Syrup Season

Loveliest of trees, the maple now

Is hung with

…buckets along the trunk, actually.

Thus the poetic rhythm of north-country life. No matter how cold it is, spring has arrived. We are in sap season, the alternation of freezing nights and warm, sunny days that brings sugar-laden “sweetwater” up through the dense wood of maple trees to nourish the swelling buds.

You can make syrup from the sap of many different maples – in fact, you can make it from birch – but the sweetest and most delicious comes from sugar maple ( Acer saccharum) and black maple ( A. nigrum), beautiful trees that glow like fire in autumn and, as if sweetness and light weren’t enough, are the “maple” of first class hardwood and figured wood like tiger maple.

These days, alas, sugar maples are also a flock of red-feathered canaries, weakening and dying in droves. Many factors are involved, but acid rain is one of the big ones. And because hard maples are cold climate plants, they’re on the sure victim list when it comes to global warming.

In other words: get it while you can. Buying from a local producer means sweet support for open space – and if you have access to a few trees, consider making your own. Our family did it for years when Celia, my stepdaughter, was small. The ritual was one of her favorites and she was always the first to notice the buckets on roadside trees.

Making maple syrup is ridiculously easy and doesn’t call for any expensive equipment. The most important thing you need – other than access to a few trees – is an outdoor heat source like a campfire to do the boiling down. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, and that means a whole heap of steam, as we discovered the first year we tried it and incidentally stripped the wallpaper in the bedroom above the kitchen.

Every year, the syrup is syrup but every year it’s different. Sometimes smoky, sometimes honeylike , sometimes with a hint of fruit and sometimes a whiff of leather. The taste depends on how long the sap runs, on how much sun the trees got last summer. It depends on which trees gave much and which ones little, on the wind and the rain…

Celia is grown up and gone now; we haven’t made syrup for years. But we still have quite a bit of it left, a reminder of happy times; and every March those trees hung with buckets say ” remember, remember.”

Maple syrup is generally resistant to being used in recipes – the best thing to do with it is to just pour it over something ( or put a drop in some unblended scotch). But we are all big fans of Les Grandperes, an easy, down-home cottage pudding that’s basically biscuits on syrup. It’s good with vanilla ice cream and great with sheep’s milk yogurt.

Les Grandperes

This French Canadian recipe comes from Alice Perron, a fine home cook and the woman behind the stove at Bien Fait Fruitcakes
for 6 servings:

dough for Aunt Ida’s Biscuits ( below)
1-1/2 cups maple syrup
1/2 cup boiling water

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Lavishly butter an 8x8x2-inch baking dish and pour in the maple syrup. Pour in the water, then put the dish in the oven until the syrup is bubbling, about 8 to 10 minutes.

2. While syrup is heating, roll out dough 3/4 inch thick and use a biscuit cutter to cut out 9 1-1/2-inch discs. ( Refrigerate remaining dough. Use it to make biscuits within 24 hours)

3. Place the circles side by side, just barely touching, on the bubbling syrup. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower heat to 350 and bake until the biscuits are richly browned, about 5 minutes more.

Alice’s Aunt Ida’s Biscuits

For 12 large or 18 small biscuits:

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold butter
1 egg, beaten
2/3 cup milk

1. Heat the oven to 425. Thoroughly combine the dry ingredients.

2. Cut in the butter until it resembles small peas. Beat the egg with the milk and stir it in, stopping as soon as all the flour is dampened.

3. Turn the dough onto a floured board and knead 2 or 3 times, then roll out 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick and cut with a sharp cutter. ( Scraps are lightest if baked as-is; re-rolling the dough makes it tough.)

4. Place biscuits, well separated, on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until risen and nicely browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.

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