2016 has been an excellent year for maple syrup. In Vermont, the largest producer in the United States, sugaring started during mid-December in some places and mid-March in others — and it seems to be running still.
The sugaring process
Sugaring is one of the delights of late winter in the northeast and heralds the coming of spring. Sugar is made in the leaves of maple trees during summer, stored as starch in the trunks and root tissues with the coming of winter and, finally, converted to the sap that begins to drip after a good freeze followed by a thaw. Sap is mostly clear water with 2% sugar. You need an average of 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but it can take as many as 100 gallons. The sugar content must be 66.9%. It’s a wearing and complicated job. You can see why, in our household, we call maple syrup gold.
Just as the indigenous peoples did hundreds of years ago, sugar makers carefully drill taps into maple trees that measure at least 10 to 12 inches around and then hang their steel buckets to wait for the thaw that causes the sap to drip. The old-fashioned way is to use plastic drip lines connecting one tree to another. The syrup is emptied by hand from each bucket into larger containers spread at convenient spots near the trees and then transported to the sugarhouse at the end of the day.
The production method
The sugarhouse is where the evaporation process happens and the boiling is done in a long, rectangular stainless steel pan, which sits on top of a firebox that needs to be filled with wood every five minutes. (The wood may be cut as much as two years in advance to ensure optimal dryness.) It’s an exciting activity to be part of, and the smell of the sap as it thickens is delicious. The sugar maker tests the syrup’s caramelization by pulling a metal scoop through the syrup and watching as it drips. When the temperature of the syrup reaches 219 F, the syrup is ready to draw off. Then it needs to be filtered and graded for color.
The richness of flavor is graded on a scale from lightest to darkest.
Grade A Golden: Made earlier in the season when it’s colder, this has the lightest color and perhaps the most delicate flavor. Use it on ice cream and for cooking.
Grade A Amber: Made as the temperatures warm, this is slightly darker yet relatively subtle. Use in tea and coffee.
Grade A Dark: Both the color and the taste are stronger, more intense. Use for glazes and pancakes.
Grade A Very Dark: This has the strongest flavor and is good for baking.
What better sweetener than one that comes from our North American woods? Katie Webster’s wonderful “Maple: 100 Sweet and Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup” (Quirk Books, October 2015) answers that question with an overview of the history and science of sugaring as well as a complete guide to grades and recipes from breakfast through dinner. I recommend it highly. Here are two of my favorite recipes incorporating maple syrup. Both are delectable and gluten free.
Blue Corn Pancakes With Grade A Amber
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: About 10 minutes
Total time: About 25 minutes
Yield: 2 to 6 servings
Grade A Amber maple syrup
2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten wildly and whites beaten until they peak
1/4 cup butter or oil, melted
2 cups sifted blue-corn flour (or one cup blue, one cup yellow if you prefer)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
Butter for greasing your pan
1. Gently warm the syrup in a pan over a low burner.
2. Add the beaten egg yolks to a medium bowl and stir in the butter. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients; add them to the egg mixture alternately with the orange juice. Blend well. Fold in the egg whites.
3. Heat a buttered griddle over a medium flame or burner. When it’s hot, spoon the batter onto the griddle, roughly a quarter-cup per pancake. Cook each until bubbles begin to form on the surface, then flip and repeat.
4. Generously pour syrup over the pancakes and serve.
Maple-Ginger Roasted Cod
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup Grade A Dark syrup
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
4 nice pieces fresh cod (I get mine at the farmer’s market), about 2 pounds total
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the syrup, ginger and spices and spoon equal amounts onto the fish. Place the pieces into a casserole dish and pop into the oven.
3. Cook for 15 minutes or until fish flakes with a knife and serve.
Main photo: Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner