In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
Maple syrup and maple sugar (dehydrated maple syrup) were the New World’s first natural sweeteners. Long before European settlers arrived with the European honeybee to make honey, American Indians dwelling in the Northeast were setting up sugaring camps among the plentiful sugar maple trees each spring. These camps produced an indigenous nutrient-rich sweetener high in minerals.
Indian folk tales present several different versions of how it all began. One legend tells the story of an Iroquois chief who threw his tomahawk into a maple tree one early March eve. When he retrieved it the following morning to go hunting, he noticed sap oozing from the cut in the tree. He collected some in a container and his wife added some of the syrup to the meat she was cooking for dinner. As the sap boiled down, a wonderful sweet maple flavor remained.
The Indian process of sugar making, crude by modern-day standards, employed hollowed out logs, heated rocks for evaporating the sap, and handmade birch bark containers for collecting the sap and storing the maple sugar. Most of the tribes boiled and crystallized the sap they collected into a granulated maple sugar–bypassing the syrup stage as syrup was harder to store–ending up with a more transportable sweetener.
Although the Indians couldn’t scientifically analyze maple syrup, they recognized it as a valuable food commodity. Today, scientists know it’s composed of 88-89 percent sucrose, with fructose and glucose making up the rest. Maple sugar is particularly rich in potassium, containing from 1,300 to 3,900 ppm, and calcium, containing from 400-2,100 ppm, depending on the source. Other trace minerals present in appreciable amounts include magnesium, manganese and phosphorous. Maple products also contain trace amounts of malic and citric acids, as well as some amino acids.
I love maple sugar and wonder why it is not more popular and available. (If you’ve ever made sweetened whipped cream with maple sugar, you will never want to use anything else.) Many recipes in old New England cookbooks call for “Indian sugar,” but few modern cooks have ever heard about it. Maple farmers sell granulated maple sugar directly to consumers under different names, such as maple powder, maple sprinkles or maple granules. I wholeheartedly recommend it for baking or making candy but suggest you buy it in bulk (5 or 10 pound minimum.) Otherwise, it is astronomically expensive.
As it turns out, the reason maple sugar became less popular and almost disappeared from the American culture was the rise of cheap white sugar produced by slavery in the West Indies. Hoping to keep America independent and not reliant on cane sugar or beet sugar imported from other countries, Thomas Jefferson, who was as much a connoisseur of fine food as a statesman, championed the native maple sugar tree. In 1808 he wrote, “I have never seen a reason why every farmer should not have a sugar orchard, as well as an apple orchard.” Ironically, even though white cane sugar began to undersell maple sugar, the popularity of maple syrup started to grow which helped preserve the American maple tradition.
Today, New Englanders relish the maple syrup season, even though it’s predictably muddy due to constant spring freezing and thawing. And although they are glad to see the season come, after days and weeks of hard work to glean a few gallons of liquid gold, most are equally glad to see it go.
The mud season harvest has fostered many traditions the most famous of which is “sugar on snow.” Adults and children alike eagerly await the new supply of maple syrup as it is ladled hot directly onto packed snow or finely shaved ice to create a delicious taffy-like treat. (Traditionally, one eats only the congealed syrup on top, but the uninitiated tend to eat the tasty concoction like a snowcone.)
Maple sugar trees (Acer saccharum) are tapped in early spring when conditions of alternating freezing and thawing exist. Some maple farmers collect only a few buckets of sap, while more sophisticated, larger operations use food-grade plastic tubing. I once visited a maple farmer in Nova Scotia who used 9,000 feet of plastic tubing in increasing widths to gather sap from 2,600 taps scattered throughout his 270-acre maple forest. Because the grove was set on a mountainside he could use gravity as an economical energy source.
After collection, the sap is transported to a sugarhouse where it is heated in a large, flat pan for reducing the syrup by a ratio of forty to one. The reduction can be classified as maple syrup when it reaches the legal density of approximately 67 percent sugar. To make granulated maple sugar, maple syrup is boiled to 237°F which concentrates the sucrose so that it crystallizes as it cools. The cooling method determines the crystal size.
Early American candy makers preferred a lighter maple syrup because it crystallized better. Their demands for light maple syrup helped it gain a more favorable status with consumers and pushed up the price and gave rise to the popularity of today’s Fancy and Grade A syrups. While Fancy has the bouquet maple syrup producers are looking for in a top grade syrup for sale, many reserve Grade A, Medium Amber for their own use. Gathered later in the sugaring season, Grade B (and C) syrups reflect the natural metabolism changes in the maple tree. These later syrups generally take longer to boil down to the legal specific density for syrup. Because it takes longer to boil down, some maple farmers don’t bother, especially when it sells for less, but I think these grades are actually more flavorful.
In addition to making a delectable topping for pancakes, maple syrup has hundreds of other uses. But remember that many commercial syrups –formulated to look like maple syrup–are fakes. Log Cabin syrup lists maple syrup as the fifth ingredient (about 2 percent) and Aunt Jemima’s brand contains none. Instead, the main ingredient of most table syrups is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a highly-refined sweetener. Hence, look for syrups that say on the label “100% pure maple syrup.”
Syrup is genuinely employed as a sweetener in many processed foods. Ham, bacon and sausage are oftentimes cured with maple syrup, and maple syrup adds a tinge of sweetness to condiments like mustard or barbecue sauces, or is one of the sweetener choices for preserves. It’s used by granola makers and Celestial Seasonings has recently put a maple vanilla tea on the market. But my favorite maple products are pure granulated maple sugar and its cousin maple powder, which are best bought in bulk.
By the way, the maple industry takes its maple sugar very seriously. Recently, a Vermont sugar maker was sentenced to four years in a federal prison for selling more than 500,000 pounds of what was claimed to be maple sugar which was in fact almost entirely cane sugar. A jury found W. Lyman Jenkins guilty on twenty counts of fraud and the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce laws. With cane sugar selling for somewhere around twenty cents a pound and the price of bulk maple sugar valued at $3.50 per pound and retailing at $4.95 and up, it’s not too hard to see why Jenkins was tempted. However, the severity of the sentence–one applauded by the maple sugar industry as a whole–should send a clear sign throughout the industry that tampering with the purity of maple sugar will not be tolerated.
Editor’s Note: Even desserts sweetened with natural sweeteners like maple syrup and maple sugar should be eaten sparingly.
For more information:
- Richard Sweterlisch, “Mud Season Harvest: Maple Sugaring in Vermont,” Richard Sweterlitsch, The World & I, March 1992.
- James M. Lawrence and Rex Martin, Sweet Maple: Life, Lore & Recipes from the Sugarbush, Chapters Publishing, Ltd., Shelburne, Vermont, 1993.
- For Maple by Mail, a free brochure listing Vermont maple producers who sell by mail, call the Vermont Department of Agriculture at (602) 828-3461.
- The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook, available for $2 from the Vermont Maple Promotion Board, 116 State Street, Drawer 20, Montpelier, VT 05620.
Indian Sugar Fudge
Maple sugar, sometimes called Indian sugar, and cream make this extraordinary fudge. The cream you choose will make a difference. Thin cream will make harder fudge, while a thick cream with more butterfat will make a softer fudge.
- 1 pound (about 2 3/4 cups ) maple sugar
- 3/4 cup thin cream
- 1/4 cup boiling water
- 2/3 cup walnuts or pecans
Put sugar in saucepan with cream and water, bring to boil and boil to soft ball stage, 240°F. Remove from the heat and beat until creamy*, add nuts and pour into a buttered stainless steel baking pan. Cool and cut. (*You should see crystallization begin within two minutes. If this does not happen, you need to reheat the mixture to a couple of degrees higher.)
Maple Orange Frosting
This frosting from Vermont Country Naturals is the perfect frosting for carrot cake or cupcakes.
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1 1/3 cups maple powder
- 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- more juice or water if needed
Whip the butter with maple powder in a medium mixing bowl. Add the orange juice and beat with an electric mixer. Make sure the frosting is thoroughly blended before deciding to add more liquid, a little bit at a time, until the desired consistency is achieved.
North-South Pecan Pie
Maple syrup from the north and pecans from the south give this pie its name. Rapadura beautifully replaces white sugar and real maple syrup displaces the usual refined corn syrup to create an incredible, and almost guilt-free, version of this classic American pie.
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup Rapadura (dehydrated cane sugar juice)
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/3 cup melted butter
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or 1 tablespoon rum
- 1 cup pecan halves*
- prepared 9-inch pie crust
Preheat oven to 375°F. Combine eggs, Rapadura, sea salt, butter, maple syrup and vanilla or rum. Beat well, stir in pecans and pour into a prepared 9-inch pie crust. Bake for 35-45 minutes. (*I like to arrange the pecans in concentric circles to create a beautiful and festive dessert. This is easy to do after the batter has been poured into the pie shell, because the pecans gently float on top.)
Maple Crème Chantilly
Crème chantilly is French for sweetened whipped cream. Once you taste whipped cream sweetened with maple powder, you won’t want it any other way.
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2-4 tablespoons maple powder
Start to whip the cream; add the vanilla all at once and the maple powder tablespoon by tablespoon until you reach the desired sweetness.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2000.