Just Do It
It’s been a crazy, mixed-up sort of weekend. Snow fell off and on. As Sam (my son) collected the first sap from the buckets he hung earlier in the week, he spotted a barred owl in one of the trees. That’s the owl that calls, “Who Cooks for You?”
The answer, of course, is me. At least to those within hearing distance.
This morning while we continued our first boil, we spotted our first redwing blackbirds. Buckets and birds mean spring will come to Vermont. Falling snow means we are still locked in winter. Like I said, its been a mixed metaphor of a weekend.
When Sam was young, he liked to roam around and indulge in sips of sap from buckets the neighbors hung during sugaring season. They were making syrup; he was enjoying the cold, faintly sweet, clear liquid that collected in the buckets. The spring he turned eleven he tapped two trees using a drill bit (without the drill), a couple of drinking straws, and plastic 1-quart containers.
The next year, Sam got the season rolling with old buckets and taps a neighbor no longer needed. He drilled the holes for the taps with an awl. That was the year the sap he collected exceeded his thirst. We started boiling sap in our kitchen to make syrup. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap to make syrup. The house welcomed a little extra moisture in the air after a long, dry heating season. At the top of the stairs, there developed an aroma of maple syrup. We didn’t care. No wallpaper loosened from the walls (who uses wallpaper these days?); no mold grew on the paint. We made about a pint of syrup. Liquid gold.
These days we have seven taps in five trees. We start by arguing whether or not it is time to tap. Since Sam provides the labor, he always wins the argument, though it never becomes particularly heated. (We missed the first run a few years in a row, but haven’t done so in a while. The earliest sap runs produce a very light, delicately nuanced syrup that is considered “Fancy” grade. As the season progresses, the syrup becomes darker, going from Fancy to Grade A to Grade B to “buddy,” as the trees begin to bud and the season ends.)
So Sam tapped the trees earlier this week, a week after a major snowstorm dumped two feet of snow—on top of the three feet of snow already in the yard. The weather warmed to days above freezing and nights below freezing, as it is supposed to at this time of year, and sap collected in the buckets.
This weekend we started our first boil. Sam collected the sap and strained it through coffee filters. Then he poured as much sap as he could into a five-gallon stockpot, and I began the boil. I boiled the sap up until it was time to go to bed, at which point I transferred the stockpot to the porch. When I got up this morning, I added another half gallon of sap that hadn’t fit in the pot yesterday and put the pot on to boil again. When it is reduced to a couple of quarts, we’ll strain it again and pour it into a small, heavy saucepan for the final boil to the syrup stage.
Sap becomes syrup at 7.1° F above the boiling point. Because our thermometer isn’t that accurate and we’ve never bothered to buy a hydrometer to accurately measure the density of the syrup (this isn’t a commercial operation), we decide when it is syrup by the look of the bubbles. When the bubbles of the boiling sap change from small to big and open, the syrup is ready. Sometimes we pull it off too soon and the syrup is thin; other times it boils too long and some of the syrup crystallizes in storage.
That first pancake supper from the first batch of syrup is worth everything. Because syrup stores so well, nobody tells you that fresh maple syrup is infinitely more delicate and delicious that aged syrup.
So my advice to anyone who lives up North among sugar maples: Just do it. The syrup may be thin, or it may crystallize. Whatever. It will be perfect.
Quantity Pancake Mix
I developed this recipe for my book 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains (© Andrea Chesman, 1988. All rights reserved). The mix makes a hearty pancake that doesn't sacrifice tenderness and lightness. When making the batter, I often throw in a grated apple or a handful of berries. For lighter pancakes, separate the eggs and beat the egg whites.
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup baking powder
3 tablespoons salt
To make 1 batch (18 to 20 four-inch pancakes)
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups Quantity Pancake Dry Mix (above)
To make the mix, combine the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Store in an airtight jar.
To make a batch of pancakes, preheat the oven to 200°F. Place four to six plates in the oven to warm, if desired.
Combine the eggs, oil, and milk in a large glass measuring cup or bowl and beat well. Add the mix and beat until smooth.
Spray a well-seasoned cast-iron griddle or nonstick frying pan with nonstick cooking spray and heat over medium heat. Pour about 3 tablespoons batter for each pancake and cook for about 1 1/2 minutes, or until bubbles appear on the surface and the edges appear dry. Flip and cook on the other side until done. Keep warm in the oven until all the batter is cooked.