Imagine how it must have been for the indigenous Americans and early settlers who survived
winter on rations of dried meat, fish and roots, when the sweet, syrup was tapped and boiled then poured on the snow.
Knowing how the sweetness promised the change of seasons and broke the monotony of simple, bland foods, I thought of the traditional pygmy peoples of Africa whose third most common cause of death was falling from trees while gathering honey. (The first was being trampled by large animals; the second was falling into the fire at night after smoking powerful tobacco.) What a joy for those waiting on the ground for a mouthful of thick, sticky pleasure in a life of game, grubs and roots and shoots. (And a greater joy if the gatherer survived the climb!)
Very simply, we’re hard-wired to love sweet; it’s the first sensation we crave at birth. Even though we live in a world now more than ever filled with flavors and myriad food choices, our primitive memory sings praises to the simple, tongue-tingling pleasure of nature’s sugary syrups.
Maple, like vanilla, is a flavor that marries well with sweet and savory foods. Most of us think maple with pancakes, French toast or waffles. Or maybe not if you live in sugaring territory or love playing with food.
For me, the love affair began with molded maple sugar leaves and pilgrims and rich, amber syrup turning oatmeal and cornbread into dessert. But there is so much more that shines when touched with its presence.
Maple sugar is perfection in cookies, pecan pie, frosting, fudge and over-the-top maple sugar pie. Maple syrup in roasted autumn and winter vegetables — great on roasted Brussels sprouts , by the way — and whipped into yams.
You can make a killer hot buttered rum (or Bourbon) with a little maple syrup. dine on maple-flavored muffins and scones, add a splash of syrup when smoking trout or meats, glazing a ham, making baked beans, winter squash or barbecue sauces.
Even more amazing is the synergy of maple and vanilla. Both highly prized flavors of the Americas, both more than remarkable together.
Last winter I found and adapted a recipe for Maple Simmered Chicken with Cranberries and Vanilla. (I added the vanilla of course.) It was sensational and a huge hit. As it’s not really a summer recipe, you may want to bookmark it for later as you’ll really enjoy it when the days turn chilly.
Custard is another one of those cozy autumn-winter delicacies served warm with tea. But don’t wait for cold weather: Make this recipe in the evening when it isn’t still blistering hot, and serve it cold the next day with fresh berries or peaches. I admit when I made the custard it was hard to keep from eating two or three at once. They’re rich, yes, but so easy to savor in your mouth then let slip down your throat. Maple Custard.
As I close this blog trilogy dedicated to maple, I’m adding a poem I found online that brought me back to the sugaring shack I visited in Quebec nearly a decade ago. It catches the essence of the experience, the joy, the obsession of divine sweetness.
Maple Sugar Dreams
Into the Nitassinan,
I trudge and sink
through new snow.
A buttery layer of sun
spread out on the white surface,
The purpose of my venture
emerges before me,
thick and strong
like the spirit of Quebec.
large enough to mask my face,
dance and sing in mild wind
to the tune of the immigrant son.
guide my hands.
I penetrate the trunk.
A drill, my tomahawk,
a spout, my wood chip.
Liquid gold sap
pings into a cold metal pail
as I drown my thoughts
in sugar ice and cookies.
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Nature provides us with the most delicious sources of nourishment.