By Sarah Allen
For many, the last weeks of winter can be a dull time. The festivities of Christmas have ended, and the new beginnings of spring are still a distant dream. It can be a lackluster time — that is, until maple syrup season.
That season begins during the transition from winter to spring, and it is a busy time for everyone who collects the sticky sweetness that can only come from nature and hard work.
Pat Quackenbush, a naturalist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, described maple syrup production at its most basic as a boiling process. The sap collected from trees contains sugar and water, and the excess water needs to be boiled away.
At the start of each maple syrup season, Quackenbush said, there will be a higher sugar content. The start of the season, he said, “all comes down to weather.”
Quackenbush said when the temperatures fluctuate between “cold, hold, cold, hot,” then it is time to start collecting sap. Once the season begins, there is a “very short window” for sap collection, about four to six weeks.
When the leaves have started to bud, “it’s done,” he said.
And while making maple syrup may be an “age-old process,” Quackenbush said it is not without its intricacies.
Perfecting it can take “a lot of practice,” he said. “You’ve got to learn the hard way or have a great teacher.”
Quackenbush recommended attending maple syrup festivals or touring farms. He added that there are few solely maple syrup-based farms.
“Most maple syrup farmers are farmers,” he said.
They usually collect maple syrup as a way to supplement their income.
While attending those, he said, you can “really get in there and see how it’s done.” Quackenbush said most Ohio maple syrup festivals are held in March.
That is especially true, he said, of tapping the trees.
“It’s better if somebody shows you the first couple of times,” he said.
The spiles, commonly called taps, should not be placed too deeply into the tree. They should be tapped into the trees, not hammered, hence the term “taps.”
If a person is very careful, Quackenbush said, there is no reason one tree could not provide sap for five generations of a family.
One spile should be used for every 10 inches of the tree’s diameter. As an example, Quackenbush said that a tree 20 inches in diameter should have two spiles. Also, sugar makers should not take more than 10 percent of the tree’s sap.
“I always equate it to us giving blood,” Quackenbush said.
Taking some of the tree’s sap will do no harm, but if too much is taken, the tree will suffer.
It takes about 40 to 80 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, he said.
Once the sap is collected, it can be boiled over the stove. All an amateur sugar maker needs is a big pot and a candy thermometer.
However, Quackenbush warned that there will be a lot of steam, which can cause significant wallpaper peeling.
Some people, he said, make homemade fireboxes outside. That is especially helpful if there are more than just a few trees.
Once the sap has been boiled, the end result is something pure and simple.
“It’s an extremely natural product,” Quackenbush said.
In fact, he added that, in order for something to actually be called maple syrup, there must be no additives.
CRUNCHY BAKED SALMON
1 1/3 cups French Fried Onions (canned)
1 teaspoon fresh dill, diced, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
4 portions salmon fillet
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Mix fried onions, dill, lemon rind and parsley in a Ziploc bag. Roll with a rolling pin to crush onions.
Mix the mustard with the maple syrup and brush over the salmon, then pat the seasoned onion crumbs over the top. Bake on a foil-lined sheet for around 15 minutes, until opaque and easy to separate with a fork.
(Recipe from ODNR.)
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup real maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/3 cup granulated sugar for decoration
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar. Add the egg, syrup and vanilla. Mix until well blended.
In another bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Stir into mixture until well blended.
Shape into 1-inch balls and roll in sugar. Place on cookie sheets about 2 inches apart and flatten slightly.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on wire rack.
(Recipe from allrecipes.com.)
BLUEBERRY MAPLE MUFFINS
1/3 cup whole flaxseeds
1 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup nonfat buttermilk, (substitute regular milk and add 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar)
1/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat 12 muffin cups with cooking spray.
Grind flaxseeds in a spice mill (such as a clean coffee grinder) or dry blender. Transfer to a large bowl. Add whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt; whisk to blend.
In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and maple syrup until smooth. Add buttermilk, oil, orange zest, orange juice and vanilla; whisk until blended.
Make a well in the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula just until moistened. Fold in blueberries. Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle the tops with sugar.
Bake the muffins until the tops are golden brown and spring back when touched lightly, 15 to 25 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Loosen edges and turn muffins out onto a wire rack to cool slightly.
(Recipe from eatingwell.com.)
Ohio Maple Producers Association: ohiomaple.org
Ohio Department of Natural Resources: parks.ohiodnr.gov/maplesyrup
Maple Madness Driving Trail, March 4-5 and 11-12: ohiomaple.org