Eleventh Crumb: Sweet {Maple} Spring

What do you get when you add warm days + cold nights + New England + some good old fashioned taps? Maple syrup, that’s what. The preferred sweetener of yours truly since I was old enough to eat pancakes. I would drown my silver dollar johnnycakes in the warm, earthy sugar and then use a spoon (and then my tongue) to clean up my plate when the pancakes were too saturated to absorb any more. I wish I could say that I’ve grown out of that phase, but alas. I have not. I still love maple syrup – and do not even ask me about the fake stuff.

I love the history of maple syrup too. It’s so fundamentally and quintessential New England. Like lobster and brown bread, maple syrup is embedded in the culinary culture here—and a fantastic example of terroir. To eat the rich sap of the sugar maple is to know the intense, quiet peace of the woods on a winter day.

Maple syrup is also an American Indian food, making it one of the few native foods that has made it into our current (western-focused) cuisine fairly unadulterated. There are various myths describing the origins of the creation of maple syrup among different tribes across the northern and eastern borders of North America, but they all celebrate maple syrup in some way. Regardless of who discovered the sugaring process, syrup was widely used by many peoples both as a sweetener and as a medicine. (My kind of medicine!) Syrup was also used as currency, given the difficulty making it and the valuable energy it provided. Several tribes (the Ojibwe, the Iroquois, and the Algonquin for example) considered the maple tree holy. Indeed, the first full moon after the sap started running was called the “Sugar” or “Maple” Moon and communities would move to their “sugar camps” for the month – a time of celebration and joy of having made it through another New England winter.

Much like today, the maple trees were tapped, and the sap runoff was collected and then boiled down to get rid of the water leaving behind a thick, amber syrup which could be used as a liquid or further reduced to a more-portable sugar. Unlike today, however, the native people did not have metal pots in which to collect and boil the sap. Instead they slashed a V in the tree bark, and would collect the runoff in a birch vessel underneath. To evaporate the water, they would drop hot stones in the vessels.

It did not take European colonists long to jump into the maple mix, bringing with them metal pots for boiling. Like their native neighbors, the European settlers also traded and bartered with syrup. Some sources suggest that maple sugar products were more common inland, away from the ports where white sugar was brought up from Caribbean plantations. By the mid 1800s, maple sugar was a sought by abolitionists and Quakers eschewing the slave-produced white cane sugar. It was industrialized following the Civil War by dairy farmers looking to supplement their income.

Maple syrup production now looks comfortingly similar to that of yore. The three types of maples that produce sugar sap (Black, Red, and Sugar) are tapped in February as the days start to warm up to over 40 degrees F and buckets or tubular tap lines begin collecting the liquid as it flows up the trees. The runoff is then boiled down to syrup which is rated by color and flavor, both of which are a result of the time of the season the sap was collected.

The sap is only 2% sugar, which means that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. The volume and production time are two of the reasons real maple syrup is so expensive – but also totally worth it. Today, the maple industry in the northeast part of North America is over $1 billion business.

And with good reason – maple has a lot of uses beyond just pancakes. Yet often the recipes I’ve seen are way, way too sweet. Vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes do not need more sugar – they are sweet as it is. And a lot of maple breakfast items and desserts are also overly saccharine as the maple is added to the recipe instead of replacing other sugars. But there are still plenty of ways maple can be used. Here are four ways that I think maple shines:

  • As a substitute for other sweeteners (see my fall pumpkin cupcake recipe.)
  • To balance something bitter (see my pumpkin spice latte recipe.)
  • To compliment something salty (see the maple cream recipe, below!)
  • To mellow something out (see the Real New Englander Cocktail recipe, also below!)

+++

The first days of spring in New England are always full of promise. People pour outdoors to celebrate the sun and the warmth as they have done for hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years. The sun starts setting later, farmers start planning their crops, office workers start planning their vacations, and maple syrup producers tap their trees. This is the time of year for hope, and sap, and it is beautiful. I hope you are enjoying the first hints of spring and the joy of knowing you’ve (almost) made it through another winter

What I’m Reading: The French Chef in America by Alex Prud’homme

What I’m Doing: Writing, research, and private events at Milk Street.

What I’m Eating: The delicious meat from our new meat share.

What I’m Thinking About: Reattempting a gluten free mother starter.

+++

Maple Cream

Adapted from Reclaiming Provincial’s Maple Cream recipe.

Makes about 1 cup.

You will need a thermometer for this.

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¼ cups pure maple syrup
  • ¼ teaspoon cream, half & half, or neutral oil
  • 1 pinch of sea salt

Directions:

  1. Prepare an ice bath with a smaller bowl that can go inside.
  2. Combine the syrup and cream in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Have a thermometer in the syrup mixture but not touching the bottom of the pot. Bring to about 235 degrees.
  3. As soon as the syrup comes to temperature, remove from the heat, poor into the smaller bowl and place that into the ice bath. Leave the thermometer in place.*
  4. Cool to 45 degrees then remove from ice bath and let mixture come to room temperature.
  5. When you’ve reached room temperature, pour the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment. Add pinch of salt and whip on speed 2 until creamy, and losing its shine, about 45 minutes.
  6. Spread on everything, especially things with salt (i.e. pretzels, nut butter, or popcorn.)

*Note: Some recipes call for you to just put the hot pan with the syrup into the ice bath. I would not do this for fear that the pan might warp.

+++

Real New Englander

Makes 1 cocktail.

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz. bourbon (I use New Hampshire’s Smoky Quartz Distillery’s V5 Bourbon, which is made with 100% corn mash, making it GF.)
  • ½ teaspoon real Maine maple syrup (you can really use any state’s maple syrup but I’m sticking with a theme.)
  • 2 drops of citrus bitters (1/2 dropper if you are using homemade, such as my Massachusetts made bitters!)
  • 8 oz. very dry cider (I like Vermont’s Stowe Cider’s High and Dry for this.)
  • Sprig of thyme or dry apple peel (I’ll be extra impressed if you find a garnish from CT or RI.)

Directions:

  1. Add bourbon, maple syrup, and bitters to a Boston shaker and mix.
  2. Pour over ice and top with cider.
  3. Garnish with thyme or apple peel.

 

 

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!