip on the velvety greenmoss or twist an ankle on the narrow stone steps that at times seem awfully close to the edge of trail.

But the hike is worth it. Photos taken with iPhones don’t do justice to the sheer awesomeness of Ganoga Falls and its thunderous cascade of water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier sight in a state park, Niagara Falls excluded.

As sketchy as it was going down, it was tougher still climbing back up. Most of the hikers I passed on my descent — many with walking sticks — didn’t look all that happy. Their expressions read “I’m gonna finish this” instead of “Having a great time!”

I’m kidding, of course. Hiking the trail is a great time and you don’t have to be in particularly great shape to do it. Along with kids (some on their parents’ backs), seniors were well represented. From the Lake Rose Trailhead lot, it took me about 30 minutes to hike down and maybe 10 minutes longer to climb back up. And no trips to the ER.

Even if you miss the fall colors, this park is a gem.  Besides hiking, the park offers swimming (May to September) camping, boating, fishing, birding, hunting and riding trails (BYO horse). In winter, there’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing on Lake Jean, snowmobiling andice climbing up the falls.

The East and West Paden covered bridges in Forks, Columbia County, are one of only two remaining twin covered bridges in the country. They were built in 1850 using the Burr Arch design/Gretchen McKay

And when the park closes for the evening, or you’re simply tired of hoofing it? There’s plenty of other ways to spend a few happy hours in the area. Antiquing, wine tasting, eating good food — it’s all part of the package. Columbia County also is known for its many covered bridges.

Getting there: Ricketts Glen State Park is in Benton,Columbia County, in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. From Pittsburgh, the 250-mile drive takes about 4 hours via State College and Bloomsburg. Park hours are sunrise to sunset, year-round. Free parking and hiking maps are available throughout.

Lodging: Hiking and camping go hand in hand, so the park is happy to oblige with 120 tent and trailer campsites, with access to hot showers and flush toilets; there also are 10 cabins for rent available year-round. Prices start at $19 for a tent site that can accommodate up to a 30-foot trailer; cabins cost $118 for a 2-night minimum (7-day minimum during the peak summer season) and feature electric heat, water, flush toilets, showers and small kitchens (www.pa.reserveworld.com; 1-888-727-2757).

If your idea of a good night’s sleep instead includes mattresses, linens and indoor plumbing, there are almost two dozen motels and hotels to choose from within a half-hour drive of the park, including the Econo Lodge and Holiday Inn Express at Bloomsburg. From $80/night. Ricketts Glen Hotel (rickettsglenhotel.net), one mile west of the park on Route 118, has rooms starting at $49.95 (single with shared bath) and $61.05 (double with shared bath).

For bed-and-breakfast types, there are a dozen within easy driving distance of the park, including the stellar Inn at Turkey Hill in Bloomsburg (innatturkeyhill.com; 1-570-387-1500). The most luxurious rooms include two-person whirlpool baths, and all come with a gourmetbreakfast ($128 and up.) There’s also fine dining on site and the Turkey Hill Brewing Co. pub next door. If you enjoy rural settings, the uber-romantic Pump House B&B outside of Bloomsburg will delight with its lovely creek-side rooms outfitted with antiques, tin ceilings and exquisite spot-on renovation merited a feature on “This Old House.” $125 and up.

Eat, drink and be merry: There aren’t scores of restaurants to choose from in and around Ricketts Glen State Park, but it’s still possible to get a good meal. The Ricketts Glen Hoteloffers upscale American and Italian specialties at reasonable prices. The Old Filling Stationin Benton (140 Main St., 1-570-925-6556) also comes highly recommended by locals, as does the Texas-style barbecue at Smoke House Barb-B-Que (225 Center St., 1-570-925-6962).Strevig’s Family Restaurant (4438 Red Rock Road, 1-570-925-0330) has traditional American fare. I had surprisingly good spring rolls and spicy Pa-Nang Mango with Prawns atBloomn’ Thai, a private dining club in Bloomsburg (442 East St.; a lifetime membership costs $1). Ready Go Burrito (102 E. Main St.) has wraps and burgers in addition to awesome (and cheap) tacos and quesadillas.

Activities: In addition to 26 miles of hiking trails that vary in difficulty from very easy (Evergreen Trail) to difficult (Falls Trail), the park offers fishing and boating on 245-acre Lake Jean. Other ways to spend the day include antiquing, shopping for seasonal goodies at local farm stands and tastings at several wineries, including Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery in Benton. Columbia County also is famous for its 25 covered bridges. The 33rd annual Covered Bridge Festival runs Oct. 2-5 and includes more than 350 craft vendors, food, live entertainment, rides and a quilt raffle. Free admission. During the festival, a guided bus tour of various bridges costs $15. The annual Bloomsburg Fair (bloomsburgfair.com; 570-784-4949), one of the largest ag fairs east of the Mississippi, draws hundreds of thousands of people each year for headline entertainment, food, rides, crafts, horse racing and agricultural exhibits. This year’s 159th fair runs Sept. 20-27; $8 admission.

Park information: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks or 1-570-477-5675

Columbia County information: www.itourcolumbiamontour.com or 1-570-784-8279.