The world over, Spring is a magically time. A time of rebirth and renewal, a time for us to shake off the Winter blues and to look forward to the warm days ahead. For chefs and foodies it is an even more magical time. The first delicate vegetables of the season, such as peas, asparagus, fava beans, and spinach start to show in the local markets, and we get excited as thoughts of the local bounty that will soon be plentiful again. In the northern US, most of the spring crops don’t come to market until, at least, late April or early May, unless they have been grown in hot houses or hoop houses, so why then do I view early Spring as one of the most magical times? The answer is simple – maple syrup.
I grew up in Vermont, one of the world’s largest producers of maple syrup (Quebec, Canada is the #1), and in Vermont, March meant Mud season and Sugaring season. March, in the north, can be a nasty month with its mixture of snow, rain, sun and clouds. It can rain one day and following day you might find yourself stranded in a blinding blizzard. The snow begins to melt, after 4 long months, leaving behind brown yards and mud everywhere, but there is an upside to this weather. March weather is perfect for sugaring (the making of maple syrup).
The sap used to make maple syrup runs the best, and tastes the best, when nighttimes fall below freezing and daytime temperatures rise above freezing and into the low 40’s, conditions most often found in March, though it can happen as early as Febuary or as late as April. While sap will continue to follow once the weather warms above these conditions, the warm weather also causes a change in the sap’s chemical makeup resulting in syrup that often contains off flavors.
There are many trees, including sycamores, birch, and box elders, that produce a sap that can be turned into a tasty syrup, but it is the Sugar Maple that produces the sap with the highest sugar content and makes the best tasting of all the tree syrups. While the Sugar Maple can be found across most of North America, it grows best in the cooler northern reaches of the US and the southern part of Canada, and it is here that most of the world’s maple production takes place.
Native Americans have been collecting maple sap and concentrating it for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Early methods of concentrating the sap included heating the sap by dropping hot stones into pots of sap or by freezing it and removing the top layer of ice, leaving a more concentrated sugar solution underneath, similar to the concept behind making icewine.
The natives taught the American colonists the secrets of making maple syrup and during colonial times maple syrup and maple sugar were the most important source of sugar for the northern colonies, but there was little in the way of innovation during this time. Large holes were drilled into the tree and hand carved, wooden tubes inserted into the holes. Wooden buckets sat on the ground, under the tubes to catch the sap, which in turn was boiled in a large metal kettle over a hot fire, a very inefficient method of boiling off the excess water.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that major improvements were made to the process, the most important of which was the development of the sugaring house and the flat bottomed evaporating pan, set over an enclosed fire.
These 2 advancements cut down the amount of time it took to condense the sap into syrup, saving countless man hours and fuel, a very important consideration when it takes 40-45 gallons of sap to create just 1 gallon of syrup. In time though, the processes for refining sugar out of beets and sugar cane made white granulated sugar cheaper and it replaced maple syrup and maple sugar as the sugar of choice for most people.
But let’s face it, white sugar is boring compared with maple syrup and maple sugar. It just can’t compare with that sweet, thick, golden elixir that we pour over pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and a whole host of other foods. White sugar lacks the complexity of maple sugar and its bold flavor. Maple sugar adds its own essence to food whereas white sugar just sweetens.
While maple syrup lends itself to use all year round, I find it interesting that a food created in Spring should find its home, culinarily, in Autumn. That wonderful maple flavor just seems destined to be matched with winter squashes, baked apples and hearty oatmeal. It compliments roasted root vegetables, and can elevate things like pecan pie to new heights.
There is one use for maple syrup though that is little known outside of Vermont and New England, and it is one of my favorite uses. I am talking about “Sugar on Snow.” Growing up in Vermont, I looked forward to these events every year during the sugaring season. These events, large or small were the highlight of sugaring season. Churches would throw “Sugar on Snow” socials, families would get together and throw small parties, but my favorites were the impromptu “Sugar on Snow” parties held by friends who sugared.
These events are simple affairs. Maple syrup is usually done when its boiling point reaches 219°F, but for a “Sugar on Snow” party a bit of the syrup is allowed to cook until it reaches 250°F. While this is going on, someone gathers up large bucketfuls of fresh, clean snow. When all is ready, little amounts of the syrup are drizzled over the snow, setting almost instantly, it forms a sweet, sticky, almost taffy like candy that is then scooped up with a fork. It doesn’t get any better than that for an 8 year old kid, though these parties thrill young and old alike. In true Vermont fashion, the “sugar on snow” is accompanied by sour pickles and plain, unadorned donuts. This tradition goes back to the beginning of the American colonies and I look forward to sharing this tradition with my own daughter in the years ahead.
These diversions help to ease the long hours required during sugaring season. Even with modern tapping and tubing systems that deliver the sap directly to sugar house, the job is long and arduous. Boiling starts early in the morning and can go late into the night, sometimes even overnight. Since most evaporating pans are still fueled by wood this means that someone needs to constantly watch and feed the fire, while the syrup needs constant tending to make sure it doesn’t overcook. And one doesn’t know how long the season will last. It could last a week or it could last 4-6, it all depends on the weather.
It’s no wonder that, with all the hard work put into making syrup, and the unpredictability of the seasons, real maple syrup costs a premium, upwards of $50-60 a gallon. It’s a price well worth paying, though, when you compare the real thing with that imitation stuff sold in supermarkets across the country. There’s nothing quite like the taste of real maple syrup and maple sugar and the imitation syrup just can’t capture the depth and complexity of the real thing.
So, as you suffer through early Spring, with its unpredictable weather, mud, and colds, remind yourself that something grand comes out of this miserable time of year. And while you’re at it, warm yourself up with a big bowl of steaming oatmeal, drizzled generously with that golden elixir of Spring – Maple Syrup, and enjoy these maple infused recipes.
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup water, cold
1 cup maple syrup
4 eggs, separated
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup hazelnuts
Sprinkle gelatin over the water and set aside to bloom. Meanwhile combine the maple syrup and egg yolk, in a bowl and place in a double boiler, over simmering water. Stirring constantly, heat until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add the gelatin. Stir until dissolved then chill until thickened and the consistency of egg whites, about 20 minutes. When the maple mixture is cool, whip the egg whites to stiff peak, making sure not to over whip them. Then whip the cream to stiff peaks. Stir about 1/3 of the whites into the maple mixture to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining whites. Once the whites are mostly incorporated into the mixture add the whipped cream and continue to gently fold until everything is well combined. Spoon into 8 individual ramekins or cups and chill until set, about 2-3 hours. Garnish with chopped and toasted hazelnuts.
This vinaigrette is fantastic tossed with many different greens and vegetables but I really like it tossed with baby spinach, roasted baby beets, blue cheese and bacon for a wonderful first course salad.
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
¼ cup maple syrup
1 shallot minced
1tsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup vegetable oil
Combine the vinegar, maple syrup, shallot and mustard and mix until well combined. Season with salt and a generous amount of pepper. Slowly whisk in the vegetable oil, a little at a time, to create an emulsified dressing. Adjust seasoning and serve.