It’s Maple Syrup Time in the North Woods

My father boiling down maple syrup in our woods, in the 1960's


Few foods are as traditional and indigenous to North America as maple syrup. Native Americans in what is now the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada were making maple syrup long before Europeans arrived and by the late 17th century European settlers had already created a maple syrup industry.  Of course I knew none of this when I poured maple syrup on my pancakes as a kid, or occasionally helped my grandfather and father in gathering sap from the trees tapped in our woods. (More photos and a recipe for maple syrup gingerbread, after the jump.)

My brother Steve, who continues this tradition, is boiling off the last batch of the season today, a season cut short by temperatures in the 70’s. While I’m a little vague on the bio-chemistry of the maple tree, apparently in late summer the trees stop growing and start storing energy in the form of starch which turns to a sugary liquid (called sap) when warm days return in the spring. Ideal sap flow comes with warm days and cold nights. In traditional maple syrup making, small holes are bored into the trees, taps inserted, buckets hung from the taps.  When the buckets are full, they’re gathered, and the sap is poured into a pan and boiled down.  If you want to know why maple syrup is expensive, here’s why:  it takes 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, not to mention a lot of labor and fuel. After hours and hours of boiling, the sap turns to syrup which is then filtered and canned.  Although my brother sells a few quarts here and there, it is really a labor of love as most of the production is shared with family and friends. I can testify that there is something peaceful and meditative about being in the woods in early spring, before weeds take over and mosquitoes swarm.

Because of it’s unique and delicate flavor, I use maple syrup a lot in baking, as you can see if you take a look at my dessert recipes. In her dessert cookbook, which I consider the bible of natural foods dessert making, Meredith McCarty explains in detail the qualities of various sweeteners. While maple syrup is not as high in complex sugars as rice or barley malt syrup, I appreciate it’s long tradition in America and that it can be made by anyone with a few maple trees, a fire and a boiling pot. (Scroll down for more photos of maple syrup making.)

Historically, the Shakers, a breakaway sect from the Quakers noted for their simple and natural lives, made maple syrup an important part of their economy and their cuisine. Dozens of recipes collected in Shaker cookbooks call for maple syrup, among them is this recipe for Maple Syrup Gingerbread  from “The Best of Shaker Cooking.” This is a rich recipe, calling for sour cream, eggs and butter, but I plan to make a vegan adaptation which I will post as soon as it’s ready.

Shaker Maple Syrup Gingerbread (from “The Best of Shaker Cooking”)

1 cup maple syrup

1 cup sour cream

1 egg, well beaten

2 1/3 cups flour

1 3/4 teaspoons soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons melted butter

Combine the maple syrup, cream, and egg.  Mix well. Sift all the dry ingredients and stir into the liquid, beating well.  Add butter and beat thoroughly.  Pour into well-buttered 9-inch square baking pan.  Bake in a moderate 350º F. oven for 30 minutes. Serve with thick cream and sprinkle with shaved maple sugar.  Serves 6-8.

Steam coming off the simmering maple sap on its way to being syrup

All ages get into the syrup making project: my niece Laura, and my mother, Marian

Mom, out in the woods collecting maple sap


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