A handsome bottle of amber-bronze maple syrup is a seasonless soldier, ready to transform lowly morning pancakes or waffles into vehicles for its sweet, dark nectar at a moment’s notice. After a satisfying weekend breakfast of maple-smoked bacon and … aaah, pancakes … the dutiful bottle returns to its sticky spot in the refrigerator door, ready to serve, yet not called to duty quite often enough.
American maple syrup originates in northern New England, in deep woods caked with lumpy February snow. Spring sun coaxes sugar maple sap up from the roots of the trees to the tips of their bare, majestic branches. As night falls, so do the temperatures (back to bitter freezing) and so too does the sap. This liquid rise and tumble from tree root to tree tip and back draws the rugged souls who turn raw maple sap into made-in-the-USA maple syrup.
“Sugaring,” as it’s known in the picturesque hills of Vermont, western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and beyond, involves many trees, each with metal bucket affixed to its bark to catch the day’s run of sap. Each bucket is emptied into a vat at the sugar house, usually a sturdy log cabin designed to collect the sap and boil it down at high heat. Eastman Johnson, a 19thcentury painter known as the American Rembrandt, captured the charm of this rural tradition — men in red plaid wool and winter caps leaning against the walls of a sugar house waiting for the sap to boil, sharing the heat of the fire.
Maple syrup is a completely natural sweetener from a sustainable, renewable resource. One way to salute the virtues of this indigenous sugar is to include it in savory dishes. This Thanksgiving, spike your sweet potatoes with maple. Your guests will thank you.
Sweet Potatoes with Maple Syrup and Pecan Crust
- Preheat oven to 350F. Wash the sweet potatoes and put them in the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until they are completely soft. Remove the potatoes from the oven and allow them to cool until they can be handled. Split them with a chef’s knife, and scoop the potato meat into a medium bowl. Discard the skins. Add the butter and cream and mash the potatoes until they are soft. Add half of the maple syrup and stir. Add milk if needed for smooth texture. Add salt and adjust to taste. Put sweet potatoes in a buttered dish such as a casserole dish or deep pie plate.
- Spread the pecans on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pour the remaining maple syrup over them and stir. Add more maple syrup if needed — nuts should be lightly coated. Bake the nuts for about 10 minutes at 350F. Allow to cool enough to handle, then crumble them over the sweet potatoes. Bake the sweet potatoes with nuts for about 20 minutes or until warm throughout.
Susie Norris is a chocolatier, TV producer and author of the book “Chocolate Bliss.”
Photo: A sign advertising local maple syrup.
Credit: Susie Norris