This weekend we are heading to the Highland County Maple Festival. People often think of Canada or, in the US, Vermont when they think maple syrup, but this delicious, natural sweetener can be produced in any place where maple trees grow – any place that has a periodic cold climate – including Virginia.
Maple water (sap), primarily from the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), is gathered when the sap is flowing. This phenomenon is induced by the cold nights and warm days of spring (February, March and April depending on the latitude and the weather). The science of syrup production is an intricate system of boiling, reducing, straining and grading. (Did you know it takes about ten gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup?!) The end result is always a rich and flavorful, sweet liquid gold ranging in shades (also known as grades) from a light to dark amber. I personally couldn’t care less about the grade – it’s all good to me.
I love maple anything – especially maple sugar candy - and have since I was a child. Please don’t even think about serving me that fake pancake syrup (Sorry, Aunt Jemima). I use real maple syrup on French toast, pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and even dip my sage pork sausage in it. I add it to baked beans, sweet potato dishes, and other recipes I feel need a sweet but not sugary touch.
Last year when we went, both to eat fresh, warm maple doughnuts and to visit our friends who live there, the lady of the house suggested I try a spoon in my coffee instead of sugar. I was hesitant to mess with my morning java and didn’t take the plunge despite my affinity for mapleliciousness. Later at home, curiosity got the better of me and I gave it a try. It was superb!
Need an excuse for eating some maple syrup? Try my favorite French Toast recipe compliments of Alton Brown. The baking of the finished product is key to this dish. It is the only way I make French Toast now (I added vanilla and cinnamon to the custard):
• 1 cup half-and-half
• 3 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons honey, warmed in microwave for 20 seconds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 8 (1/2-inch) slices day-old or stale country loaf, brioche or challah bread. Regardless of the bread it MUST be stale!
• 4 tablespoons butter
~In medium size mixing bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, honey, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. (I do this the night before.) When ready to cook, pour custard mixture into a pie pan and set aside.
~Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Dip bread into mixture, allow to soak for 30 seconds on each side, and then remove to a cooling rack that is sitting in a sheet pan, and allow to sit for 1 to 2 minutes.
~Over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch nonstick saute pan. Place 2 slices of bread at a time into the pan and cook until golden brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and place on rack in oven for 5 minutes. Repeat with all 8 slices. Serve immediately with warm maple syrup.