A local pour: Maple syrup is now coming from Pennsylvania trees
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I don't mean to sound sappy, but, I really love maple syrup.
Real maple syrup, that is -- moreso because I know that it's made in good quantity and quality from trees right in this region.
Local maple syrup can be had in abundance now that the sap is again flowing and flowing well in and from maple trees north of Pittsburgh and in the mountains east of town.
"Compared to last year, we're having an outstanding sap run," says Bill Phillips of Fort LeBoeuf Maple, just outside Waterford, Erie County. He's chairman of the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association's eighth annual Taste and Tour Weekend this Saturday and Sunday.
If you don't know about the natural and human processes that take this watery tree food and boil it down into sweet human foods, from syrup to sugar, you might want to head north for the event, for which 14 sugar shacks hold open houses.
They get great crowds -- 200 people a day, and some producers claim 1,500 -- and people always are amazed that maple syrup starts out clear. That's because it's only 2 percent sugar. Mr. Phillips chuckles as he recounts a common question: "When do you add the sugar?"
With real maple syrup, of course, they don't add anything, but rather, just remove the water -- by evaporation, either old-school fired by wood or perhaps by natural gas or oil, sometimes helped out by new-fangled reverse osmosis filtering -- until the syrup is at least 67 percent sugar, the Vermont standard. Mr. Phillips says even slight increases above that can make the syrup thicker and taste sweeter, which is one way you might differentiate among producers.
Mr. Phillips, of course, wants you to buy syrup from Pennsylvania, which always is among the top-producing states. (Eighty percent of the syrup in the world comes from Canada, mostly from Quebec.) U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, which tracked a 19 percent drop in overall U.S. syrup production in 2010 to 1.96 million gallons, ranked states thusly:
1. Vermont: 890,000 gallons
2. New York: 312,000 gallons
3. Maine: 310,000 gallons
4. Wisconsin: 117,000 gallons
5. New Hampshire: 87,000 gallons
6. Michigan: 82,000 gallons
7. Ohio: 65,000 gallons
8. Pennsylvania: 54,000 gallons (down 41 percent from 2009).
Especially because last year's production was so poor, all the syrup and other products for sale on the tour will be this year's maple, which you also can see being harvested and evaporated, right down to maple sugar, which is just syrup with more water removed. This "sugaring" season in this area -- there are lots of producers in mountainous Somerset County, too -- just began with a few warm days earlier this month, and Mr. Phillips believes there are a few good weeks to go.
If you're into maple, or want to be, you also might want to get your hands on a great new little book titled "Maple Sugar: From Sap to Syrup."
Subtitled "The History, Lore, and How-To Behind This Sweet Treat," the paperback -- just published by Storey ($12.95) -- is written by Pennsylvanian Tim Herd, who is a naturalist and the executive director of the Stroud Region Open Space and Recreation Commission in the Pocono Mountains.
As he noted last month on his blog, "Scene & Herd," when he used to do sappy demonstrations for schoolchildren, they'd often ask, "Is it real?" He wishes more people experienced the "magical" reawakening of the trees that is what maple sugaring season is all about.
"Any way we get them out and get them reconnected to nature," he says.
The book is filled with historical tidbits and great graphics, including photos showing the different grades of syrups and pages for IDing tappable trees (you can tap not just sugar maples, even though they're best, but all maples).
I learned about ingredients added, historically and today, to keep syrup from boiling over. And that for 200 years, until the 1860s and the advent of sheet metal, "virtually all of the sap collected in North America was processed into sugar, as no container had yet been devised to adequately store syrup over an extended period without it spoiling."
I also learned that maple can be political, as when, in 1788, according to the book's North American Maple Timeline, the Quakers encouraged Americans to make and use maple sugar instead of West Indian cane sugar, which was made with slave labor.
Mr. Herd's book includes several recipes, and has a detailed "Do-It-Yourself" chapter, which was the original concept for the book. On his website, timherd.com, you can order a Do-it-Yourself Backyard Maple Sugaring Kit, which includes 2 spiles (the taps), 8 feet of plastic tubing and directions, for $9, or $23 with an autographed copy of the book.
On his property, he taps a trio of silver maples and makes about a quart of syrup -- "enough to taste," he says, adding, "When you've made it yourself, it tastes that much better."
You might be tempted to make your own when you see how expensive this energy- and labor-intensive stuff is. Members of the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association are selling it for about $46 to $50 per gallon, or about $8.50 to $12 per pint. Buying it from the "sugar shack" where it was made usually is cheaper than at a retail store.
The Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association's Mr. Phillips suggests buying a gallon and pouring a quart or so to keep in your refrigerator, and then store the rest of the gallon jug in the freezer until you need it.
While maple syrup can be kept that way for a long time (it won't freeze solid, because the sugar content is so high), its season is otherwise relatively fleeting. Says Mr. Phillips, who retails it "at the farm door" at LeBoeuf, "We typically sell out by the end of May."
It's confounding how rare it is to get real maple syrup at a restaurant, at least for breakfast. (It's confounding that you almost have to use the adjective "real.") Even famed Pittsburgh pancake places blow it by serving not-real maple syrup, even if the menus call it "maple syrup," so be sure to ask, and be sure the person you ask knows the difference. One place that uses the real deal is Habitat at the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown.
Maple Sugar Pecan Cornmeal Cake
When my pal Alisa Blatter says "I'll bring a cake," everyone within hearing distance nods in unison, up and down, up and down.
Alisa is a very, very good baker. She also is a seasonal cook. She brought this maple sugar coffee cake to a committee meeting a few weeks ago. For the first time in months, we had perfect attendance.
She'll tell you: Whipped cream, served alongside, is an essential part of this dessert. Maple sugar -- dehydrated maple syrup -- yields a true maple flavor and tender crumb. You can find it in gourmet and natural food stores. Try In the Kitchen on Penn in the Strip District.
-- Marlene Parrish
- Butter for the pan
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
- 1 cup maple sugar, divided
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- Confectioners' sugar for garnish
- Maple-sweetened whipped cream for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan or a deep fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
In a small bowl, combine pecans and 1 tablespoon maple sugar; reserve. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; stir in cornmeal, and set aside.
In a medium bowl, beat eggs with remaining maple sugar until light and frothy; stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.
Whisk in the flour mixture until almost incorporated, then whisk in buttermilk and melted butter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle pecan mixture evenly over the top.
Bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cake on a rack. Transfer to a platter and sift confectioners' sugar over the top.
Serve with maple-sweetened whipped cream.
-- "The Improvisational Cook" by Sally Schneider (Morrow, 2006)
Maple Bourbon Highball
This drink is kind of a hybrid between a sour and a highball, so that name is slightly misleading. Maybe "Maple Bourbon Sour Highball"? Not sure if that's too clunky.
-- Michael S. Hoffman
- 2 1/2 ounces bourbon
- 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 1 ounce maple syrup (preferably grade B)
- 3 drops aromatic bitters (such as Angostura)
- Club soda
- Lemon twist (for garnish)
Shake first 4 ingredients and strain into a tall glass -- such as a highball or chimney glass -- that is 2/3 filled with ice. Top off with 2 or 3 ounces of club soda, stir gently, and garnish with the lemon twist.
-- Michael S. Hoffmann
Nothing makes Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons feel like a dad more than cooking a good breakfast. Not some fancy menu full of hollandaise and cream sauce, either, but hearty, home-style food, such as the cornmeal pancakes from the 1943 edition of the "Joy of Cooking." Though the author, Irma Rombauer, a good Midwesterner, wasn't one to sing the praises of her recipes, she does describe this one as "delicate and good." They certainly are -- and this is one of the Times' favorite recipes of the past year. The trick here is pre-cooking the cornmeal by covering it with boiling water for 10 minutes. That softens it just enough to give the meal a tender texture. Serve this with good maple syrup, or with homemade jam.
-- Los Angeles Times
- 1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 to 2 tablespoons honey, sugar or syrup
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
Combine the cornmeal, salt, butter and honey in a large, heavy bowl. Pour the boiling water over the top and whisk well to combine. Cover tightly and let stand at least 10 minutes.
Measure the milk into a measuring cup. Add the egg and beat well with a fork until smooth. Stir this into the cornmeal mixture.
Sift together the flour and baking powder and stir into the cornmeal mixture with a few swift strokes.
Heat the griddle until a few drops of water dance and skitter across the surface. Butter or grease the griddle lightly, then pour the batter in 1/3 cup measures. Cook until bubbles stop appearing and the top surface appears slightly dry, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook just until the center feels set and no longer liquid, 1 to 3 more minutes. This makes about 8 pancakes.
Serve immediately with syrup or jam, or keep warm on a cookie sheet in a 200-degree oven.
Serves 2 to 4.
-- Adapted from "Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer (1943).
Simple Maple Sponge Cake
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 6 eggs
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla, optional
Separate eggs. Put whites in large bowl, yolks in medium bowl. Sift flourseveral times, put in small bowl. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Set aside. Beat yolks until light, add syrup (and vanilla if desired). Beat again to mix well. Pour yolk syrup mixture into whites and fold gently with wire whip until blended. Gradually add flour 1 tablespoon at a time while folding mixture. When blended, pour in large tube pan. (It seems to come out best for me if this pan is lightly greased with butter and dusted with flour). Bake at 325 degrees for about 1 hour. Cool on rack, then remove cake from pan. This cake is especially good with no frosting but with berries and whipped cream.
Serves 10 to 12.
-- Howles Family Maple Products, Guys Mills, Crawford County (howlesmapleproducts.com)
First Published March 17, 2011 12:00 am