If you read my books, you would know that I mention Vermont at least once in every book, even if the novel is set elsewhere. In my second book, Nerve Attack, significant parts of the action take place in Vermont, and Ben & Jerry's, Vermont's famous ice cream, is a motivating factor for getting a Russian gangster to cooperate. My protagonist, Kolya Petrov, who spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, retains a love for snow and cold weather, and Vermont is a frequent vacation destination for him and his fiancee, Alex Feinstein.
Why I'm obsessed
I grew up pouring the store-bought high fructose imitation onto my pancakes and waffles and didn't experience real maple syrup until sometime in my late 20s. I was stunned by the richness of the flavor, and never went back to the other stuff. Now, I always have at least a gallon on hand. I love it on pancakes, especially pumpkin pancakes, but also on ice cream, in pastries, and even on salmon. Summer in Vermont means Maple Creemees - soft vanilla ice cream swirled with maple syrup.
And maybe I'm obsessed with maple syrup because I'm obsessed with Vermont. I'm originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and my first visit to Vermont was for a cross country skiing trip during a week off from a grueling job at a large New York law firm. I remember gliding through silent woods with the snow softly drifting to the ground, finding peace and serenity from the beauty and the silence. After skiing, we drank coffee in front of a wood stove while a lop-eared rabbit hopped around the room. Mornings, we would eat pancakes or oatmeal with, yes, real Vermont maple syrup, before returning to the woods. I was in heaven.
From that moment forward, I wanted to live in Vermont. Eight years ago, it finally happened. Retired from the practice of law, my husband and I moved into a house in Northern Vermont. The previous owner left us a gift of a jar of maple syrup, tapped from trees on our six acres. We've thought about doing it ourselves, but it's just so easy to go buy some from a neighbor. Besides, I'm lazy - and I have books to write.
So whoever came up with the idea of taking sap from trees?
Native Americans discovered maple sugar and were tapping trees and boiling the sap down long before Europeans ever reached northern New England and learned the process from them. (It was generous of the tribes to share their information, considering what Europeans would do to them.)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the new Americans boiled the maple sap down completely to make a rich dark sugar. The sugar kept indefinitely, which syrup would not.
Cane sugar became cheaper in the early 19th century but lost its appeal to many northerners before and during the civil war, because cane sugar growers relied on slavery. Sugar made from maple syrup gained in popularity in the north, and in 1870, Vermont was the leading producer.
By the end of the 19th century, cane sugar became cheaper, and maple sugar became a luxury, and some of it became syrup instead of sugar. In the early 20th century, syrup was the main maple product. In 1920, Vermont produced 3.5 million gallons of maple syrup.
How's it made?
Maple syrup requires tapping the trees and taking the sap at just the right time. People used to do it with buckets and metal taps. Now, many syrup producers have acres lined with plastic tubes running from tree to tree, which saves labor and allows the collection of more sap.
Gathering the sap requires temperatures to be above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. Once temperatures rise above freezing around the clock, the season is over. Generally, trees are tapped for about 6 weeks in the February to April range, although recently seasons have shortened due to warmer temperatures - and yes, global warming may eventually end maple syrup - as well as life as we know it.
The sap is boiled down in the sugar houses that are all over Vermont - and are fun to visit, when you're next in the state. It takes 50 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Is it healthy?
Well, yeah, okay, it's sugar. High in carbohydrates, no fiber, no protein, and yup, it's going to raise your blood sugar, especially if you have it with pancakes or ice cream. Not good if you're diabetic. Not good to eat in excess.
But still, of the sugars out there (and don't even mention artificial sweeteners), maple may be one of the healthiest. It's filled with minerals, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, and it is rich in antioxidants. WebMD even claims that maple syrup may protect against Alzheimer’s. The jury is still out, but it gives me an excuse to keep eating it. That and the taste.
And finally, a recipe.
Everything tastes better with maple syrup. I was going to put up the recipe for maple pecan pie, but I'm writing this while visiting family - and alas - that recipe is not on my computer. Instead, I'm offering a recipe for maple syrup pumpkin pie - in honor of October. I do not have any crust recipes because, as previous mentioned, I'm lazy (and a little inept at crust making). I prefer the store-bought kind.
So here it is:
Maple Syrup Pumpkin Pie
- 2 large eggs
- 1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Set an oven rack in the lowest position and heat oven to 350º F. Place the pie plate on a foil-lined baking sheet.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, cream, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves.
Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust and bake until the center is set, 60 to 70 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before serving.
Happy October! Enjoy! And may the syrup be ever in your flavor.