When the warm winds blow in and begin to melt my snowy hilltop like a slushy; when the fat, winter flies go belly-up on my windowsill; when my writing office-cum-potting shed is strewn with the detritus of my summer garden planning; when I poke daily at my defrosting earth like a dead dog at the side of the road; then it’s time. The maple trees have already begun to give up their sap. It flows by the drum-full.
It’s maple syrup making season.
Maple syrup making is filled with terms you’re sure were songs once: Sugarbush, Sugarwood, Sugar Shack (or Cabane à Sucre for those of you bourling it up to our north). It’s a dirty, smoky, sticky and precious few days of the year. Blink and you’ll miss it. Leave town on business and you’ll regret the mistake all year.
The Sugar Shack is one of our most beloved buildings on the property. My husband made it by hand with his sons (I believe I hammered in a nail or two) and it once stood at the top of the hill where our home now sits. Like some corny John Denver song, we were happy enough back then to sit on a stump on the front porch and dream about what the future might hold.
The neighbors thought we were crazy to pick up and move “that heap of junk” down the hill but we couldn’t imagine bulldozing it. We had to re-purpose the ramshackle outbuilding – give it a raison d’être. So now it houses the maple syrup evaporator and the dozens of boyish toys that go with it. It’s now The Sugar Shack.
Neighbor Wayne’s Sugarbush is our yearly sap source – Wayne has the sap-gathering thing going on. I’d like to think that Wayne dreams all year of making maple syrup and that’s why he’s so well-set for it, but Wayne dreams about a lot of things all year – he’s amazingly well prepared for nearly everything he does.
The sap arrives at The Sugar Shack in any vessel big enough to cart it by tractor up the road from Wayne’s. The wood is chopped and split into small enough chunks to fit neatly into the firebox. It’s a heavy job for the chopper – that fire churns up more than its fair share of fuel as it slowly, over the course of many hours, even days, evaporates the clear, watery sap into thick, coppery Hudson Valley syrup. It takes about 50 gallons of the stuff just to make 1 gallon of syrup.
You don’t even have to like pancakes, or even maple syrup, to enjoy the job. Its about the magical mastery of man over nature. Water into sugar. Spinning straw into gold.
Maple syrup making season is not complete without some insanely unbelievable pancakes. I pour a batch of Ruth Reichl’s recipe when my company rolls out of bed, still stuffed from dinner the night before and swearing they couldn’t touch another thing (ha!). I also make these after dinner when my table is full of the maple syrup making crew eager to sample their wares. Someone always brings out a pint of ginger ice ice cream.
Buttery, rich and crispy, these sweet n’ (ever-so-slightly) salty mouthfuls are the perfect foil to the smoky flavor of the year’s vintage maple syrup. A dollop of ice cream never hurt anyone.
INSANELY UNBELIEVABLE PANCAKES
*Recipe by Ruth Reichl
Makes about 20 silver-dollar-sized mouthfuls
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
3 tbsp plus 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 stick butter, melted and cooled
1 cup flour
4 tsp. baking powder
4 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Plus gobs of New York Maple Syrup
1. Whisk together milk, eggs and 1 tbsp. vegetable oil in a bowl, then add butter. Stir together flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in another bowl. Whisk together until just combined. 2. A handful of blueberries tossed in is optional.
2. Fry them up to a little more than silver dollar size. Ruth’s recipe calls for frying in oil, but I prefer to fry them up in, yes, more butter! I make sure the edges crisp up and serve them up as I make them.
3. Drench with maple syrup. 4. Fill with maple syrup. 5. Scoop up maple syrup. 6. Soak in maple syrup. 7. Eat.
Take your boots off before you come in here!