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.
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 area, Île 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!
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!
And, just for fun, the Abenaki story of maple syrup:
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