Wednesday, May 28

Real Maple Syrup

Other than the sweet, short hour I had in a ridiculously well-stocked hostel in Santa Fe and my two (2!) successful camp fire feasts, I have gone exactly three weeks without a kitchen.

I wish I could post about the culinary marvels I've conjured out of thin air, with only a hot car hood, salt from evaporated spring water, and some wild field greens at my disposal...but I can't, and won't. Instead, let me focus on one of the few foods I can't make, and in fact feel quite strongly that no one should try to replicate: maple syrup.

My father was the first maple-syrup-purist in my life. He wouldn't order waffles or pancakes in restaurants, since they would inevitably be served with "that fake sugar crap." (See also: his standing refusal to order a Caesar salad since most restaurants don't make their own dressing). The exception was french toast, which could and would be served with appropriate (often fake, sugary) jams and butters.

Every Christmas he would order a gallon of real Maine maple syrup from L.L. Bean -- a gift for my grandmother that we would enjoy year-round as we put her waffle-maker and her L.L. Bean cookbook to good use. Since our smaller nuclear family had neither the waffle-maker nor the syrup, when we weren't at grandma's house we had to make do with Bisquick pancakes and fruit syrup, an inferior but marginally acceptable substitute.

Beyond the fact that the syrup had to originate in the surging heart and veins of a maple tree, it had to be served warm, preferably in a small pitcher on a small plate, so as to best catch the inevitable drips. I remember making pancakes for a school fundraiser, and insisting that we boil the (plastic-packaged, generic brand) syrup, so that it could be served warm. Of course it boiled over, coating the pan, the burner, the stovetop, and a good portion of my upper body with a sticky, bubbly, scorching mess. Only then did I realize that most syrup consumers enjoy their breakfast topping cold, or at best, at a murky room-temperature.

I maintain my preference in warm syrup, and additional throw my hat in with the "dippers" as opposed to the "pourers". When you douse your breakfast with syrup, it seeps into the crevices of your blueberry pancakes or pecan waffles, merging flavors and textures. I prefer to maintain the independence of flavor profiles, as well as the smooth, slippery texture garnered from gingerly coating each piece in its own sticky bath.

Did anyone else read Laura Ingalls Wilder's inaugural tale, Little House in the Big Woods? If you did, perhaps you remember the section where Pa bled syrup from the trees during the winter, and the girls would drizzle it on fresh snow. I've never tried this -- is our snow clean enough these days? (Not in Philadelphia) -- but the concept remains captivating.

To bring this narrative to present-day, I originally intended to post about maple syrup when we were in Toronto, where our gracious hosts treated us with superb french toast and...real Maine maple syrup. But isn't Canada famous for their maple syrup? Well, yes. But Maine is practically Canada. Right? Sure. Either way, it's delicious, particularly (thank you, Nimoy), when surreptitiously added to the batter and proudly served at the table. (Brilliant).

Since leaving the north, however, we've dined at several fine establishments including the ubiquitous Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses that dot the southern United States. The indistinguishable photograph above highlights a stack of pancakes served at the former locale, with -- you won't believe -- a tiny bottle of 100% real maple syrup. I was so excited I saved half the contents, and smuggled them into the latter eatery, which does not offer the real goods. That tiny bottle, which probably held three simple tablespoons of drizzle-able goodness, elevated both dining experiences to the sublime. (I kid not).

On a more practical note, here are a few facts you should bear in mind as you seek out real maple syrup, which I know you all will.

First, maple syrup is offered in a variety of grades, which should be clearly marked on the bottle. Here's the basic breakdown:

Grade A Light Amber is very light and has a mild, delicate flavor. It is usually harvested early in the season when the weather is quite cool. This grade is preferred for making maple candy and maple cream.

Grade A Medium Amber, a bit darker, has a correlating increase in maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup, and is usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, about mid-season.

Grade A Dark Amber is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.

Grade B, sometimes called Cooking Syrup, is made late in the season and appears very dark with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavors. Although many people use this for table syrup, because of its strong flavor it is often used for cooking, baking, and flavoring special foods.

Edit: Apparently the Canadians use a different system for grading their maple syrup. Be advised.

Secondly, you may be curious how maple syrup is collected:

Maple syrup does, in fact, trace its roots to the majestic maple tree. Specimens that are adequately wide (at least 12" in diameter) are tapped, a (painless, for the plant-lovers out there) process of removing the sap from the tree. The harvest takes place during the spring, when the sap that was frozen during winter begins to thaw and flow. Generally a tree will tolerate two or three taps but since sap is to trees what blood is to human bodies...well, you get the idea. This is why maple syrup is expensive -- but worth every penny! After the sap is collected it is highly perishable, and must be boiled down to an appropriate syrup.

And on that note, you might be wondering how they come up with the fake stuff.

When we ran out of L.L. Bean syrup Grandma would make sure Dad was securely nested in the living room, and concoct a small pot of sugar water tinted with maple flavoring. This was boiled down until the liquid reached syrup-consistency, and the impostor would proudly take its place at the table. Dad, of course, always knew. Store-bought varieties of "maple syrup" often include ample amounts of the pernicious and ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup, as well as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Yuck.

Finally, some suggested uses for your concentrated tree-blood:

+ Maple syrup enjoyed a surge in popularity when health-conscious bakers realized it made a lovely replacement for white cane sugar. You made need to adjust the recipe a bit, as I find the maple syrup slightly sweeter and more flavorful than plain castor sugar.

+ An obvious use: breakfast foods, but think outside the box of griddle-based starches. Maple syrup adds a lovely depth and sweetness to cooked grains like oatmeal, quinoa, or polenta. You can also drizzle it on fruit or spike your morning beverage with a hint of maple sugar.

+ Consider maple syrup when concocting any caramelized foods, including but not limited to onions, roasted squash, beets, and tofu. And, maple syrup makes an excellent glaze for a variety of proteins and vegetables.

With all of that said, please do remember that maple syrup is sugar. Use it, but use it wisely and perhaps sparingly. Think of where it came from, the laborious hours the stately trees took to churn sunlight and water into a strong and sweet sap -- and imbibe with thanks and mindfulness.

Edit: Click here to read, sadly, about rising maple syrup prices.


Gina Marie said...

I remember when they drizzled the maple syrup on snow. It was for a party.

I read all those books... In fact, they are with my Narnia box set on the bookshelf. But Little House in the Big Woods was pretty much the best one.

Allison said...

I find it amusing that Canada has a different grading system for maple syrup. Mmmmmmmhm. How do you feel about berry syrups?

Sadrah said...

I used to make maple syrup with my family when I was growing up. My favorite was removing the tube carrying the fresh sap from the collection bucket and holding it straight to my mouth instead. When we had collected enough my dad would cook it down into syrup over a big campfire...

cmoore said...

Gina - I totally agree. But the whole set was great.

Allison - Hmm...there's a time and place for berry syrups, but I still think maple reigns. (And so much more versatile!)

Sadrah - Wow, you are even more of a hippie than I thought. I'm jealous! :)

Matt said...

You're referring to maple taffy. Very good. Tried it at a sugar bush (cabane à sucre)in Quebec:

There's also birch syrup. Spotted it at a specialty market in Ottawa recently, but it's quite expensive ($17 for 125 mL). Would like to sample it one day:

And for a laugh:

"Québécois sometimes refer to imitation maple syrup as sirop de poteau ("pole syrup"), a joke referring to the syrup as having been made by tapping telephone poles."

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