Late March in Vermont is always about the Maple! When the days turn warm but the nights are still cold, and the sap starts to run in the maple trees that cover much of Vermont, "sugaring" - making maple syrup and sugar - goes into high gear here.
When I was a girl, maple was made much as it was when Laura Ingalls
Wilder was a girl, a story that she shared in Little House in the Big Woods. (That story has been turned into a delightful picture book for
younger readers - Sugar Snow (My First Little House)) Earlier I found some marvelous photos from the 1970's that show
"The Way It Was." Taken not far from me in Randolph Center, Vermont,
the original caption on this photo from the National Archives reads "This Dairy Farmer near Randolph Center, Vermont, Averages About 400
Gallons of Maple Syrup Each Spring. Thirty to 40 Gallons of Sap Are
Needed to Make One Gallon of Syrup 04/1974"
Things have changed a bit since this picture was taken. This is what a modern collecting operation looks like - not as picturesque, but far more efficient:
Once all the sap has been collected, it is combined and boiled down to a syrup. This is how it was done in the old days:
This old-time farmer probably wouldn't even recognize today's modern "sugarbush." Here's what a modern Master Sugarmaker looks like:
Yes, that is a "sugarhouse" - though these days it really is more of a chemistry lab. The sugarmaker is testing sap for specific gravity. Here's a peek at the boiling tank:
All that rising steam makes the sugarhouse smell like maple with wood smoke undertones. If you peek inside the tank you'll see the sap boiling away and darkening.
Syrup is graded by color and intensity of flavor. Grades are defined by law. Maple syrup all has the same concentration of sugar. The color variations are due in large part to when during the season the sap was collected. The earliest sap runs are light in color and flavor. The syrup darkens and becomes more full flavored as the season progresses. If you get a chance to visit during maple season, you'll likely be offered the opportunity to taste test all of them.
When I was a girl my Grandpa went "up country" to the farm every spring and brought back two gallons of maple syrup. Grandma would divide the syrup up among 15 canning jars and process them in a boiling water bath to "put by" for the year. Grandpa always used the last two cups to make the most wonderful Maple Cream Fudge. I've never managed to duplicate his fudge, but I have my own maple goodies.
Many years ago we were invited to dinner by friends after a long day of moving. Walking into the house (absolutely STARVING!) I discovered that dinner was Chicken Curry, Raw Spinach and Mushroom Salad and Cornmeal Muffins. I have to admit that at the time I was at least a bit of a picky eater. Not a scrap of spinach had passed my lips in more than twenty years and the thought of curry, which I had never had, just didn't seem very attractive. That meal has turned out to be my family's favorite, our GoTo celebration meal for nearly forty years.
Here's the recipe for Grandma's Maple Salad Dressing:
The easiest way to do this is to grab your empty Good Seasons bottle, fill to the water line with maple syrup, add apple cider vinegar to the vinegar line, add 1 teaspoon of chile, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard, then fill to the oil line with olive oil. Shake well. If you don't happen to have an empty Good Seasons bottle, then put 2 tablespoons each of maple and cider vinegar and 3/4 cup oil in a jar with a screw-top lid, add the seasonings and shake well.
I get my maple syrup from a big barrel up at the farm (cheaper that way) but for those of you who can't, I've found maple syrup from the farm I buy from at Amazon for just about the same price you would pay at any of the local maple farms here in Vermont. Most people like Grade A Dark best for eating, but for cooking you want Grade B syrup, which is more full bodied. I was really surprised to find that the Highland Sugarworks 100% Grade B Maple Syrup, 32-Ounce Jug is actually cheaper than I paid locally for Grade B the last jug I bought. In fact, it is such a bargain I may very well order some online myself and save the gas money.
Here's a link to the Highland Sugarworks Pure Organic Grade A Dark Amber Maple Syrup, 32-Ounce Jug syrup and a pancake recipe to go with it:
Grandma's Very Basic Pancakes:
Whether you call them flapjacks or flannel cakes or just plain old pancakes, no trip to Vermont in the early spring is complete without Pancakes served with hot melted butter, warm maple syrup from this year's crop and a side of bacon or sausage. Pancakes are very easy to make. The hardest part is actually in the cooking. If you have a really well seasoned cast iron frying pan, then grease it very lightly with just a drop or two of oil swished around with a paper towel and heat it over medium heat until a couple of drops of cold water splashed onto the pan will jump and skitter around. If you don't have a cast iron pan or have a crowd to feed, better you should drag out the Electric Griddle. Someday I'm going to write a book and call it "Take Two Cups". Here's the first installment:
Take 2 cups of flour and put it in a medium-sized mixing bowl. (You can use half whole wheat or cornmeal or buckwheat flour if you want to.) Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar. (You can use brown sugar or maple sugar if you want to.) Now, decide whether you want to make regular Pancakes or Buttermilk Pancakes.
If you want regular pancakes put 3 teaspoons of baking powder (round can) in the bowl with the flour and salt. If you want Buttermillk Pancakes, dig out that orange box of baking soda and put 1 teaspoon of it into the bowl with the flour, sugar and salt. Remember which one you put in the bowl and don't put both baking powder and baking soda in!
Add 1 or 2 eggs - How many depends on how well the hens are laying or when you last went to the store or how tight the budget is this week. They'll be good either way.
Put in a couple of tablespoons (meaning 2 or 3) of either oil or melted butter, whichever you happen to have on hand.
If you are making regular Pancakes with baking powder, add 1 cup of regular whole milk.
If you are making Buttermilk Pancakes with baking soda, add 1 cup of buttermilk. If you don't happen to have buttermilk on hand and want buttermilk pancakes anyway, you can put 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar or lemon juice in the bottom of your measure, fill to the 1 cup line with regular milk and let it sit for about 5 minutes.
Now, get out your trusty wire whisk, smash the yolk of the eggs, then whirl like a mad woman to very quickly combine everything. Don't worry about lumps. Lumps are OK. You should have a batter that will just pour, but depending on what kind of flour you used, how many eggs you used and the weather you might need to add a touch more milk. Careful though - you're making pancakes, not crepes.
Grandma usually uses a 1/4 cup measure (or a 1/3 cup if that is all she can find or wants bigger pancakes) to dip out the batter and pour it onto the hot grill*, but they do make special pouring bowls and other fancy gizmos. Depending on the size of your grill and whether or not you put a little crock of butter and little pitcher of maple syrup on the far end of it to melt and warm, you'll be able to fit 4 to 6 pancakes on the grill at one time. Wait until you see little bubbles all over the top of the pancake and the edges just start to look dry, then carefully flip the pancakes over and brown the other side. You'll get 8-10 pancakes from the batch.
If you have teenagers, 8-10 pancakes might feed only one of them. But, if your family is smaller, that might be too many. Grandma goes right ahead and cooks up all of the pancakes anyway. (When she was homeschooling her granddaughter she just made a double batch on purpose.) After they're cooked lay them aside on a plate to cool. Then stack the pancakes with a couple of sheets of waxed paper between each two pancakes and put them into zipper freezer bags for an instant breakfast down the road. They'll keep a couple of months in the freezer but Grandma has never seen them last longer than it took the kids to find them. Just pop them into the toaster. (You've seen the price on frozen pancakes at the grocery store, right?)
Grandma has collected a few Maple cookbooks over the years. This is one from my collection:
Maple Syrup Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
And this is one on my Wishlist:
Maple Syrup: Farmstand Favorites: Over 75 Farm-Fresh Recipes
One of our favorite Maple recipes, though, isn't in a Maple cookbook. You can read about it in my review of
Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker. My son-in-law went out last week and bought a deep fryer just so he can get me to make him some before I move. Luckily, my new place is just a couple of blocks away so he can drop by anytime!
*The temperature you will need to set your grill at depends on your particular grill and the way it heats. Grandma's grill works best at somewhere in the 275-300F range. You might want to try a test pancake the first time. It should take about 3 minutes to cook the first side of the pancake. If you try to cook them faster the outsides will be very dark before the insides are cooked through.
PHOTO CREDITS: Thanks to the New York State Maple Producer's Association for the use of their wonderful photographs of a modern-day sugar-making operation. The older photos are from the National Archives.