Maple Syrup — A Regional Food


09 Mar Maple Syrup — A Regional Food

Checking the buckets collecting sap for maple syrup

Two years ago, almost to the day, I went maple syruping at a friend’s farm. (Click the link! Go on. Not only will you learn how it’s done, there’s a photo of a really handsome dog.)

The sky was overcast but the air was damp. And not in the kind of bone-chilling way you get in late October.  A light jacket kept me warm and I wore no gloves as I snapped away on my camera.

Given the Narnia-like grip winter currently has on us, it’s hard to believe the calendar. Today’s high is several degrees below freezing, the snow is thigh-deep, and the sap has yet to run.  But two years ago? My boots were caked with boggy mud, and I was breaking a light sweat as we helped collect the sap Jo Marie’s maples so freely provided.

A row of trees with sap buckets for making maple syrup

Later this spring, every Farmers’ Market will have a stall stacked high with jars, jugs and canisters of maple syrup in varying shades — dark, amber and light. Some would-be customers will gasp at the price. Someone will half-jokingly inform the vendor that whisky is cheaper. The vendor will smile and nod. The price won’t come down. Nor should it.

Maple syrup is a limited-time, near miracle. The sap collects drop by drop. Yes, the bucket eventually fills, but you need way more than one. Sap weighs about the same as water. The math alone makes my arms ache.  

A single drop of maple sap drops into the bucket. We're still hours — even days  — away from maple syrup.

And once all that maple sap is collected? It takes a back-breaking 40 gallons to produce a single gallon of maple syrup.

Finally. A bucket is full. Students help collect sap for maple syrup.

While the process is straightforward enough, the boiling produces so much steam you can’t do it in your home. Just ask Jo Marie who brought the kitchen ceiling down in her first attempt.

Now she boils it outdoors, in open vats over a fire from wood collected from her brush, a task done incrementally over the course of the year.

Boiling the sap in open vats outdoors. The maple syrup is almost ready.

Of course, she can do this because she lives on a large farm with hundreds of trees. We urban dwellers can’t make this ourselves. There’s no balcony-friendly, small-container option, and tapping the trees in the city parks is frowned upon.

With the labour of maple syrup in mind, I didn’t want to waste any. So I chose a recipe that honours the maple taste without using too much syrup. The recipe was developed by Jill Snider, one of the people on the photography team that shot The Messy Baker. Jill’s creative and knowledgeable and understands how to elevate a recipe without pushing it over the edge. She didn’t take the obvious route of maple and walnuts. Instead, she started with the familiar and then layered in sweet pecans and aromatic hazelnuts. Some brown sugar, flour and butter form the crust.

Maple Nut Squares are topped with a mix of nuts and maple syrup.

The results? A square that’s worthy of real maple syrup but so much easier to make.

A stack of maple nut squares made with real maple syrup.

Maple Nut Bars
Recipe type: Baking
Cuisine: Canadian
Prep / inactive time: 
Cook / active time: 
Total time: 
Serves: Makes 20 to 54 bars
Maple Nut Bars These delicious bars start with a shortbread crust and add a slightly gooey maple topping loaded with your favorite nuts. What could be better?
  • 1 cup (250 mL) butter, softened
  • 1⁄2 cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar
  • 2 cups (500 mL) all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup (250 mL) packed brown sugar
  • 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) pure maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp (30 mL) butter, melted
  • 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) all-purpose flour
  • 1⁄2 tsp (2 mL) baking powder
  • 1 cup (250 mL) coarsely chopped pecans
  • 3⁄4 cup (175 mL) sliced hazelnuts
  • 2⁄3 cup (150 mL) coarsely chopped walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 13- by 9-inch (3 L) cake pan.
  1. In a bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and brown sugar until smooth and creamy. On low speed, beat in flour until thoroughly blended and crumbly. Press evenly into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven until golden around edges, 12 to 15 minutes.
  1. In a bowl, whisk eggs, brown sugar, maple syrup and melted butter until smoothly blended. Whisk in flour and baking powder. Mix well. Stir in pecans, hazelnuts and walnuts. Spread evenly over warm crust.
  2. Return to oven and bake until topping is set, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely in pan on rack. Cut into bars.
If you prefer, mix the crust in a food processor. Use cold butter rather than softened. You can also mix the crust in a bowl, cutting in cold cubed butter using a pastry blender, 2 knives or your fingers.

Use pure maple syrup for baking. Pancake syrup doesn't have enough maple flavor and can react differently in baking.

Buy California walnuts for baking. If you have the time, buy walnut halves and chop them rather than using pieces. They're fresher and of a higher quality.

In all your baking, you can replace all-purpose flour with unbleached all-purpose flour, if you prefer. They are interchangeable.

Excerpted from Bake Something Great! 400 Bars, Squares & Cookies by Jill Snider © 2011 Reprinted with publisher permission.
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  • Jodi
    Posted at 15:50h, 09 March Reply

    It has been a long, bitterly cold winter here in Nova Scotia, but I suspect the sap will have started to run this weekend. There was a piece on the local CTV affiliate station the other day, saying that the same kind of weather that made for potholes makes for excellent tapping weather. If that is the case, this should be a bumper crop year for maple syrup in our neck of the woods.

    By the way, I made my amended version of your Scottish lentil soup today for my friend & editor…I grated in some local sweet potato and a couple of small zucchinis and dropped the celery (because I had none), and added a generous grating of fresh ginger. It was awesome, if I do say so myself. :-)

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 16:05h, 09 March Reply

      Then we should have stellar tapping weather here, too! It’s been unreal and the roads are in terrible shape. A bumper crop of maple syrup would take the edge off.

      I’m thrilled that experimented with the lentil soup recipe. I bet sweet potato would be amazing in it. I hadn’t thought of zucchini, but that’s a super idea. Especially if I end up with tons and tons like last summer. And you know I love ginger. I think I’ll give your version a try next time I make it. Thanks so much for sharing your revisions!

      Here’s to spring coming to both our parts of the world. I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but I miss mud.

  • Emily @ Life on Food
    Posted at 20:36h, 09 March Reply

    My husband’s family makes their own maple syrup. It is quite the process. I always feel so lucky when we get a jar.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 10:44h, 10 March Reply

      I’d feel lucky, too. I think when we know what goes into something, we appreciate it more. Enjoy your syrup.

  • Abbie @ Needs Salt
    Posted at 11:02h, 10 March Reply

    I live in Vermont, which means there are buckets on nearly every maple tree and a few year’s supply of pure maple syrup in my pantry. It’s so fascinating to watch the actual process taking place.
    These bars look incredible! I’m totally crazy for maple (obviously) so these look like the most perfect decadent treat. Ever.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 11:16h, 10 March Reply

      I bet those blue buckets are as welcomed as robins in the spring! It’s amazing that someone thought up the process. The sap looks just like water and has hardly any taste. But the finished products is intensely flavourful and delicious.

      The bars are definitely going on my list of baking items to bring to potlucks and special events. They’re easy to make very tasty. A bit too tasty, in fact. I keep nibbling them!

  • Andrea Cole
    Posted at 16:43h, 15 March Reply

    I live in Montreal and going to the sugar bush in the spring is a ritual. It is delicious a great meal followed by some sweet treats, hopefully I will make it there if our weather ever improves!

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 18:19h, 15 March Reply

      That sounds like a wonderful spring tradition! I hope the weather improves and you can make your annual sugar bush trek.

  • The Canadian Food Experience Project: Round Up Ten
    Posted at 12:44h, 17 March Reply

    […] Christie at The Messy Baker from Guelph, Ontario, writes about Maple Syrup as a regional Canadian food, and says, “A […]

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