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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - November 26, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel
- [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
Maple denotes approximately 200 species of shrubs and trees from the plant family known as Aceraceae, also referred to as the Maple family. Maple trees are found throughout the United Sates, Europe and Asia, especially China. Maple trees grow from 30 to 130 feet and can live up to 300 years and sometimes longer. Most species are deciduous (i.e., shed their leaves in the fall), but a few species are evergreens. They are famed for their bright foliage. Various subspecies are highly prized as ornamentals and cherished for the natural beauty they add to many landscapes and gardens. But for our purposes, maple trees are the source of the much beloved maple syrup.
Maple syrup is the natural sweetener that eventuates when the sap of maple trees is boiled down. Sap is the fluid that circulates throughout a plant’s membranes, the purpose of which is to distribute nutrients. For all intents and purposes it is the “blood” of the tree and contains ample amounts of natural sugar.
The Algonquins, an aboriginal Indian tribe historically clustered in Quebec and Ontario were the first to discover the hidden bounty of the maple tree before recorded history. Mired in a seemingly endless series of conflicts and wars with the Iroquois and later the Dutch and English, many of the Algonquins were forced from their native lands. Indeed, they were nearly decimated due to their rivals’ desire to confiscate their lands and wrest control of the fur trade that they dominated. The French however, allied with the Algonquins, (they fought together against the Iroquois and the British in the French and Indian War of 1754-1763). The Algonquins taught the early French colonists how to make maple syrup. The Algonquins would chop a wedge in a maple tree with a tomahawk and then harvest the sap. The colonists later perfected this method by boring holes in the trees instead. Naturally, all sorts of technological improvements have transpired since.
The species of maple used for syrup production are the Sugar Maple and the Black Maple due to the superior concentration of sugar in their sap. Quebec produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup. In America Vermont is the leader and the most renowned, but New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and other states make both notable quality and quantity.
The “sugar season” as it is known in the industry begins in February and lasts though April. Freezing nights followed by warmer days are the perfect climatic conditions for sap effluxion. Only trees 40 years old or more, and of a minimal diameter are allowed to be used. A grove of trees used for syrup production are referred to as a “sugar bush” and the harvester a “sugar maker.”
It takes anywhere from 20-50 gallons of sap, depending on the point in the sugar season, to produce a single gallon of syrup. The sap is more concentrated early in the season and thus the resulting yield is proportionately higher. The sap is then sent to a “sugar house” where it is boiled. Boiling evaporates the water and condenses the sap into the sweet nectar we know as syrup. It is a time staking and labor intensive process which understandably explains the cost of real maple syrup. If the sap is boiled to virtual elimination of the water, the resulting product is maple sugar, twice as sweet as granulated white sugar.
Maple syrup is of course the quintessential topping for pancakes, waffles and French toast. But that’s only the beginning. Maple syrup and maple sugar are used in all kinds of desserts, ice cream, candy, breads, cereals, and other baked goods. It is also used in savory dishes such as baked squash and baked beans. Moreover, it can be employed as a glaze which can be applied to ham, pork roasts and even salmon. It is a delicious and versatile product with many culinary applications.
Be wary of the imitation syrups that dominate your average American supermarket. Most of these syrups are outright fakes or contain very little real maple syrup. They are fabricated predominantly from high fructose corn syrup with artificial flavorings. I harbor no disdain for corn syrup and I concur with the current ad campaign aimed at restoring its reputation, corrupted by the American food neurotics who have irrationally vilified it. But corn syrup, despite its benefits, is not maple syrup. Purists demand the unmatchable taste of real maple syrup and as unimaginative as it may be, I can think of no better application than good ole fashioned pancakes.
â€¢ 8 oz. flour
â€¢ 2/3 teaspoon salt
â€¢ 2 oz. sugar
â€¢ 1 teaspoon baking soda
â€¢ 2 teaspoons baking powder
â€¢ 2 eggs
â€¢ 12 oz. milk (10-11 oz. if you prefer thicker pancakes)
â€¢ 1 oz. butter, melted
Combine the dry ingredients and sift them through a flour sifter into a bowl. This evenly distributes the constituents and results in a smoother texture.
In another bowl, beat the eggs and the milk.
Allow the butter to cool somewhat and slowly drizzle into the egg/milk mixture constantly whisking. The goal is to prevent any scrambling of the egg.
With a spatula, stir the wet ingredients into the dry. Don’t worry if there are some lumps as they will cook out.
Heat a griddle to 350 degrees and spray it with non-stick cooking spray. Ladle servings of batter onto the griddle based on the size pancakes you desire. Flip when you start to see some bubbles and the batter has congealed sufficiently. The second side will require less time, maybe a minute or so.
Plate them, smother them with butter and pour on your real maple syrup.
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