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February is the longest short month of the year, I say. Typically one of the snowiest months of the year, we seem to spend extended hours heaving white fluff from our walkways and spinning our tires on slush covered roads. Nighttime temperatures in the single digits confuse us; days beckon the warmth from the sun, turning icicles to puddles… and then mini-skating rinks when the evening temperatures once again fall.
It is February’s fluxing temperatures, though, that prime the pump on our glorious maple trees. Now is the time when spigots pierce the veins of these towering temples of sweetness, siphoning off the clear sap that will be boiled down into maple syrup. The steady drip into buckets nestled against the bark is music to the ears of anyone who cherishes this north country specialty.
It is arduous labor to tap trees, empty buckets, and nurture the process of turning 40 gallons-plus of sap into just one gallon of maple syrup. It is a messy procedure, resulting in sticky ceilings and walls for the novice attempting to boil down sap in the home kitchen. The wisdom of sugar shacks becomes quickly apparent, as does the traditional outdoors method of the iron pot suspended over a wood fire.
Be grateful for those who work the maple trees. There is little that compares with the rich, mellow flavor of New England’s maple syrup.
Where once there were grades A, B, and C of maple syrup, the industry in recent years has changed that system of rating syrup. Now all maple syrup is grade A, but marked from the lightest to the deepest flavors. The later in the sugaring season the sap is collected, the deeper the color and flavor; the quality does not differ.
I have always preferred the flavor of what was known as grade B maple syrup for both topping and baking, now “grade A, dark color, robust flavor.”
Grade A fancy was once the “top” grade, but is now designated as “grade A, golden color, delicate taste.” Many prefer this as the stand alone maple syrup for drizzling over breakfast items. What was once grade A medium amber, is now designated as “grade A, amber color, rich flavor.”
I have rarely encountered what was grade C, a molasseslike substitute, in shopping. Today, you will see this marked “grade A, very dark, strong flavor.” It is, as with most food, a personal preference.
The caloric count of maple syrup hovers around 50 calories in a tablespoon, which is on par with sweeteners like molasses and honey. The sugar in maple syrup is mainly sucrose, a form that the body can process into fructose and glucose, making it a healthier option than other sweeteners overall.
Maple syrup is a bit of a dud when it comes to vitamins, but look out, minerals! It is a good source of (surprise!) calcium, as well as manganese, which helps prevent inflammation and aides in nutrient absorption, and potassium, an electrolyte that helps the body balance fluids. Additionally, a 2011 study by a University of Rhode Island scientist identified 54 beneficial compounds in maple syrup that may be anti-inflammatories.
What a delectable option for boosting healthy eating habits.
A deterrent to using maple syrup is its (understandably) high price. But a little goes a long way when topping pancakes, waffles, ice cream, or oatmeal. There is no need to drown the main course to make the flavor of maple syrup stand out. Baking with maple syrup, of course, means a financial commitment to natural products over processed sugars or corn syrup.
I have a distinct memory of a long ago chill February day in northern Minnesota, standing in a clearing as my friend stirred his family’s oversized kettle full of sap. The wood fire snapped beneath it, and the sugary scent mingled with the smoke and the scent of pines that surrounded the sugaring site. Dusk was settling, a purple sky announcing that the day’s above-freezing temperatures would soon be sinking with the sun. We took turns stirring the pot, tending the fire — not too hot, not too low — anticipating that the gift of the maples would become another gift to be enjoyed in the months to come.
Treat yourself. The fruits of the season need to be appreciated as this longest short month comes to a conclusion.
Multigrain Pancakes — With Maple Syrup
2 C whole wheat flour
¼ C corn flour
2 tsp ground flax seed
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ chopped walnuts or pecans
2 C milk (or soy milk or almond milk)
½ C orange juice
½ C plain yogurt
2 Tba canola oil
1/3 C rolled oats
1 Tbs maple syrup
Optional: 1 C berries or diced banana
More maple syrup for topping
Whisk milk, juice, yogurt, eggs, maple syrup, and oil together in medium bowl. Stir in oats and set aside for about 10 minutes.
Stir flours, flax, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nuts (and fruit if using) together.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients.
Mix gently, just until well combined, but do not beat.
Using about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake, pour onto preheated 375 degree griddle. Cook until bubbles on top begin to break. Flip once — never pressing down — and continue cooking until steam from pancakes begins to stop rising and bottom is golden when you peek underneath.
Serve hot, topped with genuine maple syrup. Makes about nine pancakes.
From the March 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine comes this delicious and simple recipe:
Maple Custard Cups
2 whole large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1½ C whole milk
½ C heavy cream
¼ C amber color, rich flavor or dark color, robust flavor maple syrup
2 Tbs granulated maple sugar (available in some supermarkets and natural food stores)
½ tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat to 350 degrees.
Whisk together all ingredients in large bowl until sugar dissolves, then put through a fine mesh sieve into a one-quart glass measure. Divide custard evenly among six 6-oz ramekins, then transfer cups to baking pan.
Bake in a hot water bath (pour boiling water into the baking pan half way up the cups), pan covered loosely with foil, until custard is just set and a knife inserted in center of one comes out clean, 35-40 minutes.
Transfer cups to cooling rack and cool to warm, for about 30 minutes.
(Top with fresh berries, nuts, and/or whipped cream; I like to top each with maple walnut ice cream, for true decadence.)