I grew up on the stuff and still have to have it always on hand. It’s the only thing for pancakes, whether my classic four-grain or a mix. It’s my sweetener of choice for hot teff grain for breakfast, pairing perfectly with the tiny grain’s unique nutty flavor. I love it barely swirled into thick Greek yogurt, not mixed in, so the individual textures of the creamy tangy yogurt and gooey sweet syrup retain their character.
Maple is perfect with nuts of all stripes, particularly the rare butternut, I’ve heard. And as in maple walnut ice cream. Maple in my mocha pecan pie.
In Vermont, where I grew up, some folks keep their freezers full of snow year round to satisfy their cravings for sugar-on-snow any time of year. Syrup drizzled on snow makes a tasty taffy that can turn either waxy or more like “crisp golden lace,” according to The Vermont Year Round Cookbook by Louise Andrews Kent (Houghton Mifflin, 1965). Sugar on snow is traditionally served for breakfast with eggs boiled in sap, doughnuts and dill pickles. In the book Kent also offers recipes for maple marron mousse with chestnuts, maple trifle with ladyfingers, almonds and crystallized ginger, and a maple shortcake with walnuts, black walnuts or pecans.
Kent counsels the making of maple toast, with firm homemade bread toasted on one side, buttered on the other side, then sprinkled with maple sugar, broiled, sprinkled with coarsely chopped pecans and finally dolloped with cream. Homemade maple sugar, she says, “will taste of bare maples, like fans of black coral against a blue silk sky, of crunchy crusty snow, of wood smoke, of sap tinkling into buckets, of sun hot on your cheek.”
In Canada, maple has been long venerated far beyond dessert or breakfast, loved in savory preparations as well, that get more imaginative than our standard use in baked beans, squash, yams or glazes for ham or salmon. Julian Armstrong in Au Goût du Québec (Editions du Trécarré, 1992) offers a maple-scented casserole of hare and partridge, pork scallops with maple, chicken breast with maple and herbs, cucumbers marinated in maple syrup and vinegar, and a terrine of perch and zucchini with vinaigrette.
Armstrong doesn’t ignore the sweets, with recipes for a meringue-like maple mousse, maple-apple pudding (two regional versions), spoonfuls of beaten egg simmered in syrup, biscuits with maple syrup, and a pie au suif de maman with raisins, nuts and the fat from beef kidneys.
Modern food magazines and websites offer recipes for dishes like tortes, pound cakes, spice cakes, layer cakes, pies, flans and custards, mousses, bread puddings, breads and cookies all kicked up a notch with the unique flavor of maple.
Beyond all that, in The Laura Secord Canadian Cookbook (McClelland & Stewart, 1966), you’ll find maple dumplings, charlotte, soufflé, butterscotch, fudge, cottage pudding, crème brulée topped with maple sugar, doughnuts, buns, and a Maple Leaf Cocktail of rye, lemon and maple syrup.
Other beverage uses include beers made by early American settlers, who fermented a weak maple syrup, and modern craft brews flavored with maple syrup, and maple liqueurs. For the kiddies is maple syrup in milk; I’m surprised I never tried this growing up in the land of cows and maple. But I love maple syrup to sweeten my Irish Breakfast tea.
Much like oysters and lobsters, the products of the sugar maple didn’t used to be luxuries on this continent, but were far cheaper and more easily obtainable than cane sugar, hence the invention of many dishes that highlighted its deep, smoky flavor. Maples grow on rocky slopes in areas too mountainous to use as pastureland, providing a “crop” in the form of a sap that flows well before the busiest work of farming begins for the season.
There is a theory that the reason sap is sweet is that it’s a natural antifreeze that protects tree cells from frost. And it doesn’t actually rise (as in “the sap rises”) but drips down in the tree’s trunk from above the tap hole, with the help of gravity, into the classic metal bucket or modern plastic tubing to be collected. Optimum conditions for this are cold frosty nights with sunny days in the 40s, an alternating cold/warm grip that affects the pressure inside the trees and stimulates the sap’s flow.
I have many, many maples trees on my third-acre lot and have thought of tapping them, but a tree must be mature, about 40 years old at least, before it’s ready.
Sap is only barely sweet as it comes from the tree and has to boil down in a large evaporator pan until two thirds of its water evaporates. It takes 40 gallons, or four trees’ worth, of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which then has to be filtered to remove impurities.
When I was a kid in Vermont we took a field trip to a local sugar shack on a bitter cold day that felt more like winter than spring. The steam from the boiling sap rose cloudy and sweet-smelling in the wooded air over the shack but inside the shack the air was hot from the vigorous wood fire. We passed around a cup of lukewarm sap to taste, delicately sweet, it’s mildness barely hinting at the heady syrup it would become.
The most refined and palest maple syrup comes from the first run, called grade A. In some places an even fancier grade AA is available. Either way grade A is choice, pricey, and considered the best by some maple syrup connoisseurs but too mild by others. Grade A comes in medium amber and dark amber versions, increasingly more robust. Grade B is the crudest, darkest, and least sweet, used most often for cooking or to flavor inferior syrups, but some prefer its assertive character on their pancakes.
Maple products are many, like the maple sugar that can substitute for bland table sugar and comes granulated, powdered or soft. There’s maple butter, maple cream (a thick pale yellow spread for breakfast breads), and maple sugar candies molded into the shapes of leaves and acorns and little people, delectable for nibbling. Maple cotton candy is an ethereally intense modern confection.
Celebrate the maple locally with demos and taste-ortunities at 1920 Frost Valley Rd., Claryville, on March 20, 21, 27 and 28, or at the Lyonsville Sugar House in Accord on March 21st from 2-3:30 p.m. In Dutchess County there will be more of the same at the at Hummingbird Ranch, Hahn Farm, 1697 Salt Point Turnpike in Salt Point on March 27 and 28. At the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, Maple Weekends are March 20-21 and 27-28.
So put that Aunt Jemima back on the shelf and spring for the real deal, a jar of true maple syrup. Not only does it contain iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and a trace of B vitamins, it’s a natural product: green, local, seasonal, and absolutely scrumptious.++