So many maple memories
Growing up where we are in Southern Ontario, every March brought with it a few things. The promise of spring, a break from school, and a trip to the Sugar Bush. I think we went every year, at least through grade 5 or 6. And I can recall going a few other times, either with family or with a local community group.
By grade 3 I could have given the tour. I probably still could. From the hollowed out birch troughs in which fire heated stones were dropped into pure sap, over and over, until just the syrup remained, to the innovation that was the tap, allowing trees to be harmlessly relieved of their nectar season after season, to the modern plastic piping and glorious sugar shacks where the liquid was carefully tended to ensure the end result would be properly viscous and sweet. The process is time consuming, but can even be tackled at home, if you have a couple of sugar maple trees. Don’t believe me? Read this wonderful post by my friend Tiffany at Eating Niagara (then follow her blog – you won’t be sorry),
I also remember how warm those school buses were kept, and how we bundled up for a sugar bush trip. One day, after our excursion, which included a stop at the sweet shop, I sat at the back of the hot bus, parka, scarf, toque and boots on. And I ate 4 or 5 maple sugar candies that I’d bought. And, as you can imagine, I got sick. To this day, I cannot eat maple sugar candy.
Thankfully I have no such aversion to maple syrup. Which is a good thing, given what a wonderful nutritional powerhouse it is. It is packed with antioxidants, phenolic acids and lignans. These are good things. They have antibacterial, anti-cancer and even anti-diabetic properties. Maple is still a sugar, but it has benefits that make it superior to the refined stuff.
A versatile sweetener
The place where we buy our syrup, White Meadows Farms (which I’ve surely mentioned in other maple themed posts), is in full maple swing right now, with a pancake house, sugar shack and tours. They have a variety of syrups (there are 5 grades in Canada – Extra Light, Light, Medium, Amber and Dark) and our favourite is the dark. They’ve stopped warning us when we buy it that it’s “too strong” for pouring over pancakes and waffles. Pshaw! We love it straight up! It’s also wonderful for cooking and baking with.
Inspired by the season, and wanting to make something different, and simple, I decided on maple panna cotta with maple caramel sauce. Panna cotta is essentially dairy Jello, but way more appealing than it sounds. I’ve made it with sweet, creamy coffee, and now I realize that I need to again. So good! Using maple syrup as the sweetening agent in this dessert gives it a lovely depth of flavour without making it too sweet. If you have vanilla bean paste, using it will give you lovely flecks which show, should you choose to invert the jelly onto a plate. The caramel is simple to make, and needs no thermometer, but if you overcook it, it may thicken too much to pour (trust me). A quick zap in the microwave fixes that, but may make it grainy when you chill it again. Best to microwave only what you plan to use.
Maple Panna Cotta
1 cup whipping cream
1 package unflavoured powdered gelatin
1/3 cup pure maple syrup (dark, if you can get it)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla (or vanilla bean paste)
1 cup milk
Pour half of the cream into small saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let it stand for about 5 minutes. Heat it over medium-low, stirring often, until the gelatin is dissolved.
In separate saucepan combine the remaining cream, maple syrup and vanilla over medium heat just until it steams; then remove it from the heat. Stir in the gelatin mixture and milk. Pour into ramekins or custard cups. Cover and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours. (Can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
Run a knife around edge of each ramekin and turn the panna cotta out onto chilled dessert plates, if desired.
Makes 4-6 desserts, depending on the size of your ramekins.
Maple Caramel Sauce
1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup whipping cream
In a medium heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt together the butter, sugar and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until sugar is completely dissolved. Boil for 2 minutes without stirring and then add the maple syrup Boil, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thick, smooth, and coats a spoon, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Remove from heat and quickly stir in the whipping cream. Pour into heatproof jars and cool completely. Refrigerate in tightly sealed jars for up to 2 months.
I’m considering mixing a little of this with some hot sauce to use as a glaze once it’s warm enough to barbecue. What do you think?