A Celebration of Maple Sugar Season

It’s our state tree, our state flavor, and this time of year is it also our first crop.

The sap is running! We love hearing those words. Our first crop of the year in Vermont is maple! It is also our first real evidence of spring in this cold climate. 

            When I hear that the sap is running, I’m happy indeed. Warm days above freezing, and cold nights below, mean the sap run is upon us, and it can’t come a moment too soon. We’ve had some fleeting, perfect days, although the last few were not much in the way of warming temperatures. But next week, no weather in site, and promising conditions. That’s March in Vermont, every type of weather possible, with little bursts of perfect early spring.

The technique of boiling the sap from sugar maple trees, acer saccharum, was first developed by the indigenous peoples of our northeast and Canada. It certainly is an important component in the terroir of our part of the world, and with good reason – it’s unique and delicious flavor. It’s a lesson in patience though, you need about 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. That’s a lot of gathering for a little reward, but it is worth it.

Maple is best!

Although dozens of other trees (including other maples, birch, and nut trees) have sap that can be boiled to make a syrup, the maple has the highest sugar content and produces the most distinctive flavor. 

The syrup produced each year, even from the same tree, will taste different. It all depends on the weather, and the time of the season when it was harvested. Some years, we have a marvelous and bountiful run, other years not so much. Last year was good, we produced 2.2 million gallons of syrup in Vermont, more than half produced in the entire country. 

Old technologies fast disappearing

When I was a kid, sap was collected in metal buckets, and harvested by hand each day. When you first put a new bucket under the tap, you can hear a distinctive ping when the drops of sap hit the bottom of the bucket. It was like music, and I’ll remember it always. Although some sugarmakers still have at least a few token buckets to display, most syrup is now collected with tubing strung throughout the sugarbush, which cuts down considerably on labor in the sugarbush. A sugarbush is a large stand of maple trees, tapped for the sap.

It’s not all about the end product. Sugarmaking has long been a part of our social lives here in New England. “Sugaring off,” the process of boiling down the sap to syrup, traditionally using wood power, has long been a time of getting together to relieve a little cabin fever and get some important work done. The hot, moist sugarhouse filled with steam, the smell of the wood and syrup, laughter and intense concentration, are all ingrained in my memory. We even have regional sayings related to sugar making activities. When a project has an unknown outcome, much like the boiling process and its flavors, as we work, we ponder how it will “sugar off.” 

In normal years, we have maple festivals all around the state, and they include lots of good food, music, art, demonstrations, and, of course, the making of syrup, maple cream, and sugar on snow.

Sugar on Snow

            Our spring ritual of sugar on snow is to be envied! Such a simple thing, boiled syrup is drizzled over packed snow and served with a sour pickle on the side to cut the sweet, and often cider doughnuts are served as well, although I’m not really sure why, but they are. It might sound strange to some, especially since it is usually enjoyed in full winter gear outside, but we love it.

While the festivals have once again been cancelled this year because of the pandemic, little celebrations are taking their place. For example, the popular Vermont Maple Festival held in late April in St. Albans has been cancelled for the second year in a row, but they are still holding photo, art, and maple contests, and hosting window decorating contests as well. We continue.

Maple is a favorite and versatile sweetener. Yes, it is mostly sugar, but does have a good amount of manganese and zinc, as well as some iron and potassium. Not a health food by any means, it is still a sugar treat, but one with a few little redeeming qualities. It’s the sweet after a long winter, and well worth the wait.

Varied uses

This sweet is great in savory dishes too, baked goods, and by itself running down the sides of a hot stack of pancakes. 

 Mix it with a bit of miso and glaze some salmon, make a dressing with some olive oil and grainy mustard, use it as the sweetener in a crème brûlée, or simply replace sugar in breads, muffins, cakes, and other treats. Bake it into squash, or use in roasting just about any vegetable. Make a glaze for pastries with a bit of confectioner’s sugar. It’s all sweet and good.

For dessert, try this maple pie courtesy of the Vermont Sugarmakers Association, a simple recipe that uses cream, maple, flour, and black pepper.

And of course breakfast!

 Breakfast in New England is often accented with maple drizzled over pancakes or waffles, but maple baked egg cups are a slightly more subtle way to enjoy the flavor in a savory application. They make a lovely brunch offering, or special Sunday breakfast, a perfectly baked egg sitting in a maple and butter-drenched bread cup.

Turning to my roots, I think of maple boiled dumplings – fluffy little dumpling pillows simmered in diluted maple syrup make a lovely side dish, or even a dessert. 

This is an old family recipe from my grandmother who was a French-Canadian immigrant. It is a traditional recipe from her birth areaÎle d’Orléans, an island on the Saint Lawrence River, just a few miles east of Quebec City. 

Mémé’s Maple Boiled Dumplings

When I was a kid, I thought it strange to cook something in maple syrup. But these simple ingredients, combine for a special dish, especially if you like the flavor and aroma of maple. 

This recipe is a celebration of maple, lots of maple, but it is not as sweet as one might imagine. My mother served them with pork, but they could just as easily be a dessert.

They are light and pretty to look at as well. Use a dark amber, for the most robust maple flavor.

The dumplings are delicious in this dish, but I use this same recipe whenever I want any dumpling that simmers in a soup. Always a delicious family pleaser.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • Scant tsp. salt
  • ½ stick cold butter
  • 2/3 cup cold milk

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Work in the butter until it is the consistency of lumpy meal. 

Add the milk and mix just until it comes together. It will be stiff.

In a 12” skillet, combine:

  • 1 ½ cups dark maple syrup
  • 1 ½ cup water

Bring this to a boil.

Using an ice-cream scoop or large tablespoon, drop the dumplings into the syrup. Don’t crowd, they will swell in the cooking process. 

Cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and don’t remove the lid for a full 20 minutes. No cheating! I don’t know what happens if you do, but my mother gave this instruction sternly.

When done, place in a serving dish and top with a little of the cooking syrup. Over the top, grate the zest of one lemon. This is my twist, and I think it balances the sweet. Makes 24.

Maple Baked Egg Cups

            This recipe is a little sweet, a lot savory, and very satisfying! Different variations of these lovely little treats have been around for a while, but I like my addition of a local, nutty Swiss cheese and the chives best, but you can also use a Cheddar and any herbs you like. Use any locally sourced breakfast meat you can find, or make it vegetarian with soy sausage, I used Morningstar Farms, or even substitute with some lovely sauteed mushrooms. 

            Use the best free-range eggs available, the taste really is better (do avoid jumbo eggs however, of you will have trouble fitting everything in the cups!). 

  • 2 breakfast sausages, or vegan sausages
  • 6 slices soft whole-grain bread
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • ¼ cup dark Vermont maple syrup
  • 3 ounces local Swiss style cheese
  • 6 medium eggs
  • Minced chives or parsley

            Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Use vegetable spray to coat every other cup in a 12-cup muffin tin.

            In a skillet over medium-high, cook the sausage until crisp then drain on a paper towel. Crumble and set aside.

            Remove the crust from the bread, or not, your choice. Flatten the slices with a heavy rolling pin. You want them quite thin.

Mix together the syrup and butter and spread this mixture liberally on both sides of the bread.

          Tuck the prepared bread slices into the sprayed muffin tins, folding them in nicely, forming a little vessel. Distribute the sausage evenly on the bottom of each. Divide and scatter the cheese over the sausage.

            In the lined cups, crack the eggs. If your eggs are large, pour off a bit of the white before putting them in the cup. Sprinkle a bit more cheese on the top and a few herbs.

Bake for 15 minutes and check. They will probably need a little longer for the whites to set, but don’t let the yolks go too far. If you like your yolks very runny, this is probably all the time you need, but you may like a more pudding-like texture, it may take a full five more minutes in the oven. 

Top them with a few more herbs.

And finally, a cocktail!

Maple Mudslide

            Well, it is almost mud season after all! We need a cocktail to accompany. We are lucky to have a wonderful maple syrup distillery here in our town, and the liquor that they produce is a lovely, earthy delicacy. I’ve taken a few of their cocktail suggestions and made up my own creation. This makes a nice summer dessert as well.

For each drink:

  • 1 ounce Vermont Sapling or other maple liquor
  • 1 ounce Vermont Sapling or other coffee liquor
  • 2 ounces light cream or coconut milk
  • 4 ounces sweet cream, vanilla, or dairy-free ice cream
  • 1 tsp. dark amber maple syrup for drizzling

            Put liquors, light cream, and ice cream in a blender and mix well. Place in a pretty (chilled) glass and drizzle with the maple syrup. 

Grades of Maple Syrup

Golden –This syrup is made at the beginning of the maple season, and used to be called fancy. It has a very light maple flavor, best suited poured onto pancakes, waffles, ice cream, etc. I never buy this!

Amber – This is a mid-season syrup with rich taste and darker color considered to be a good all-around syrup for most cooking and drizzling. If you only have one, this is a good one.

Dark – This syrup has a robust taste and is considerably darker, made as the season progresses. This is my favorite for all around use with a distinctive taste, and really good used in everything including baked goods.

Very dark – This has an even stronger taste and extremely dark color. It is the last of the season syrup, and is perfect in cooking and baking. I love this one too, and reserve my allotment with my sugar maker friend Greg every year.

Remember, “pancake syrup” is NOT maple syrup, just artificial flavoring in corn syrup. Read the label, and invest in the real thing, preferably from Vermont, it’s simply way better, as we say wicked good!

“Sugaring Off” Grandma Moses
Alice, my 250-year-old sugar maple, is a site to behold, I’ve never been able to get all of her in one photo! However, we don’t tap her for sugar making, we leave this old lady to just enjoy her old age.

And, just for fun, the Abenaki story of maple syrup:


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54 Comments Add yours

  1. Love maple syrup in any form or shape. Thanks for such a thorough post with these great recipes! 🙂

    1. You’re very welcome Ronit! Can’t wait for the new batch!

      1. No wonder! 🙂

    2. Oh gosh, me too!

  2. Let’s vote – I’m for this being the #1 post of all times. 🙂 I LOVE real maple syrup! We have run lines and processed it ourselves, but it is a hassle on a small scale. We were lucky for about a dozen years because a good friend had his own sugar shack and we received it for Christmas. Sorry to say he retired, so for heavens sakes we’ll have to buy it this year. 🙂

    1. Ah thank you! Sugar time is the best! It’s so good to have a friend with a sugar shack!!! Our friend makes a limited supply, and he is delighted that I want his darker syrup at the end of the season. Sorry that you have to buy it again, but it is worth every penny!🍁

  3. Sherry M says:

    i am so envious of your maple sugar season. i always try to find really good quality maple syrup here but it is very expensive:) i like the idea of the maple snow and a pickle!

    1. After a long winter, and this has certainly been one, these activities make the heart sing!

  4. Melanie says:

    I love a good, dark maple syrup. I only use real maple…but I’ve never had it fresh 🙁 You are so fortunate.

    1. I am truly thankful to live in such a wonderful part of the world! We have so many seasonal delights, as do most places on our lovely planet!

      1. Melanie says:

        What online source do you recommend to buy ‘real’ real maple syrup?

      2. Here’s a link to the Vermont Sugarmakers Association list of maple producers with a website for on-line ordering, Happy shopping!: https://vermontmaple.org/basic-member-list

      3. Melanie says:

        Hey, thanks! I remember reading ‘Little House in The Big Woods’ when I was a girl and Laura’s description of the fresh maple syrup poured over snow sounded so delicious!

      4. It’s wonderful the little things that stick in our minds! Especially in those books we cherished!

  5. Looks great!!

    1. Thank you! It’s a wonderful time of year!

  6. We don’t have maples here but I believe something similar can be done with silver birch but saying that we still buy maple syrup!

    1. Yes, birch syrup is delicious too, a different flavor and I think the sap is not quite as sweet so it probably takes more to make a gallon of syrup. It’s all good!

  7. Angela says:

    Dorothy, I am a deeply committed maple syrup addict, which I attribute at least in part to my New England roots. I feel about it the way I do about my apples–the farther north you go, the better it is. I absolutely loved this post though it makes me long to go north even more. Soon, we hope.

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the post Angela, I had lots of fun writing it! I’m sure there is a maple gene, which I happily possess as well. I wish for your travels to the north as soon as possible! It’s been a long year, and we are all looking forward to some freedom in the months to come!

  8. nancyc says:

    I love maple syrup! I didn’t realize there were different grades, but it makes sense! Your maple recipes sound great! 🙂

    1. Thank you Nancy! I’m so glad I imparted some new information to you! Have a lovely weekend!

  9. Love maple syrup…light smoked taste always gets me. Dumplings look so yummy. I am hungry now. Happy weekend dear Dorothy!!!

    1. Thank you Smitha! The dumplings are really a special and memorable dish made with just a few ingredients. Wishing you a lovely weekend as well!❤️

  10. Carol says:

    A lovely informative post, Dorothy…I unfortunately have to buy my maple syrup ..Thank you for explaining the grades like you I prefer the dark but it is well worth the cost and jealously guarded by me I will add…Those little cups looks delicious 🙂 x

    1. Thank you for stopping by Carol! The real thing is certainly worth the price, and in my book that means darker with the most flavor. The egg cups are one of my grandkids’ favorites!

  11. I’ll never forget how I ate a half a dozen maple donuts, freshly made, at a maple syrup farm in the mountains of Virginia. 😍🍃🍩

    1. Oh my! And you lived to tell the tale! Just the smell of maple makes my heart happy!

  12. I am drooling Dorothy, and would like all three for breakfast please! Fascinating info about how maple syrup is made and it’s history. I’ve got to try the egg cups, they sound incredible!

    1. Thank you Jenna! I am looking forward to the day when I can gather all my grandchildren together again and make these for them. They love rolling out the bread!

  13. Wonderful and uplifting post 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! It marks that beautiful time when spring is almost here, we can smell it in the air!

  14. Certainly somethin g to celebrate. So many delicious things to do with maple syrupand those dumplings look devine.

    1. Thank you! The dumplings are a family favorite. The temperatures have finally warmed and we should be getting a good sap run this week.

  15. I read about sugar on the snow as a kid and I’ve always wanted to try it!!

    1. I hope you try it, and you don’t even need snow!

  16. Christy B says:

    I’m in Canada and we love maple syrup. I’m all about this post!

  17. Julia says:

    Hi Dorthy – What do you do with the maple syrup after using it to boil the dumpling? Is it all used up when you pour it from the pan over the dumpling?

    1. Yes, thank you for the question! Use the syrup as a sauce with the dumplings. Whatever is left over can be saved and used on pancakes or even muffins!

      1. Julia says:

        Thank you.

  18. So many wonderful recipes! I can’t believe I never heard of the snow method before. It sounds wonderful!

    1. Thank you Diane! The sugar on snow is such a tradition here, it is like an annual rite of passage! But if you don’t have snow, you can use crushed ice! Our snow is disappearing fast this week!

  19. I’m super envious of your maple syrup season. It is extortionate per bottle in England and I love it so much I could just about drink it from the bottle. I have just got to try these gorgeous morsels.

    1. It is indeed a wonderful time of year. The weather has been perfect for the sap run this week, and we’ve spied a few sugarhouses with smoke and steam spewing forth! Thanks for stopping by!

  20. terrie gura says:

    Oh. My. Goodness. The maple baked egg cups are a must-try! And thank you for singing all the praises of REAL maple syrup! I can’t imagine why anyone would choose the corn syrup junk. We had a million sugar maples in my hometown in upstate NY and I remember seeing the taps on the trees in the spring. BUT, I’ve never seen a tree as gorgeous as Alice!

    1. Thank you Terri! I think you’ll love the egg cups. There’s nothing like the real thing! Alice is indeed beautiful, and she is blushing at the compliment!

  21. What a lovely post! Fantastic tree!
    I helped (well, observed might be a better verb) my landlady tap the sugar maple trees using a bucket many years ago in New York State …

    1. It’s so much fun, isn’t it Amanda! Thank you so much for stopping by and for the nice compliments!

  22. Leah says:

    Hi Dorothy, Thank you for this post! I really enjoyed reading it. It is also very informative. I love maple syrup even though I have to buy it. I refuse to eat pancakes with any syrup unless it is real maple syrup and not the fake kind which is not really maple. 🙂

    1. I know, the fake stuff has such an off flavor and everything is wrong about it, even the consistency.

      1. Leah says:

        Yes! I hardly indulge in pancakes and maple syrup. Whenever I do, I want the best ones! 🙂

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