Wednesday, April 01, 2015

tapping into spring

Photo by Donna Wilkins Photography
Trickster returned from a long and grueling journey to find the habitation of his village gone to hell and falling down and seemingly deserted until he spied all the villagers lying hither and yon under Maple, drinking her full-fledged syrup that leaked down into their open mouths.
Incensed and full of sorrow, Trickster grabbed up the river and flowed it into Maple, diluting her sugar into sap. “There,” he told his villagers, not without a characteristic edge of evil glee, “is work to be done! From this day hence you will be called out of winter sleep by vibrant cruel sunshine in what some call this grimmest of seasons, to tap Maple, steal her sap, haul thousands of gallons of it to the fire and bring it to boil with red hottened rocks and keep it there until it is reduced to powder, the better to fit into small vessels.
“The alchemy between this season, in which it is impossible to do anything else worthwhile, and Maple, and your sweat in this first, wild, foraging time, will feed you in Aprils before any green things creep out of the muck.
“Go to it, My People!”

As so often happens, a good punishment turned out to be a blessing. Look at it this way – if you’d been hibernating in a primitive abode made of stone or animal pelts as in a cave or a tent, a yurt of some sort (or within bricks or wood-frame or logs, for that matter), and it came to be this time of year and your dried berries were giving out and the grains had become somewhat beetley, and your normal quiet cheer had receded to reveal the roots of desperation, then you would be glad, nay you would be ecstatic, when the days reached above freezing and the nights reached below, to go out into the mush by day that turned to frozen ruts by night, to slash the maples and to gather the sap in buckets or waiting troughs and to boil it down into sugar. You would be glad, you can bet, if need be, to exist on nothing else but that sweet in Aprils that were slow to show green shoots pushing up anew.
It begins, this sugaring season, with fits and starts, some false, finally true. Some days begin at -5° and are +45° by 11 am. The sun blasts through a skyblue sky and freshets run everywhere, over sun-slickered ice, muddying ruts, through the trough of ditches and from here we will hear the beginning roar of Otter Creek as the weight of it filling with melt pushes its freightedness faster and higher. All Saturday morning trucks chuckle by splashed windshield-high with a surf of mud, and through the cracks of it shine bright eyes and devilish grins. Red goosedown vests are open over black turtlenecks as the rounds of morning are made to the transfer station, the locker, to Evie’s Deli, and to the Post Office. Then, after noon, everything is nulled and silent. The chores are done and everyone is back home again, trying to find work outside.
Sugarers are lucky that way. They take their little hand-auger, their taps, their pails they’ve scrubbed, climb out along the sugarbush and make ready for the drip of the sap. Not only is sugaring something to do when that randy energy rips you from the fireside, from out the rocking chair; not only is it something to do when the earth is still inhospitable to most other activities, but it is something to do with food, so that viscerally it is perceived to be at least vestigially worthwhile.
Anna Fenton’s Maple Pudding Cake
Anna Fenton was a long-time maple sugar crafter and 4-H leader, and a wonderful cook besides. This is such a sweet confection that I always think it needs a baked apple or a cool fruit sauce to finish it, but on second thought we keep shaking our heads. No, that would not do. The only thing that tops it suitably is yet another spoonful of cream – unsweetened whipped cream or, better yet, one of crème fraîche. Serve it once a year and enjoy its richness. The syrup stays on the bottom, almost frying the delicate batter, then gradually seeps up into the cake. It is a simple batter in the European style of biscuit. A butterier, shorter, American biscuit dough is more traditional in community cookbooks. This serves 8 once, 4 twice, or 1 or 2 piggies
o    1 cup maple syrup
o    1 ½ cups flour
o    1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
o    ½ teaspoon salt
o    2 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
o    ¾ cup sugar
o    1 egg
o    1 cup milk
o    1 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 350°. Liberally butter a glass soufflé pan 8 inches in diameter, 4 inches deep (don’t scrimp on size or you will have a mess), and pour the maple syrup into it. Set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.
With a wooden spoon or large whisk, beat together the butter, sugar, and egg. Quickly whisk in half the milk, then the dry ingredients just until smooth, then the rest of the milk.
Pour this batter into the baking dish. It should reach only halfway up the sides of the dish! Drizzle the heavy cream over the batter, place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick tests not dry but baked.
Let cool at least 15 minutes, cut into eight slices and serve warm, with extra mapley stuff from the bottom spooned over the top, and a spoonful of crème fraîche if desired.

And keep an eye out for Trickster – He’s liable to eat the whole darned thing right from under your astonished eye.

Note: This column was adapted from CookSpeak: A Seasonal Narrative with Recipes by Sharon Parquette Nimtz, Issue 5: March/April 1995.  Sugaring techniques may have advanced since that ancient time.

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