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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

March is Time for Maple Syrup

And what better place to begin than in Vermont, the "Maple Center of the World."

The Vermont Year Round Cookbook
Louise Andrews Kent.

Something is stirring inside the maple trees this time of year. March is maple syrup time! Oh that pure glowing golden goodness, just the thought of maple cotton candy, maple popcorn, maple jelly beans, maple nuts and maple mustard, causes my heart to pitter patter. The sap drip-drip-dripping into a plastic milk jug, no matter how much it collects, sends me into a boiling frenzy. The sweet celebration of crumbly maple candy makes me want to head right to the nearest Maple Festival.

I read somewhere that the only places in the world that have maple trees are New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and the southeastern corner of Canada. I later learned that Maple syrup is produced as far west as Minnesota and as far south as Virginia. When I lived on Long Island in New York, we had a big old maple tree in our back yard. My late husband would tap into the tree trunk and the kids would get the biggest kick out of the sap running into the milk jugs. We didn't do it every year but the times we did, are memorable.

Maple sugaring is as old as the hills, well maybe not quite that old. The history of maple syrup in America flows from the boiling of the sap which was first discovered by North American Indians. Native Americans celebrated the March maple moon or sugar moon as the return of spring long before European settlers arrived. They called their syrup product "sweetwater."

"...The Indians knew and used two means of reducing the sap to syrup. One was to freeze the sap partly, and throw away the frozen portion, which was little more than plain water; the other was to boil the sap down, in whatever way they could devise. According to Lieutenent-Colonel Graham, in his sketch of Vermont published in 1797, "the method pursued by the Aborigines in making this article was as follows: Large troughs were made out of the pine tree, sufficient to contain a thousand gallons or upwards; the young Indians collected the sap into these troughs, the women in the meantime made large fires for heating the stones necessary for the process; when these were fit for their purpose, they plunged them into the sap in the troughs, and continued the operation till they had boiled the sugar down to the consistence they wished." He adds: "There are two kinds of the maple tree, from which sap is taken. One, the black, or hard maple; the other the white, or soft maple; the former makes infinitely the best grained and best flavored sugar, and fully equal in quality to the best Muscovado..."
American Forestry, Volume 26, 1920

Here's a recipe to celebrate Maple Season the Native American Way. I found this recipe for Maple Bark Bread so intriguing (and not anywhere on the web) I just had to include it. It's from the book titled A Naturalists Guide to Cooking with Wild Plants by Connie and Arnold Krochmal. (1974)

Maple Bark Bread
This was a major staple food among Indians
2 c. maple tree inner bark dried & ground (see below)
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbs. margarine, melted
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 cups milk
How to Dry & Grind Inner Bark Never take bark from a living tree. Select a tree that has fallen or been cut down. (a local lumber mill may cooperate) Strip off the bark and scrape the inside with a broad, sharp tool such as a small cement trowel or broad chisel. Collect the scrapings on a clean sheet of paper, let them dry, then grind them very fine and store them in a paper bag.

Sift the ground bark, discarding any unsifted pieces. Combine the bark with enough water to moisten it, and set aside for 30 minutes. Then add the remaining ingredients using only enough of the milk to make a stiff dough that can be handled. Turn the dough onto a floured board, and knead for 1 minute. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick, and cut into 4 inch wide biscuits. Fry on a griddle over medium heat until golden brown and light. Or, bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes if preferred. Spread with butter and serve hot. Makes 6 servings.

Did you know maple syrup season depends on the weather and that Vermont is the largest producer of pure maple syrup in the United States? Even Uncle Sam agreed as you can see in this advertisement I discovered in the Highland Maple Syrup Recipes from Old Vermont, published sometime in the 1920s. (the booklet is undated so I'm going off the postage stamp date:)

The Vermont Maple Season can begin flowing as early as February and extend into mid-April. And since Vermont is the largest producer of pure maple syrup in the U.S., it shouldn't come as any surprise that Vermonters were the first to establish a Maple Law. It seems, even McDonald's has to follow it:) A charming tradition has evolved during sugaring season, it is called the "sugaring off" party as depicted in Grandma Mose's 1955 painting titled, Sugaring Off'

Folk artist Grandma Moses was born on a farm in New England, on September 7, 1860. "Sugaring Off" is a painting of Grandma Moses's town in the winter. image courtesy of wikipaintings.

Maple Syrup Recipes

"...But for supper Grandma made hasty pudding. She stood by the stove, sifting the yellow corn meal from her fingers into a kettle of boiling, salted water. She stirred the water all the time with a big wooden spoon, and sifted in the meal until the kettle was full of a thick, yellow, bubbling mass. Then she set it on the back of the stove where it would cook slowly.... Then Uncle George came with a smaller bucket of syrup, and everybody ate the hot hasty pudding with maple syrup for supper. Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Let's begin with some Hasty Pudding. Hasty Pudding you say...

The original hasty pudding was nothing more than today's corn meal mush eaten with maple syrup instead of sugar and cream. For some years the principal sweetening in the Yankee household was maple sugar or syrup. When cane sugar became available it was compressed into hard loaves (hence the number of mountains named Sugar Loaf Mountains) and required special tools for being pounded into usable form.
The Everlasting Pleasure by Kathleen Ann Smallzried.

This pictured recipe leaflet for Vermont Maid Syrup is dated 1929. It's as rich in color as the syrup it advertises. There are just a few treasured recipes enclosed.

This recipe for Maple Sponge Pudding was harvested from the book Plain Cooking, Low Cost Good Tasting Amish Recipes by Bill Randle in 1974.

FYI: Maple syrup may be substituted for white sugar in cooking. Use ¾ cup maple syrup for 1 cup white sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for each cup syrup used. Maple sugar was as common on a dinner table in the 17th and 18th century as salt is today. You can freeze maple syrup for up to one year, in a tightly-sealed container. It will take about one hour at room temperature for the maple syrup to become pourable.

revised February 2013

Resources
1. Sugar Bush History (excellent)
2. Hasty Pudding, an Early American Fast Food
3. Maple, the Official Flavor of Vermont!
4. Squirrels Harvest Maple Syrup
5. Maple Facts & Trivia
6. Maple Sugaring Terminology
7. Tree Tapping - Where It All Begins
8. History of Bisson's Sugar House

Recipes
1. Nutritional Value of Maple Syrup
2. Maple Cream Pudding
3. Hot Maple-Apple Cake
4. Balsamic-Maple Chicken with Grilled Peaches
5. Maple Custards with Sugared Pecans