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Sometimes I think maple sugaring was invented to give New Englanders something to look forward to all winter long! To me, it symbolizes the official beginning to the end of winter, no matter what the calendar says.

Maple season is not necessarily unique to New England, but we feel rather possessive about, and proud of, it. Visiting a sugar house in the early spring is a great cure for cabin fever and it’s educational as well. Most sugar house operators are glad to explain the magical process of converting 40 gallons of sugar maple tree sap into 1 gallon of maple syrup. There’s more than a little alchemy involved in the process. The result truly is liquid gold.

To create maple sugar, the syrup needs to be boiled still further to form a sweet, sugary maple treat that can be eaten as is and used in and on foods and in baking and many other recipes as well.

Weather conditions and season lengths, previous seasons’ rainfall and snowfall all figure in to the ‘magic of maple’. Other factors such as sun, wind and ground moisture can affect the length of the sugaring off season. The window of opportunity is small, further dictated by the exact combination of warm days and cool nights.

Growing up in Northern Vermont, it seemed like everyone with even a few maple trees, (which was just about everyone), would tap them and boil down the sap to make syrup or sugar. My family would take drives into the countryside and look for sugar houses that were ‘boiling’, which was easy to see from quite a distance. Huge plumes of sweet scented steam would billow above the houses and hover in the just-above-freezing air.

I remember especially, one instance, my dad stopping to point out a farmer steering a hogshead of sap towards his sugar house with a team of majestic workhorses. Even then Dad realized this was a dying art form, with tractors already taking over this chore on many farms. The bells on those harnesses jingled and the coats and manes and tails of those gentle giants shone in the pale late afternoon sunlight.

Dad pulled our old Rambler station wagon over and took out his always handy 35 mm camera. He waited until the farmer came abreast of the road. When the farmer was within hearing distance, Dad shouted across the snow bank to him, “mind if I take your picture?”

“Oh no, no pictures,” the farmer said, shaking his head.

“It could end up Vermont Life Magazine,” Dad shouted back. (They did periodically run contests of rural life scenes but I’m not sure Dad actually ever entered that photo…)

“Well, Okay then,” the old-timer said, reining in his team and posing proudly next to them. I can never taste maple syrup to this day without remembering that episode and picturing that moment.

Every year I still go out in search of new-to-me and already-favorites-of-mine, sugar houses. When my children were growing up, I took them along on these excursions. I wanted them to see this nearly lost art we are so fortunate to still be able to witness in New England.

Often, my now adult children will accompany me still on these end-of-winter adventures. Last year, my son Liam and his wife Elisabeth and I attended a sugaring-off party during Maple Weekend, at one of my favorite local sugar houses, Hutchinson’s in Canterbury NH. There was spicy meat grilling outside and energetic fiddling and country dancing inside. We had sugar-on-snow and enjoyed the music for quite a while in the fresh spring air beneath the clouds of maple steam and wood smoke.

We finished our road trip up that day, with a visit to the Fox Family Smokehouse, also in Canterbury where we balanced our palate with some smoked Cabot cheddar cheese.

Maple Weekend this year (2012) in NH is March 24th and 25th.

Some traditions are just too good to let go of.

The taste of real maple is quite unique. If you’ve never had the real thing, you owe it to yourself to find a place near you and take a field trip this season. Fortunately, in most of New England, It’s not difficult to locate a sugar house. Most sugar houses are situated in scenic rural areas. Make some time this spring to visit a local New England sugar house.

If you can find a sugar-house that offers sugar-on-snow, I highly recommend partaking of this Old-Fashioned Treat, a tasty New England tradition. Some ‘sugar shacks’ also offer hot fresh doughnuts and dill pickles. Some sugar houses make coffee with the fresh maple sap. Most also sell the products and some even offer meals, like New England Pancake Breakfasts. A very famous pancake restaurant in New Hampshire is Polly’s Pancake Parlor.

Follow this link for Maple Sugar producers in your area. You may want to call ahead to be sure they are in operation the day you plan to visit.

allthingsnewengland.com/new-england-food-and-wine/new-england-farms/186-maple-sugar-in-new

Whole Wheat French Toast and NH Maple Syrup

Both maple syrup and maple sugar can be used to top ice cream, yogurt and oatmeal, pancakes, waffles and French toast. Add a teaspoon or two, to tea, cocoa or coffee. If you’d like to get a little more adventurous, check out some of my recipes below.

MAIN DISHES

Maple and Orange Ham Glaze and Sauce

In a small saucepan, blend together over medium low heat:

3 ounces of orange juice concentrate

3 ounces dark maple syrup

2 T prepared golden brown mustard

2 T butter or bacon fat

Use to baste a ham 3 to 4 times in the last hour of baking.

Add all ham drippings in baking pan to remaining glaze in saucepan. Blend together over medium-low heat, with 1 ounce of orange juice concentrate and 2 ounces of dark maple syrup, until well mixed. Serve this maple orange sauce with the meal.

Elizabeth’s Version of Ruth Niven’s Baked Beans

My friend Ruth found the original recipe for these beans in a 1970s issue of Yankee magazine, attributed to John E Withee. She brought her version of these to a storytelling gathering we attended and I begged her for the recipe. She generously shared the original recipe with me and made comments about each of the changes/improvements she’d made. I in turn, made the beans following her version but used items I had on hand, substituting ham for bacon, added onions, replaced the molasses with maple syrup etc., and then I re-wrote the recipe to reflect those changes. So here it is.

Wash and pick over:

2 pounds of kidney beans

Soak overnight in ample water, 2 inches above beans.

Drain and refill with fresh water, 2 inches above beans.

Bring beans to boil, partially covered.

Add:

2 onions, diced

Simmer until bean skins break, about 45 minutes.

Add water if needed.

Season with:

2 tablespoons prepared golden brown mustard

1 teaspoon powdered ginger and 2-4 chunks of crystallized ginger, sliced thin

½ cup dark maple syrup and ½ cup brown sugar

2 cups of cooked chopped or shredded ham

Bake in a pottery bean pot at 250 degrees all day, 8 am to 6 pm (or 350 degrees for six hours).

Makes 1 ½ large bean pots full.

Recipe can be halved

Wonderful with brown bread, steamed or baked and chunky cole slaw.

Freezes well

Maple and Cider Pork Roast

3 lb. Pork Loin Roast

2 1/2 cups Apple Cider

1 cup Apple Sauce

3 ounces Maple Syrup

1 tsp. rosemary leaves

1 tsp. thyme leaves

1 tsp. sage leaves

2 crushed garlic cloves

Sea Salt

Score roast about 1 inch deep across the top and half way down the sides. Place in a roasting pan and rack. Add 2 cups of water to the pan.

In a small saucepan, cook 2 cups cider on medium heat until reduced by half. Blend in Apple Sauce and Maple Syrup. Shut off burner and set pan aside.

Rub garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage into top and sides of roast.

Make a tent of tin foil and loosely cover roast.

Roast pork for one hour on 400 degrees F. Remove foil; add more water to bottom of pan if necessary to prevent scorching.

Reduce heat to 350 degrees F for 1 1/2 hours.

Baste every half hour with apple-maple mixture.

15 minutes before roast is done, sprinkle with sea salt to form a light crust.

Remaining baste may be cooked on medium heat with:

1/2 cup cider for 5 minutes and served with the roast as a sauce.

Baked Chicken with Maple Syrup and Bacon

3 pounds of chicken pieces

1 pound of thick sliced maple smoked bacon

2-3 ounces of maple syrup

Spread chicken pieces out on a large greased baking sheet or pan

Baste each chicken piece with maple syrup. Wrap bacon around chicken pieces. Baste again.

Place on a baking sheet, lined with foil and sprayed to prevent excessive sticking.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes or until done.

SIDE DISHES

Maple Syrup Acorn Squash

Acorn Squash, 1 for each 2 servings

Cider

Apples

Nutmeg, ground

Cinnamon, ground

Butter

Maple Syrup

Take a small slice off the top and bottom or off of each side of an acorn squash (this forms a stable surface for the squash to rest on while cooking).

Slice each acorn squash crosswise or lengthwise once, on the same plane with the smaller slice made earlier.

With a soup spoon, scoop out and discard all seeds and fibrous pulp.

Set squash halves into a well-greased baking dish, small slice side down.

Prick each section interior several times with a fork or paring knife, about 1 inch deep to allow flavors to permeate.

Into each squash, add in this order:

1 T butter

Dash of nutmeg

¼ Apple sliced into 4 slices

1 T Maple Syrup

1 T Apple Cider

Dash of cinnamon

Add 1 cup of cider to the pan.

Add water if necessary during baking to keep bottom of pan moist.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 min. to 1 hour.

Squash should be tender all through when a sharp knife is inserted into the top.

Maple Sweet Potato Bake

4 large sweet potatoes, baked, cooled and peeled

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup Maple Syrup

¼ cup chopped Walnuts

Butter

Ground Cinnamon

Ground cardamom

Sea Salt

Butter a medium sized casserole dish well.

Quarter potatoes and spread into dish. Mash slightly with a fork.

Pour cream and then syrup over potatoes.

Dot with butter and shake cinnamon, cardamom and salt on top to taste.

Add chopped walnuts evenly on top.

Bake at 350, uncovered until just begins to brown, about 20 minutes.

Maple Vinaigrette Dressing for Winter Salad

¼ cup cider vinegar or herb vinegar

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup cider or dessert wine

½ tsp each: crushed rosemary, crushed celery seed, crushed basil, dried thyme

1 clove garlic crushed

Blend well with a whisk or in a blender; make at least 4 hours before serving.

Keep refrigerated.

Use on Winter Salad, below.

Winter Salad

For 4 individual salads:

In a large bowl, mix:

1 cup red leaf lettuce, torn

1 cup baby spinach leaves

1 cup red cabbage shredded

Arrange on 4 flat salad plates.

Top with 1/4 of each of the following:

1 red apple, cored and sliced into wedges

1 red apple, cored and sliced into wedges

1 large carrot, shredded

Handful each: pecans, smoked almonds

Handful raisins or

Handful dried cranberries

4 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, or blue cheese, crumbled or cubed

Serve with a maple vinaigrette dressing. See recipe above.

BREAKFAST, DESSERT, BEVERAGES, MISCELLANEOUS

Maple Butter

In a small bowl, blend together:

½ cup maple sugar

1 stick softened butter

Use within one week.

Keep covered when not using.

Great on English muffins, bagels, toast, pancakes, waffles, French toast etc.

Maple Granola

Combine in a large bowl or kettle:

4 cups whole rolled oats

1 cup wheat germ or crushed flax seed

1 cup dry milk

1 cup sunflower seeds

Blend the following together and add to above ingredients:

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 cup maple syrup

½ cup boiling water

2 tsp vanilla or almond extract

Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 30 minutes at 300 degrees, stirring every 10 minutes.

Let cool for 5 minutes and add the following:

1 cup each:

Raisins or diced dates or cranberries

Walnuts or pecans

Almonds

Shredded coconut

½ cup sunflower seeds, hulled pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds

When completely cool, store in large glass jar, sealed tight. Refrigerate.

New England Indian Pudding

Scald:

5 cups milk

Stir in:

½ cup stone-ground cornmeal

Then blend in:

1/2 stick butter, softened

¾ cup maple syrup

2 T dark brown sugar

2 eggs, beaten well

Pinch sea salt

1 tsp. each; ground ginger and cinnamon

Optional:

1 cup raisins

1 cup walnut pieces

Butter a medium casserole dish well

Add the batter, spreading evenly

Pour over all and do not stir in:

1 cup light cream or ½ and ½

Bake in a 350 degree oven for one hour

Serve with ice cream or whipped cream

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Maple Milk Shake

3 cups of milk

½ cup maple syrup

2 cups vanilla bean ice cream

Blend all together in a blender until just smooth

Makes 2 tall glasses of milk shake

New England Cream Whiskey

Maple Syrup, dark ½ – 1 cup, or ‘to taste’

Vanilla Extract ½ to 1 tsp., or ‘to taste’

Half and Half or Light Cream 1 qt.

Heavy Cream 2 cups

New England Maple Whiskey 1 -2 cups, or ‘to taste’

In a small saucepan, heat syrup slowly on low until it thins out.

In a blender, combine syrup and whiskey and extracts. Blend together gently.

Add cream, one cup at a time, on low and blend after each cup is added.

Blend all on high for 15 seconds.

Start with the smaller portions of the ingredients with ‘to taste’ portions and if you prefer more of one of those ingredients, (like vanilla extract), adjust by adding to a small amount of liqueur and blending well together, then blending well into remainder of liqueur.

Pour contents into a sterile glass container and seal.

Refrigerate.

Serve in small liqueur glasses, cold or allow cream whiskey to come to room temperature.

Keeps for up to 2 weeks but don’t worry, it won’t last that long!

Amish Baked Apples

Large apples

Pastry crust (one 2-crust pastry recipe makes about enough dough to wrap 5 large apples)

Pecans

Dried cranberries

Maple syrup

Apple Cider

Cinnamon Sugar

Heavy cream

Take large apples, core them and peel stripes, from the top to the bottom, about one inch apart.

Wrap each apple in pastry.

Place in a well-buttered baking or pie pan.

Fill the hollow apple centers with a mix of dried cranberries and pecans.

Add syrup to the top of each apple

Dust generously with cinnamon sugar.

Add about ¾ inch of cider to the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

Watch cider and add more if it cooks entirely down.

Serve in bowls with heavy cream.

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