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Posts Tagged ‘maple syrup’

 

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A few years ago I compiled a list of ways to counter the inevitable individual crises that pop up from time to time. When I was hit by a car in 2011, after I got my bearings (literally and figuratively), I very gingerly worked backstage*. When Hurricane Sandy hit, after we got power back and I could put gas in my car and drive, I went to the big, quiet antiques store near me and just tiptoed around and wrapped myself up in the comforts of years past. You find what works for you.

And after this past hairy week that featured no hair but a burst water pipe in my bedroom ceiling and a blizzard…I got into the kitchen as soon as I could. The kitchen is pretty much a no-fail as far as countering crises. There is something profoundly reassuring to be in the midst of a debacle and have the means to calm yourself, and be rewarded with something lovely. If you have ingredients, a working oven, and a decent recipe, you’re good.

This was my decent recipe: Maple Bundt Cake. It’s a Martha. It’s almost maple season, and I couldn’t wait. It calls for a half-cup of maple syrup and I used Grade B, that gorgeous dark elixir that I could, and have, drunk straight from the bottle. No Grade A fancy for this girl, especially after the week I’ve had. The cake is pillowy and buttery and soothing. While it bakes, the house smells so good that you forget you’re surrounded by debacle debris.

Here’s the cake about an hour after it come out of the oven, when it’s still a little warm. Found my calm.

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*My physical therapist said, ‘Why did you wait six weeks to have the surgery?’ I fudged an excuse because she wouldn’t have been keen on the truth: that in those six weeks I crewed two shows. I needed to in order to feel normal again. Few people know this. If you ever run into a tiny woman from South Africa named Sheila, be a lamb and keep this to yourself.

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In late winter into early spring, the warmer days and cold nights cue maple trees to get their sap moving up into the branches for bud production. It’s also the brief window of time in which maple syrup producers work night and day to get sap extracted from trees, boiled down into syrup, and bottled. They’re scrambling this year, because the extended cold weather here on the east coast of the USA has pushed off the season. Once spring weather hits, it’s over for the year.

Yesterday I went with my sister and brother-in-law to the western end of New Jersey where maple syrup collecting is a hobby; we don’t have scads of sugar maples (the variety that produces the sweetest sap) the way our northern states and Canada do. Shame, because I could totally see myself doing this for a profession, despite the fact that I was crap at science.

In the meantime, groovy class. Bundle up.

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Allison the instructor showed us three pots of sap in various stages of reduction. You want to get the water out, to get down to the essence of this stuff. This is the sap after just a bit of boiling; it’s faintly tinged with brown.

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Here’s another pot of sap after longer boiling.

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This one’s almost ready to rock.

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Next we headed out to the sugar bush, the name for the cluster of tappable trees. Although, a woodpecker got to this tree first.

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A 100-year-old sugar maple, with ancient tapping scars.

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Another old tree. Sap running down its bark many years ago stained it black.

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Sap bucket.

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The sap is clear, icy cold, and very faintly sweet. We got a taste of it coming right out of the tree. Bloody awesome.

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A bucket lid keeps out random things that float in the air. Wild coincidence that Canadians made these, huh?

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An old-fashioned hand drill. Far cooler, although much less efficient, than a power drill.

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It has a wooden handle and knob. How cool is this thing?

The syrup in the jar at the top is the product of trees tapped right on the property; it’s single-origin (from one region) syrup. It was offered for comparison along with a commercially-sold brand of pure maple syrup and a popular brand name featuring brown-tinted corn syrup and a woman in a babushka. I thought the syrup made on the property was the best. But admittedly I gave the babushka the snub.

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Oh, and then since we were only 20 minutes outside of Princeton, we hit the bent spoon, which, as I posted to my friends, kicks every ice cream ass there is. The proprietors do their own tapping of local resources whenever possible, supporting local farmers and growers. This is chocolate Port and coconut ice cream. A knockout.

 

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Baby maple cream pie. Sunshine in a brioche tin.

Maple doesn’t get much press. But the real thing deserves it, holding its own against any other flavor, and it’s just as addictive. Mind you, if you’ve been searching the Internet for a decent addiction and you landed here, first, welcome aboard; and second, please note that real maple syrup is not the stuff you find in cabin-shaped or Butterfly McQueen-shaped bottles. Their contents are pretty much tinted corn syrup. The real thing is simply boiled-down sap, the purest essence of a tree.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but Grade B is the only maple syrup worth your time. Grade A doesn’t taste like much of anything, and I’ve heard New Englanders concur: ‘The closer to tar, the better.’ I’m happy to stand by their statement.

I think I was a Druid in another life. It would explain my devotion to this stuff. I’ve had pure organic syrup from Vermont and from Canada, and both are outstanding. Canadians are awfully proud of their proficiency with a maple tree. I remember holding up a bottle of syrup to a shopkeeper in Quebec City and asking, ‘C’est local?’ (‘Is it local?’) and she was completely taken aback. ‘Mais oui!’ (‘As IF we’d eat anyone else’s syrup, eh!’)

Late winter is sugaring-off season in the colder regions of the U.S. That’s when the sap of the maple tree starts to run in order to feed the soon-to-arrive leaves, and when sugaring-offers tap the trees with small spouts, buckets beneath.

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Antique wooden spout, northwest New Jersey.

When the buckets are filled with sap, they’re emptied into huge vats where they’re boiled down to syrup. Grade A is produced earlier in the season, B later. B is typically used in cooking because of its pronounced flavor, but you like pronounced flavor, so give it a whirl on your waffles and tell me what you think.

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Remembered to dock the crusts before putting them in the oven so they don’t bloat up like balloons in the Macy’s parade.

I have never tasted maple cream, the stuff northerners spread on their pancakes, but just typing that sentence is making me kind of insane to do it as soon as possible.

Another favorite of mine is maple sugar candy. It’s usually sold in little boxes and shaped like teeny maple leaves. They dissolve happily in your mouth and you don’t want to talk to anyone while they’re in there, making them inherently an anti-social candy. You can always make new friends. Find ones that like maple sugar candy and then you’ll be golden.

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About to meet its fate.

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Tomorrow’s breakfast: chunky applesauce with Grade B stirred in. One of my readers, Angie, gave me this idea. I always knew I liked her. That white blop on the bottom left is vanilla organic yogurt, but I wouldn’t argue with whipped cream or creme fraiche, either.

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Maple shortbread. Quite the hit with the cast, crew and staff of the Moliere farce I’m working on now. I’ll have to make more in order to stay in their debt.

I wanted to try making Laura Ingalls-style maple taffy this year by pouring hot syrup onto fresh snow, but the latter melted recently. If we get another storm, I’m making it. In the meantime, I have lots to eat.

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Grade B, baby.

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