On Sunday here in Des Moines, we woke to snow ... again. A few sunny days in the 50s and 60s last week tricked me into thinking spring had arrived, but in fact, the first official day is tomorrow, March 20. And as we Midwesterners know, even that calendar date means little. There could be more white-dusted mornings before the daffodils bloom.
But if there is one benefit to the tedious freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw of March, it’s maple syrup. In her cookbook Modern Maple, Teresa Marrone explains that as days grow warmer, dormant maple trees wake and begin to draw groundwater up through their roots to nourish their branches and promote leaf and bud growth. At night, when the temperature dips below 32° again, the flow stops. As Native Americans and colonists learned centuries ago, you can only tap trees during this period of stop-and-go sap. (Continuously flowing sap is cloudy and has too many impurities for syrup.) Beyond seasonal limitations, the basic math of sugaring adds to maple syrup's allure: You need 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. No doubt, this is liquid gold.
Teresa’s book, which offers an intro to the production of maple syrup as well as 75 recipes, is part of the Minnesota Historical Society Press’s Northern Plate series. Since pure maple syrup is so expensive, I was concerned that the recipes would be cost-prohibitive—and indeed, there are some, like the (drool) Maple Baklava, which call for a jaw-dropping quantity of syrup—but I found plenty that fit my budget.
Apple Pie Oatmeal with Maple involves simmering chunks of Granny Smith apple in a silky, warmly spiced mixture of butter, maple syrup, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla, then adding oats and water. It was, to be honest, a little sweet for my taste, but I loved the generous chunks of fruit and the luxurious addition of butter.
Even more successful: Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Bacon. You start by frying bacon, then cooking cauliflower in the drippings before pouring in syrup and a smidge of butter to cook down and glaze the veggies. Amazingly, the recipe has just 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, but that tiny amount perfectly coats the bacon and cauliflower. The end result is a great combo of sweet, salty, smoky and nutty (from the browned cauliflower). This one will go in my regular rotation.
I was less smitten with the Meyer Toddy, a maple-bourbon-lemon-butter concoction that tasted medicinal, like a lemon-honey cough drop. In fairness, Teresa shares the recipe as a sort of cold remedy, but frankly, I would rather spend my precious maple syrup on tastier things!
Final verdict: Modern Maple isn’t a cookbook you’ll use every week (unless you’ve got a connection in the maple biz ... in which case, can I be your friend?). But the cultural history of syrup production in the Upper Midwest is fascinating, and the recipes, though occasionally a bit complex, are unique and tempting. I give it a B+.
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