At this time of year, cooks should be scurrying about in search of recipes using maple syrup as a seasoning. True, this elixir of the sugar maple tree is available on market shelves year around, and true, one can always get a pancake syrup blend of maple and corn syrups but there is something about the real essence and the excitement that comes with tasting a seasonal first. The tapping of the sugar maple in the northern and central United States (from Maine to Minnesota) and in southeastern Canada represents the first farm crop harvested in the new year. With it comes an adrenaline rush as if tasting the first sweet corn in July or the first local red ripe tomato.
Sugar maples, also known as hard or rock maples, grow in other parts of the world, but maple syrup seems to be peculiar to North America. Credit the Native Americans with discovering the nutritional and food value of the sugar maple's sap. And for, early colonists, since sugar beet or cane could not grow in cold climates, maple sap, syrup, and sugar became diet mainstays.
Often called "sugar water," sap is thin, colorless, and barely sweet. With careful boiling, 35-40 gallons of sap dwindles down to one gallon of syrup. With further reduction, syrup becomes sugar. "Sugar bush" is the professional's lingo for a grove of sugar maple trees. The term "sugaring" refers to drawing or "tapping" the sugar maple to draw out its sap. During the winter the sap is stored in the roots of the tree; as the days grow warmer, it rises through the trunk to feed the tree. It is the up and down movement (warm days, cold nights) that inspires the sap to flow into the sugarers buckets. When the temperature stays above freezing and the trees begin to bud, that's it for the season; from then on, sap begins to bitter. The grading standards, determined by color, flavor, and intensity of the syrup, are set by the Department of Agriculture. Color is dependent on the mixture of sugars and minerals in the sap and the time in the season the sap is drawn from the tree. Grading determines price. Light, medium, and dark amber are all "A" grades and are sold to the consumer as a high-end good. Their flavors are more delicate than the darker syrups that are shipped to food processing plants and commercial bakeries.
A cook would be well served to keep a jar of maple syrup in the refrigerator. Used as a sugar substitute, it offers sweetness and flavor. It gives a rich taste to coffee or tea, custard puddings, fruit compotes, cakes and cookies. Ice cream becomes a quick dessert when maple syrup is served warm over ice cream. Mixed with powdered cloves and mustard, water and vinegar (and brown sugar if the syrup is light), as a basting liquid, it elevates a ham to the lofty status it deserves. And for the children of the house, sweet potatoes boiled, sliced, and broiled with syrup and butter are every child's favorite "candied sweet."
Below is a recipe for a Maple Syrup Pie from Restaruant Aux Anciens Canadiens in Quebec and published in the November, 1999 issue of Gourmet magazine at the request of a reader.
Into a pastry lined 8-inch glass pie plate pour the following filling and bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes.
Whisk together two large eggs with one and one half cups light brown sugar.
Add one-half cup heavy cream, one-third cup of maple syrup (preferably dark amber) and two tablespoons melted unsalted butter.
Bake pie in lower third of oven until filling is puffed and looks dry, but still trembles.
Cool on rack.
Serve with UNSWEETENED whipped cream or crème fraîche. The unsweetened creams balance the sweetness of the pie.