Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Mar 17, 2013
09:08 AMSmall Dishes
Sappy but Sweet
In cold climates, it’s a true sign of spring when the sap starts to flow in maple trees. Starch stored in their trunks prior to the onset of winter converts to sugar and rises with the advent of warmer weather. Then the trees are tapped, the sap boiled to evaporate much of the water, and the result is maple syrup. It can take as much as 13 gallons of sap to produce a single quart of syrup. Continuing to boil the syrup will result in crystallization or maple sugar. Native Americans taught early New England and Canadian settlers the technique of maple-syrup making.
During the civil war, many northerners turned to maple syrup and maple sugar as an alternative to cane sugar and molasses since they were largely imported from the southern states. With sugar rationing during World War II, those in the northeast often relied upon the maple sweeteners to fill the gap. As the demand for maple syrup increased worldwide, so did its price—at the same time the price of sugar plummeted. It ultimately became a luxury food for many. The consequence was maple-flavored and artificially-flavored syrups—U.S. law prohibits “maple” from being included in the name of artificially-flavored syrups—like Mrs. Butterworth, Log Cabin and Hungry Jack. Artificially-flavored products contain what is sometimes called Mapeleine, an old product that lists its ingredients as “water, natural flavorings, caramel color, alcohol (7%), phosphoric acid, vanillin and sulfiting agents,” but no maple anything. Natural maple flavor—more difficult to find—is used in cooking to give more umph to what can be a subtle flavor. Likewise, darker and heartier Grade B syrup is preferred for cooking.
Last year—a bad year here for maple syrup since the spring was so warm—Vermont led the country in production with 750,000 gallons, and Maine and New York tied for second place with 360,000 gallons each. In 2012, Wisconsin produced 50,000 gallons, tying 2005 as the worst production year ever recorded. This year promises to be more auspicious.
The grading of maple syrup can be a little confusing. Canada and the United States use different criteria as do the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. The U.S. standards grade syrup either as Grade A or Grade B. Generally speaking, Grade B is darker in color and has a more robust flavor. Grade A is further subdivided by color as being Light Amber (sometimes labeled Fancy), Medium Amber or Dark Amber. Both Vermont and Wisconsin add a commercial grade—not for table use—darker than Grade B and allowed to contain some sediment. Grading has nothing to do with food safety and is voluntary. Often excellent syrup sold at farmers’ markets and roadside stands is not graded.
Picking a favorite maple syrup is a lot like picking a favorite wine. The flavor is complex with lots of nuances from producer to producer and from crop to crop. I gravitate toward Grade A Dark Amber or even Grade B since I like its assertiveness and molasses-like color and viscosity. There are many fine Wisconsin brands readily available—even at the supermarket—including Kickapoo Gold, Anderson’s, Roth’s and Klebenow’s Sugar Bush. Not surprisingly, real maple flavor shows up frequently on menus and in products that promote the local bounty.
A Pig in a Fur Coat. Porchetta served with potatoes, carrots, parsnips and a maple syrup reduction is the apex of pork roasts.
Crema Café. Breakfast and brunch rule here and most everything is locally sourced including the real maple syrup that anoints pancakes and French toast.
Marigold Kitchen. A salad of roasted beets, apples, frisée, and celery with goat cheese and maple dressing is an artful combination of harmonious flavors and contrasting textures and colors.
Graze. A guaranteed eyeopener on the brunch menu is the Retox Cachaça cocktail awakened with maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne.
Daisy Café and Cupcakery. Maple often shows up as a butter cream frosting flavor, but more adventurous is the maple and bacon cupcake, an incongruous combo that satisfies cravings both sweet and salty.
Greenbush Bakery. Famous for donuts, the maple variety come two ways, either topped with maple icing or filled with maple custard.
Sassy Cow. The list of ice cream flavors at this farmstead dairy is long, but maple walnut is a classic.
Roaring Dan’s Rum. Made by Great Lakes Distillery in Cumberland, Wisconsin, it’s traditionally distilled from molasses, then pure maple syrup is added during a second distillation and the rum finished in charred oak barrels.
RECIPE: Maple Crème Caramel
Lightly butter four 3/4-cup soufflé dishes or custard cups.
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Combine sugar and water in a small, heavy saucepan. Stir over low heat until the sugar melts. Increase the heat to medium high and boil without stirring until it turns a deep amber color, brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush, and swirling the pan occasionally. Immediately divide the caramel between the four buttered dishes. Holding by the rim, quickly rotate each dish to coat the sides with some of the caramel. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
1/2 cup pure maple syrup (preferably, Grade B)
3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Fresh berries (optional)
Whisk the maple syrup, egg yolks and egg in a medium bowl until just combined. Put the cream and milk in a medium, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Gradually whisk the hot cream and milk mixture into the egg mixture. Divide the custard evenly between the prepared dishes.
Set the dishes into 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan. Add enough boiling water to the pan to come halfway up sides of the dishes. Cover the baking pan with foil. Bake the custards until set in the center—about 55 minutes. Chill the custards uncovered until cold—at least 5 hours. They can be made a day ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until serving time.
To serve, run a knife around the sides of the dishes to loosen the custards. Invert each onto serving plates. Garnish with fresh berries if desired.