There is still a mountain of dirty snow in the supermarket parking lot, yet spring is nearly upon us. Days are getting longer. Robins have begun to sing. The sweetest sign of all: New York State maple syrup producers are getting ready to gather sap before boiling it down to create this year's vintage.
When temperatures rise, enzymes in tree sap convert the sap's starches to sugars, which mix with water drawn from roots. All trees produce sap, but only the maple trees that grow in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada produce sap with enough sugar to make syrup. And the sap of maple trees is only sweet for a limited time -- late February through April. As soon as buds form on trees, the sap turns bitter.
Pure maple syrup may seem expensive, at about $15 for a quart (a quart of pancake syrup, such as Log Cabin, runs about $3). But when you learn that an average maple tree yields about 50 quarts of sap, and that this sap, when boiled down, becomes just 1½ quarts of syrup, this starts to seem like a bargain.
Unlike pancake syrup, which tastes like its main ingredient, high fructose corn syrup, pure maple syrup has more than 300 natural flavor compounds. Take time to savor it, and you may be able to detect notes of coffee, chocolate, vanilla and honey. Like wine, maple syrup is affected by its terroir. Weather and soil conditions interacting with the genetics of particular trees determine the flavor of syrups from different regions.
I'm not saying you should drink your maple syrup. But do use it in your baking to add sweetness and complex flavor. Heated, it becomes even more intense. To use maple syrup in place of sugar, substitute each cup of sugar with 1cup of maple syrup. For each cup of maple syrup you use, reduce the liquid in your recipe by a scant ½ cup.
To celebrate the season, I decided to make Pudding Chomeur, a French-Canadian dessert that is basically sugar cookie dough topped with a mixture of boiling cream and maple syrup and baked into a gooey and delicious warm dessert. I had eaten it once before, at Montreal's famed Au Pied de Cochon, and thought it was so good that it should probably be sold as a controlled substance. But some of my family members felt that, straight up, the combination was a little too sweet. So when I made it at home, I put some tart apple slices in the bottom of each dish. The apple added a little acidity, cutting the sweetness of the syrup and adding some gently yielding texture to the pudding.
PUDDING CHOMEUR WITH APPLES
The name means "poor man's pudding" in French, because maple syrup used to be cheap in Quebec at this time of year. Now, look for bargains on syrup at Costco and BJ's, where large containers are discounted.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup heavy cream
2 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into 12 wedges each
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.
2. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until just combined.
3. Combine the maple syrup and cream in a small, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.
4. Place 6 (1-cup) ramekins on a baking sheet. Arrange 4 apple wedges in the bottom of each ramekin. Divide the dough among the ramekins, placing on top of apples. Pour the hot maple syrup mixture over the dough. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the dough just comes out clean (do not overbake), 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes and serve. Makes 6 servings.