If you live in the Northeast, the arrival of spring means many things. Warmer temperatures. Less snow. More rain. The end of maple tapping season. Starting in mid-February and lasting for roughly six weeks, maple trees across this region get tapped for their sap. Once warmer weather hits, tapping season ends and my quest for the tastiest maple syrup begins.
Every time I pour rich, Grade A syrup over my French toast, waffles or pancakes, I should thank the Native Americans for this lovely sweetener. As they did with so many other useful foodstuffs, Native Americans taught the early settlers how to tap maple trees and create maple syrup and sugar.
The process is fairly simple. Put in spout in a sugar or black maple tree. Attach a bucket to the spout. Collect the tree’s sap in this bucket and then boil it down so that the most of the water evaporates and the sap becomes thick and dark. Want maple sugar? Just keep boiling the sap until it becomes granulated like sugar.
Until the late 19th century maple sugar, not syrup, was the preferred product. Today, though, it’s the syrup that we all crave. Whether I’m pouring it over my pancakes, glazing vegetables with it or adding it to baked goods, it’s a delightful way to enliven a variety of foods.
As I’m a bit of a maple syrup snob, I tend to splurge on darker, bolder ones. When searching for true palate pleasers, I look at the grade, color and ingredients. “Maple-flavored” gets set aside immediately for this indicates a high percentage of corn syrup with a splash of maple added for color and taste. What I want is pure maple syrup.
Once I’ve established that it’s pure syrup, I consider the grade. Rated according to flavor and color, American-produced maple syrup comes in Grades AA (also known as “Fancy”), A, B and C. Grade AA possesses a very mild taste and light amber hue. Grade A is slightly stronger in color and flavor while Grade B boasts a hearty taste and dark amber shade. Grade C, which isn’t table-grade, most closely resembles molasses.
For the following recipe I use Grade A maple syrup. Since pure maple syrup must be refrigerated after opening, I allow it come to room temperature before measuring and adding it to the muffin butter.
VERMONT MAPLE SYRUP MUFFINS
from The Joy of Muffings by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher (Golden West, 2002)
Makes 12 muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 12 muffin cups.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Form a well in the center of the ingredients and set the bowl aside.
In a separate bowl whisk together the egg, milk, syrup and butter. Gradually pour the egg mixture into the well at the center of the dry ingredients and stir together. The batter should be lumpy. Do not overbeat or the muffins will be tough. Spoon the batter into greased muffin cups and bake until brown, about 15 minutes.