It is my birthday (as I write this on Monday) and I am snowed in. All I can think about is maple syrup. The days are palpably longer, and the swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures has become more dramatic. Even with the deep snow cover from this year’s winter, it has felt as if something could be stirring, but not today. It is a white out; everything is shut down.
A few years ago, I made my own syrup. My sons’ voices echo in my head. “Mom, you’re out of your mind!” “What are you doing?” It was late February. The days had become brighter; the sun actually had some warmth in it. Early mornings had a brightness and a clarity that felt fresh. But the woodstove was still lit, and on top of it, in a large flat pan, I was boiling sap.
The sweet steam hit you when you came in through the mudroom.
“I hope you don’t have any wall paper in the house,” a friend mentioned. “They say all that steam makes wall paper come off. Besides, your ceilings will get sticky.”
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I didn’t think so. But I actually didn’t care and the ceiling needed painting anyway. I wanted to make syrup, if for no other reason than to see if I could.
We live on South Street in Middlebury, close to the village, with homes facing the street, spaced close to each other and with narrow side yards. There are five sugar maples on the line between my house and my neighbor’s to the south — the line we call the lower forty, which, in this case, means forty feet. Only four of the maples are large enough for tapping, so I borrowed four sap buckets with lids and four taps from friends who sugar in Shelburne, and I bought a white felt filter from Paris Farmers Union.
It was a far cry from the days and nights I spent sugaring 30 years ago in northwestern Connecticut in Great Mountain Forest. The sugarhouse, nestled down in a hollow, was surrounded on three sides by the sugarbush. Its eaves were deep, hung with icicles; the woodpile in back felt like a fortress wall. After collecting sap, riding on the back of an old red tanker truck, filling it bucket by bucket, we piped it into a collecting tank and headed in to stoke the fire and watch the boil.
Inside it was all dark wood and steam, the fire pulsing, and the metal pans — evaporating pans — shining, the steam wafting up through vents high above. It looked like the inside of a watercolor painting — it was a young painter’s dream — but food, actually a kind of nectar, was being produced.
We fed the fire. We watched. We measured. We tasted the hot sap, streaming and steaming out of a spigot on the side of the evaporator. The sound of bubbling sap and the hot, sweet steam were intoxicating.
I took paper and watercolor paints to try and capture the wet warmth of that room, snug against the chill of the night outside. How to paint the flickering, steamy light? Capture the sweet, faint dirt smell? How would you describe the taste, a sweet like no other, with its earthiness, the roots of trees and water of leaves within?
As a young child, we collected sap in southern Vermont and boiled it in a cauldron slung from a tri-pod over a fire. Soft spring snow gave way underfoot. Below the circle of fire was a sledding hill. Our fathers made the syrup; we rode toboggans.
My attempt to make syrup on a woodstove from the sap of four very local trees on “the lower forty,” smack in the middle of town, was laden with memories, but in fact represented nothing more than an attempt to understand the boiling better. As my friend Margy, who taps six huge maples out front of her Cornwall house every year, says, “It’s a miracle. I mean, who would have thought that from something that watery dripping out of a tree comes something so good and free — it’s just a miracle.”
It is clear that the real syrup makers know things I do not. I visit them every summer at Field Days, check the colors and corresponding “grades” of the syrup, taste the different grades, ask questions, savor the smoothness of the maple cream (my favorite) on my tongue, nibble into the molded maple sugar candies. I visit sap houses every winter. I help friends collect the sap. I sample the fresh hot liquid as it reaches perfection, sometimes eat it on snow, and occasionally crunch pickles to cut the sweetness so I can have more. But I had never observed a boil from start to finish on my own.
Frankly, it didn’t go that well. It was hard to figure out the right temperature. At first I boiled it too hard, and the syrup was too thick for the filter. I started again. Outside, the weather warmed, the sap flow changed. Other days, the sap ran so rapidly, I couldn’t keep up with it. But eventually, I found a rhythm and the right boil, and finally there was a clear golden quart of syrup.
“Don’t touch it!” I told my sons, “at least, not yet.” My brother called from New York City, “I’ll take two gallons, please.”
In the end, I had four quarts of glorious light brown maple syrup, “South Street Gold.” We savored it teaspoonful by teaspoonful. The house smelled of wood-smoke and a vague unidentifiable sweetness. The ceiling was not sticky and we lost no wallpaper. We look at our maples with more respect; they’ve sweetened our life—but we have not boiled our own sap again.
Since my friend Margy’s chickens are laying up a storm with the longer days, I can’t help but think of pairing the flavor of fresh eggs with maple syrup, so here is a recipe for maple custard.
The eggs want to be as fresh as possible, and the trick to custard is to remember the following ratio: 2 parts liquid to one part egg. If you take 16 oz. of milk, and blend it with 8 oz. of egg, you will have 24 oz. of custard.
While good custard is creamy, there is no need for it to contain cream; the creaminess comes from the cooking method. Of course, I don’t measure my eggs in terms of ounces, so there is a little bit of personal alchemy in gauging the size of the eggs and determining how firm or soft you like your custard.
I alter the amount of milk slightly in this maple custard to accommodate the fact that the sweetener, fresh maple syrup, is a liquid.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Take 1/2 Cup of syrup and boil it till it is thicker, and caramelized, but still liquid. Pour it into 8 custard cups, or the base of a larger custard pan, and swirl it around so that it coats the sides. Put aside to cool.
Mix together all the other ingredients, including the other 1/2 Cup of the maple syrup, and beat till the liquid is a beautiful yellow creamy liquid.
Pour the liquid into the prepared custard cups and place in a shallow baking pan. Fill the baking pan half way up the height of the custard cups with boiling water. Cover the baking pan tightly with tin foil and carefully slide into oven.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the centers of the cups are firm but still jiggle slightly. With the tin foil on, there will be no crust or skin on the custards. If you want a slight crust, remove the foil ten minutes before completion. Let the custards cool completely before eating. They can be eaten out of the cups, or, after sliding a knife around the edges, tip them out onto a plate. The syrup will trickle down over the sides.