Time for all things maple

  • Maple sap drips into bucket




  • Maple sap drips into a bucket

For the Bulletin
Thursday, March 09, 2017

This is the very worst time of year for local fruits and vegetables. The once-burgeoning fields are frozen bare. In gardens berry canes and bushes stand stark. In orchards, buds are the merest bumps.

But relief has arrived. The maple sap is being harvested and boiled down into the gold and amber syrup that’s so perfect for pouring onto pancakes.

It’s equally good at jazzing up the squashes and cabbages and root vegetables still around from last fall’s crop and gilding them anew. Likewise it adds its golden touch to fruit, whether that’s local apples preserved by cold storage or fruits and berries imported from other regions.

Maple is the first of our seasonal crops, and indeed, as much as we love Valley asparagus in May, strawberries in June, and the cornucopia that blesses us in summer, maple reigns as our most local of all our harvests. Other Valley crops also grow in myriad other places. Maple syrup is produced only in Northeastern America. Canada produces about 85 percent of the world’s supply with New England and a few nearby states producing the rest.

Our late-winter climate explains this unique specialty. Winter ends with bright sunny days that send afternoon temperatures into the 40s. This weather prompts the trees to dispatch sap up to the buds so they will open. But the clear days are followed by freezing nights that stop the sap in its tracks. Since it never reaches its goal, it can be tapped off.

Seasons with weeks of this sun-then-freeze weather have good maple harvests. But when spring shrugs off winter and its freezing nights, the sap reaches its destination and maple season ends.

This year the sap was running fast by Feb. 21, and buckets had appeared at Mac’s Sugar Shack on Leverett Road in Amherst, and the North Hadley Sugar Shack on River Drive in Hadley, where owner Shelly Boisvert had good news: “We actually made 200 gallons of syrup when it was mild in mid-January using sap we had tapped with a line.”

In earlier centuries evidence suggests Native Americans made syrup into blocks of sugar because it’s lighter to carry than liquid syrup. Colonists relied on maple syrup as a home-grown sweetener to pour on cornbread or pancakes or to flavor beans and stews because it was much cheaper — and therefore less prestigious — than honey or white cane sugar.

Today, maple products have multiplied. As well as syrup and sugar, there’s maple cream, maple pepper, maple mustard and maple butter. There’s also smoked maple syrup and maple syrups flavored with spices or berries. None is cheap, but a little goes a long way to brightening the vegetables and fruits of late winter.

For example, maple mustard and either regular or smoked syrup adds a new layer of flavor to salad dressings. A pat of maple butter makes everyday carrots or squash swankier. Mixed with a little vinegar maple syrup turns simple steamed vegetables such as cabbage or zucchini into intriguing sweet-and-sour specialties. Maple pepper adds sweet to heat to sauces. And maple desserts always entice. A compote of pears or pineapple cooked with a slug of maple in the poaching liquid tastes exotic. Winter’s out-of-state blueberries get a New England vibe with a trickle of maple syrup. Upside-down cakes shine anew with maple syrup.

Perhaps surprisingly the pale first-run maple syrup, which often costs more, is not the best in baked goods because other ingredients mask its delicate flavor. Save this syrup for pouring on pancakes. For baking and most culinary uses you get more vibrant flavors from the darker syrups typically made later in the season.

Here are some recipes for enjoying the 2017 harvest.


The phrase “sweet-and-sour” conjures up Chinese food, but many other countries also have dishes that combine the two tastes by mixing vinegar or another sour liquid with something sweet.

In Italy, where this recipe originates, such dishes are called agrodolce. This dish adds New England flavor to an Italian dish by substituting maple syrup for sugar. The caraway seeds reflect the Austrian influence in the food of northern Italy, which Austria ruled for many years. Omit them or choose other seeds — fennel or sesame for example — if you don’t like the flavor.

This cabbage dish is good with St Patrick’s day corned beef and also with ham and pork chops.

1 medium savoy cabbage or half a large one

2 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil

¼ cup chopped onion

About 2 tablespoons vinegar

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)

2-3 tablespoon maple syrup sugar or to taste

Discard any damaged outer leaves from the cabbage then cut it into 6-8 segments. Cut across these to make bite-size strips. Drop them into a pan of boiling water and add the salt. Cook for 5 minutes or until crisp-tender, then drain. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wide pan and soften the onion in it for 3-4 minutes. Now add 2 tablespoons of vinegar, 2 tablespoons maple syrup and half the caraway seeds if using them. Bring to simmering then stir in the drained cabbage, cook until the cabbage has heated through – about 2-3 minutes. Taste and add extra vinegar or maple syrup to adjust to your liking.

Scoop the cabbage into a warmed dish with a slotted spoon. Boil down the liquid so you have just 2 tablespoonsful, then pour it on top. Toss. Scatter on the remaining caraway seeds and serve immediately.


This sweet vegetable dish is best served with pork or lamb. It’s good, too, with grilled foods.

1 pound (about 4) medium purple-top turnips, peeled

1 tablespoon canola or olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon thyme or summer savory

Cut each turnip into 6 or 8 thickish wedges depending on the size. Drop them into a pan of boiling salted water and cook for 8 minutes or just until they are tender. Do not overcook. Drain them.

In a skillet over medium heat combine the oil and butter. When there’s a light sizzle from the pan, stir in the maple syrup and then the purple-top turnip pieces. Cook over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, turning the pieces over occasionally until they are golden brown all over.

Sprinkle in the thyme or savory during the last few seconds.

Serves 4-6


Yogurt makes this upside-down cake tender, maple syrup makes it aromatically sweet, and together sweet potato and apricots pack in lots of flavor and nutrients such as important amounts of Vitamins A, C, B6 and E as well as iron, magnesium and phosphorus.

You will need a large sweet potato weighing one pound or a little over. Bake it unpeeled either in the microwave, where it takes about15 minutes depending on the power, or in a 350-degree oven, where it will take about 45 minutes. When done, cut in half, let it cool a little, peel and mash.

8 large dried apricots (plus extra for serving if you like)

5 ounces (1¼ sticks) room-temperature butter

⅔ cup dark maple syrup (or more to taste)

½ cup halved or coarsely chopped walnuts

1½ cups cake flour or all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon teaspoon powdered coriander

3/ 4 cup light brown or white sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup mashed sweet potato

Put the apricots in a small pan; cover with water and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until tender but not overly soft. (The exact timing depends on the dryness of the apricots). Drain and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and use a little of it to thoroughly grease the edges of a 9-inch layer cake pan. Line the base with parchment paper. Pour any remaining melted butter in the pan. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup. Pour the rest of it in the pan, stirring briefly to combine it with the butter.

Now arrange the apricots in a circle near the edge. Scatter the walnuts in the center and in between the apricots. (The spaces won’t be entirely filled but that’s fine).

Mix the flour with the baking powder and coriander and set aside. Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in one egg and the vanilla extract. When blended add another egg and beat it in along with half the flour mixture.

When thoroughly blended, beat in the remaining flour, and then the sweet potato. Spread this batter over the apricots and walnuts in the pan, smooth the surface then place in the center of the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes. It’s done when the surface is a rich medium-brown and a skewer poked into the center comes out clean.

Take the cake from the oven and stand on a rack. Immediately poke the skewer straight down into the cake in about a dozen places. Pour the remaining maple syrup over the surface, letting it run into these holes or any cracks that occur during baking.

When it has soaked in — which will take only a few minutes — loosen the cake from the pan and invert onto the rack to finish cooling. If any apricots have been dislodged settle them back in place.

Serve warm or at room temperature with additional apricots if you have them. Extra maple syrup and whipped cream are also good with this cake.


This dessert is quick, easy and healthful. The combination of pale green yogurt and dark blueberries looks and tastes delicious.

Be sure to choose a lime yogurt with the fruit blended in rather than on the bottom. (Yoplait and Big Y lime flavored Greek Yogurt are examples).

1 pint blueberries, washed and dried

¼ cup maple syrup plus more for serving

Grated zest of 1 lime and a few drops of its juice

2 containers of lime yogurt

In a small pan heat the maple syrup until it just touches boiling point, then stir in the berries for about 30 seconds so they are coated. Remove from the heat and stir in the lime zest and a few drops of its juice.

Divide the containers of yogurt among 4 dessert dishes, spreading it out. Top each with a pile of berries. Or divide one container of yogurt among 4 glasses or dessert cups.

Top with the berries using all but a few of them. Dollop the yogurt from the remaining container of yogurt on top. then garnish with the reserved berries.


A pat of maple butter adds deliciousness to many vegetables. This recipe can be made with coarse salt to add a savory note that’s good with almost any vegetable, and with fish too.

The nutmeg version is perfect for spinach, cabbage, asparagus, or other greens — and with pancakes.

Making this butter with an electric beater prevents the syrup and butter from separating from each other during storage.

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature

About ¼ cup dark maple syrup

Either ¾ teaspoon Maldon salt or other coarse sea salt or about ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Using an electric mixer or the small bowl of a food processor whip the butter until it’s very fluffy and pale. Now drizzle in the maple syrup a little at a time blending as you go.

Turn off the beater or processor and stir in half the salt or nutmeg by hand.

Put the butter into a small dish or bowl, smoothing or swirling the surface. Now scatter the remaining salt or nutmeg on top.

Keep in the fridge covered with plastic wrap and use as needed within 10-14 days.