EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 8, 2013

It's time to make maple syrup

Pat's Kitchen
Patricia Altomare

---- — It’s a way of life, passed down through many generations in many families.

Maple sugar makers are dedicated to producing the highest quality maple syrup. They are proud people, proud of what they do and the products that start with the tapping of those maple trees. The same syrup that is on their tables for their families is what they make for you.

Yes, artificial syrups may cost less, but they are not really a deal — 100 percent pure maple syrup is natural with no added flavorings or sweeteners.

As it is said about life, with making maple syrup, timing is everything; mostly being left up to “Mother Nature.” Tapping (inserting taps into tree trunks) too early or too late can alter the quantity and quality of the finished product. “Sugaring off,” as it is known in New England, starts in late February and runs through early April, when the trees begin to bud. All New England states produce maple syrup, but Vermont leads in production as location is part of this timing equation — the farther north the “sugar bush,” as tapping areas are called, the later the season.

Each tap hole on the trees produces about 10 gallons of sap a season, and 40 gallons are needed to make one gallon of maple syrup.

The first liquid to come from the sugar maple tree is a thin, watery stream which drips into a bucket hanging from the tap, or you may now see plastic tubing that snakes from tree to tree and connects to a single gathering tank — modern progress at work. The collected liquid is then taken to the sugar house, where the water is boiled off the sap, producing clouds of steam. The sweet, thick syrup is the result of simple evaporation and condensation.

Most sugar houses are open to the public and are happy to give tours. Early spring is the best time to see the entire process and bring home a container of maple syrup as well as candies and other products they have.

I have been to a couple of sugar houses, one in Vermont and another in Mason, N.H. I was fascinated when watching the whole process, and awed with all the products that can be made with maple syrup. It was very interesting to listen to the stories of these sugar makers — some continuing a lifestyle that began seven generations ago.

It makes for a great day trip, to say the least.

When cooking with maple syrup, substitute three-quarters to 1 cup of maple syrup for every one cup of granulated white sugar.

Decrease the liquid in your recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons for each cup of syrup used. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, unless your recipe already calls for buttermilk, sour milk, or sour cream. Also, decrease your oven temperature by 25 degrees as batters containing maple tend to caramelize around the edges more quickly.

New England Baked Beans w/ Pure Maple Syrup

Ingredients:

2 pounds dried beans, navy yellow-eye or other

1/2 pound lean salt pork (optional)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dry mustard

2-3 medium-sized onions, peeled and halved

1 1/2 cups pure maple syrup

Night before: Wash and pick over beans. Cover with cold water, add baking soda and soak overnight. In the morning rinse beans and boil gently in fresh water until skins wrinkle. Drain off bean water and save. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place onions in the bottom of a bean pot or heavy ovenware such as a dutch oven.

Add remaining ingredients. Score pork with deep cuts and place on top of beans.

Pour in bean water just to cover. Bake covered for about 8 hours.

Check periodically, adding more bean water as needed. For the last hour cook uncovered to brown top.

Serves 10 or more.

*****

Maple syrup provides body and a sweet base to this vinaigrette.

It is particularly good on a spinach salad with mushrooms, red onion, and apple slices.

Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette

1/4 cup maple syrup

3 tablespoons minced shallots or sweet onion

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon country style Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

Combine ingredients and mix well with a whisk.

Guide to maple syrup grades:

Grade B: Sometimes called “cooking syrup” preferred by some cooks for baking and cooking because of its deep maple flavor and caramel undertones. Good for baked beans, breads and cookies.

Grade A Dark Amber: This is good for all around use, great choice in all kinds of recipes. Pour over baked apples or squash, use as a glaze for meats and vegetables.

Grade A Medium Amber: Most popular grade of table syrup and a good choice for gift-giving.

Fancy grade: A golden color with a delicate flavor. Pour over ice cream which is sometimes called the “sugar makers’” favorite dessert. Also good on your morning oatmeal and to make candies.

Storage tips: Always refrigerate after opening. To preserve maple’s fresh flavor and prevent crystallization, it can be frozen. Freeze and thaw any number of times, just thaw completely, mixing in any condensation on the top before use.