#1: Maple Sweet
a Maine story
MAPLE BREAD PUDDING (recipe follows below)
Once over the hump of March, the days grow noticeably warmer, the birds begin to chip-chip away at the feeders, and there’s a touch of green along the roadsides and at garden edges where the snow crust is rapidly disappearing. Night temps, though, are still below freezing, and that’s when the miracle of the maple begins with a venture that here in Maine may have started with our Wabanaki ancestors. It’s time to tap the sugar maples that line our old back-country roads where the sight of a stone wall edged with a row of sturdy maples is a gratifying reminder of the way life used to be.
So we clean out the galvanized collecting buckets, check the hose lines, buy new spiles for tapping the trees, hang the buckets on the spiles, and then wait as the sap slowly, slowly, drips through the spiles and into the buckets—which, more often than not these days are clean plastic gallon-sized milk jugs or the ilk. This year the fashion in collecting buckets seems to have been these blue-capped beauties. photo
Ike Johnson, my maple syrup guru, says a chilly daytime 40º is ideal, and he prays for sunny days or at least no rain to dilute the sap and drench the harvester. Some days there’s no sap at all, and at other times he might get a gallon or two from a single tree.
Ike has a contraption down his woods road in Warren that would do Rube Goldberg proud. In that, he’s not much different from most of the other hands-on, home-made (call it artisanal) operators that I’ve run into around here.
A lot of Ike’s equipment was salvaged from the dump while some of it came from E-bay. The oil drum in which he builds his fire is a rusted contraption that lies on its side with three openings cut through the top to contain the big rectangular sap pans that had an earlier life on a restaurant steam table. He builds up a wood fire inside the drum and feeds it throughout the day, while slowly adding more sap as the liquid boils down, skimming the scum off the top, keeping an eye on the fire, and working on the New York Times crossword puzzle.
They say it takes 43 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, meaning the syrup maker must slowly boil away 42 gallons of water to arrive at syrup stage. That takes a long time, especially in what they call inclement weather. Ike has a cover for the whole contraption and a big old umbrella for his own protection when the clemency goes away.
Ike makes around 150 gallons in a good year, intended, as he put it, for his family and for no-cost Christmas presents. Higher powered, more industrial or commercial operations, producing thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of gallons of syrup every season have more sophisticated networks to extract and process the sap, with lines running directly from the trees to the sugarhouse (which might be an industrial-scale building) that extract the sap through vacuum suction.
Frontier Maple Works, way up in far northern Maine just two miles from the Canadian border, falls somewhere in the middle between an industrialized syrup producer and Ike’s seat-of-the-pants production. Frontier, by now a well-established venture, started up just about five years ago when Carrie Braman and her husband VJ Guarino leased from the State of Maine 200 acres of woodlot, much of it in maple. They’re in the northern reaches of Somerset County, which alone accounts for 90% of all Maine commercial syrup production—and a good deal of Maine’s logging activity as well.
At Frontier, Carrie and VJ, who met as college students in Vermont, appropriately enough over maple sugaring, oversee a broad grid of hoses that loop among the trees, sucking up sap and transporting it back to the sugarhouse.
Here, reverse osmosis machinery separates out a lot of the water before the sap gets transferred to the evaporator, which finishes the job, pushing out clouds of steam and converting the clear, pale, insipid sap to thick sweet syrup, colored from golden to amber to dark, and full of complex flavors. But for all the state-of-the-art machinery at their command, what Carrie and VJ are doing is still a hands-on operation that requires constant attention—and no time for the Times crossword. Carrie texted me recently about this spring’s harvest: “We got record-breaking amounts of sap and made 10 barrels over two and a half days. When it runs that hard, we have to babysit the tanks to make sure they don't overflow and that ensures that we're processing everything quickly enough.” The sap doesn’t keep—it has to be boiled down quickly before it starts to ferment. So most sugarhouses operate on a 24-hour cycle, steadily converting sap into rich syrup, until the season is done.
Different stages of boiled-down sap, glowing in the Northern Maine sunlight
Ike had finished his season by April Fool’s Day but VJ and Carrie will continue on, probably till the end of the month, even into May, at least until bud-break on the maple branches, at which point the syrup starts to take on undesirable flavors--like molasses, so they say. In early April, Carrie reported, there was still plenty of snow in the woods, “and the next week or so looks pretty nice for sugaring--so fingers crossed, it's a banner year.”
To find out more about Carrie and VJ, or to buy their superior maple syrup, go to: http://www.frontiersugarworks.com
At latest count (2022) there were 550 producers in Maine, making some 575,000 gallons of syrup every year, which averages out to just a little over 1,000 gallons each. That’s not much but still the state is third in line, after Vermont and New York, in the national maple syrup stakes. Maine Maple Sunday, the last Sunday in March, is when commercial and amateur sugar shacks open their doors to welcome the public with demonstrations, tastes, and activities for kids, all with the goal of celebrating this heritage.
The result of all this activity is another miracle—delicious maple flavors that, according to nutritionists, come from a product that is even healthier (because it’s considerably lower in fructose) than good old honey. Ike brought me a small jar of his to sample: dark, thick, full of the robust essence of pure maple. And to heck with pancakes, I fetched a pint of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and lavished fresh maple syrup all over the top. If you want to cook with it, though, here’s a recipe from a classic Maine cookbook, Good Maine Food, written by Marjorie Mosser with Maine’s great novelist Kenneth Roberts and first published in 193tk:
For a baked ham steak: Put a thick slice of ham in a baking dish and cover it with a sauce made from 2 tablespoons of vinegar [apple cider vinegar, I imagine], 2 teaspoons of dried powdered mustard, and ¾ of a cup of maple syrup. Bake it in a moderate oven for 45 minutes.
That treatment, I think, would also be very good with any kind of roast pork or double-cut pork chops.
Or try this slightly more elaborate combination:
2 tablespoons dark Maine maple syrup
2 tablespoons Maine apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon or more Dijon-style mustard
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, black pepper, dried red chili pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a jam jar, being liberal with the salt, black pepper and, if you want, red chili pepper. Any kind of red chili that pleases you will do—piment d’Espelette is my favorite but I also like Turkish red peppers—nothing too hot because you don’t want to obscure the maple flavor, but it really needs the punch of pepper, black and red alike, as well as mustard to offset the sweetness. Give the jar a good shake to combine everything nicely.
This makes a great dressing for a late-winter/early-spring salad of root vegetables and cabbage, shaved together into a slaw. Or use it to roast those same vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnips, kohl rabi, etc.), cut in chunks, tossed with the maple sauce, then roasted in a 375 oven until they’re tender.
A variation on that sauce is good for what we call maple-glazed salmon, made with a boned side of Atlantic salmon, Maine-raised if you can find it (it’s not always easy), Scottish if you can’t find Maine. Set the salmon in a baking dish and paint it liberally with the maple sauce above, adding pepper, ginger, garlic. Some add soy sauce or miso, even grated ginger, but I like to let the flavor of maple come through. Let the salmon marinate in a coolish place for at least an hour, then roast it in a 425º oven for about 20 minutes, or until it’s done to your liking. Baste it with the sauce half way through cooking. If at the end the sauce is too liquid, transfer it to a small saucepan and boil it down until it’s the right syrupy consistency, then spoon it over the salmon when you serve it.
Best of all, though, is just a short stack of breakfast buttermilk pancakes, liberally garnished with fresh butter and doused with new season maple syrup. And second best surely goes to this Maple Bread Pudding, a star of my table for many years. It’s best made with challah or brioche bread, especially if it’s two or three days old, but you could make it with any well-textured, country-style loaf, as long as it is well past its peak.
Maple Bread Pudding
An incredibly easy dessert, this does require a couple of things:
best quality pure maple syrup,
challah or brioche or other type of egg-y bread, and
plenty of time but not a lot of effort.
It makes enough for 8 generous servings.
One 1-pound loaf challah, brioche, or other egg bread
1 cup dark maple syrup
1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Butter to grease a 2-quart baking or soufflé dish
1 or 2 tablespoons maple sugar
Cut or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Include all the crust except for parts that are very thick and tough. You should have about 8 cups of bread cubes.
In a bowl large enough to hold all the bread, combine the maple syrup with the cream, eggs, and vanilla and whisk to mix it all together thoroughly. Add the bread cubes and fold into the mixture, stirring gently to coat thoroughly. Set the bowl aside at room temperature for an hour or so to let the bread completely absorb the egg mix.
When you’re ready to bake the pudding, turn the oven on to 350º. Liberally butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish.
Turn the pudding into the baking dish. If there’s any egg mixture left in the bottom of the bowl, spoon it right over the top. Take a piece of foil large enough to cover the dish and butter one side of it. Cover the dish with the foil, butter side down, and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pudding starts to puff and turn golden, then remove the pudding from the oven, raise the temperature to 375º, discard the foil, and spoon maple sugar over the top. Return the pudding to the oven, uncovered this time, and bake an additional 15 minutes, until it has puffed like a soufflé and turned a darker gold. Remove from the oven and let sit 10 minutes, then serve, still warm, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, crème fraiche, whipped cream, or yogurt.
Having just been gifted some maple sugar from a visiting Vermonter, I used it in a bacon cure with piment d'Espelette on a Gascon Noir Pig- thanks for the inspiration!
Ciao Nancy, wonderful article. Grazie! Many years ago I was gifted with a cookbook, "Sweet Maple: Life, Love & Recipes from the Sugarbush" by James Lawrence and Rux Martin. which was published in 1993 in Vermont. It has a few traditional and delicious recipes from "private collections of sugar makers, country inns, and award winning maple cooks". If it is still available, I believe that you would enjoy it very much. Ciao dal Chianti, e Buona Pasqua.