It may be spring today, but in Maine, it's maple syrup season. Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst's husband John Rudolph has been tapping their trees and making syrup.
Kathy's also been busy — she joins host Sacha Pfeiffer with recipes for maple bacon, an open-faced ricotta cheese sandwich and other tasty items. All of the recipes but the first are from Kathy's cookbook "Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes." The full chapter about maple is at the bottom of this page.
Open-Faced Fresh Ricotta Cheese on Whole Grain Bread with Maple Syrup
Kathy's Note: This is as simple a dish as can be but you want to find really fresh ricotta cheese, a good loaf of whole grain bread and, of course, real maple syrup.
Maple-Glazed Bacon with Rosemary and Chile Powder
Kathy’s Note: Maple syrup and bacon are good friends. The sweet syrup is the perfect counterpoint to the salty meat. The addition of woodsy rosemary and a pinch of spicy cayenne or chili pepper tops it off. Place thick bacon on a broiler pan (broiling means all the fat drips into the bottom of the pan and is separated from the meat) and brush on good maple syrup to create the glaze.
Serve with cocktails, on top of salads, with omelets, poached eggs, or on top of fish. This is like bacon candy for grown-ups.
About 1/3 cup maple syrup
8 slices bacon, preferably thick country-style
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
Dash cayenne pepper or chili pepper
Preheat broiler. Place maple syrup in a small bowl and have a small pastry brush ready. Lay the bacon on the rack of a broiler pan and place under the broiler for 1 minute, with the oven door slightly ajar. Brush each piece generously with maple syrup and place under the broiler for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the bacon looks cooked and glazed with the syrup. Turn the broiler pan once while it’s cooking to ensure even browning. Be sure to watch the bacon carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn.
Using tongs, flip the bacon over and broil 1 minute. Brush generously with maple syrup, rosemary and cayenne and broil another minute, turning the pan halfway through the cooking time. The bacon is ready when it’s cooked and has a thick maple glaze. Let cool for 30 seconds before serving; it will be very hot.
Roasted Maple-Glazed Carrots and Spring Parsnips
Kathy’s Note: Roasting root vegetables brings out their natural sweetness. You can also add onions, shallots, leeks, celery root, or turnips to this dish. Look for tender, slender parsnips and carrots no thicker than an inch or so. If they are thicker cut them in half lengthwise.
Serves 4 to 6.
1 pound carrots, peeled with root intact, washed
1 pound parsnips, peeled with root intact, washed
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 - 3 tablespoons maple syrup
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place the carrots and parsnips in a shallow, ovenproof gratin dish, or skillet and toss with the oil, salt and pepper. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and roast 15 minutes. Toss in the maple syrup. Roast another 6 to 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender when pierced with a small sharp knife. Serve hot.
Whipped Maple Butter
Kathy’s Note: I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this sooner but whipped fresh butter with maple syrup is magical. The whipped sweet butter is amazing on morning toast, pancakes, French toast, waffles, muffins, scones, biscuits, or any morning treat. But it’s equally good spread on a ham and cheese sandwich, or a sharp cheddar cheese and pear or apple sandwich. Try adding a tablespoon to sautéed chicken, salmon, or scallops and letting it melt and caramelize in the hot skillet.
You could also try experimenting with this butter by adding a dash of cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg or allspice, or even a hit of chile powder.
Makes 1/2 cup butter.
1 stick unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
In a standing mixer or using a hand held mixer whisk the butter for about 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Add the syrup and mix until well incorporated. Its best to use the butter soon or the syrup will begin to separate from the fats in the butter. Keep the butter covered and refrigerated for about a week. Stir or whip before serving if the butter appears separated.
Maple Cheesecake with Maple-Ginger Crust
Kathy’s Note: This is not the cake for your Grade A Light amber syrup. This is the time to use the darker, Grade B, (or what is now called Grade A dark Amber) fuller-flavored syrup. Maple syrup appears in this cake in three ways: it’s in the crust along with ground gingersnap cookies, and melted butter; in the creamy filling mixed with cream cheese, eggs, and crème fraiche or sour cream; and finally glazed onto the walnut halves that decorate the top of the cake.
The cake can be made and baked a full day ahead of time. It will need at least 6 to 8 hours to chill and set so plan accordingly.
Serves 8 to 10 — the cake is quite rich.
2 cups ground gingersnap cookies (about 8 ounces of cookies)*
1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons maple syrup
4 eight-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup maple syrup, see headnote
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup crème fraiche or sour cream
The Maple-Glazed Walnuts:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 pound (8 ounces) walnut halves
3 tablespoons maple syrup, see headnote
*Place the cookies in the container of a food processor and process until finely ground.
Make the crust: place the ground cookies, melted butter, and syrup in a bowl and mix until well combined. Press the crust into the bottom and just up the sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Cover the bottom and go up the sides of the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil to prevent any of the mixture from spilling out. Place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile make the filling: Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the cream cheese on low, using a spatula frequently to make sure that the cream cheese is smooth and not clumping up along the sides of the bowl or on the paddle. This is crucial and can make the difference between a smooth cheesecake and a one with a clumpy texture. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the maple syrup, vanilla, and sour cream and beat until smooth, being careful not to overbeat it or let the mixture get too fluffy and airy.
Pour the filling into the chilled crust and place on a cookie sheet (to keep anything from spilling over). Bake on the middle shelf at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until the cheesecake is just beginning to take on a very pale maple color. When you gently jiggle the cake the center will still appear to be wobbly—this is O.K. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
While the cake is baking or cooling, prepare the walnuts: melt the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the ginger and cook 10 seconds, stirring to incorporate the spice. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Drizzle on the maple syrup, stir well to coat, and cook another 2 minutes. Spread the nuts out on a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil, in a single layer, separating them and making sure they don’t clump up.
When the cake is room temperature carefully remove the sides of the pan, running a flat kitchen knife around the rim if it needs help separating. Decorate the top of the cake with the walnuts, creating a pattern along the edges and center of the cake. Very loosely cover the cake and chill for 6 hours or overnight. Do not place in refrigerator while the cake is still hot or warm.
Book Excerpt: 'Notes from a Maine Kitchen'
By Kathy Gunst
There is an upside to March and it sounds like this: drip, drip, drip. At a time of year when nature offers so little hope, maple trees produce a clear, unassuming-looking liquid, which tastes like barely-sweetened water. But weeks later, after much boiling and sweet steam evaporation, a golden amber syrup appears. Maple syrup season is, without doubt, the best part of March in Maine.
My husband, John, and I are what you might call small- time home syrup makers. We only tap a half dozen or so maple trees scattered around our property. The ritual of cleaning out the taps, the old tin buckets, and thin lids (which we have gathered over the years at yard sales, farm foreclosures, and country stores) is actually something I look forward to. During this time of year the closest I actually get to growing food is to fantasize about it while I gaze at seed catalogues piled up on my desk, luring me with sexy pictures of tomatoes and basil and squash popping out of warm, fertile earth. So getting outside and starting to “make” food thrills me.
Maple season means working with the weather (you need warm days and below-freezing nights for maximum sap flow) to make something delicious and truly of Maine. When the sap really starts flowing we spend hours outside straining it into buckets and getting ready to start the long, slow boiling process.
It’s 10 p.m. and John is missing. I’m in bed, feeling my eyes droop, exhausted from this not-quite-winter-and-not-quite-spring limbo we’re in. I call out to say goodnight and there’s no answer. Then I hear him outside clanging around in the dark. This is not a man prone to disappearing or making strange noises in the dead of night, but it’s maple season and he takes the dog and the newspaper out to the barn where he spends hours pouring the day’s sap into huge metal pans. We used to cook the sap inside on the wood stove, but the sweet condensation started building up on the beams above the stove and we thought we saw ants appearing and suddenly there was nothing romantic or smart about boiling syrup indoors. John rigged up a strange outdoor maple cooker system. He sets the low metal trays (like high-sided lasagna pans) on top of a large, gas-fueled camping cooker and sits there watching the sap evaporate slowly.
When I use the word “slowly” I’m talking about Zen slowly, the kind of slowly where you sit for hours (and hours and hours) watching sap go from watery thin to kindasorta thin. Hours go by and nothing appears to be happening. Well nothing that the untrained eye can see. It takes forty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. It’s all about process. It takes almost a week (sometimes two) of diligent boiling, adding bucketfuls of new sap each day, for this subtly sweet water-like substance to resemble anything even remotely like syrup. Once the sap hits the final stage (meaning the texture is thick enough to coat a spoon) it needs to be filtered through cheesecloth to remove any particles that might cloud the finished syrup.
The first few days of maple season I feel compelled to throw on my down jacket and head out into the cold, dark night to keep John company. He’s generally pretty friendly and polite, but after a while I can tell that this barn/boiling time is a solitary kind of thing. A man, his dog, and his sap. I think the entire experience — the tapping of the trees, the putting up the buckets, the collecting of the sap, the boiling, is all a meditative exercise for him. And I say: go for it. Make me some gorgeous syrup and I’ll cook you some gorgeous food. Yin/Yang.
He comes inside the house and climbs into bed at all hours of the night, mumbling sweet nothings into my ear. “We’re almost there! Looking good! Almost syrup time.” I roll over, fantasizing about all the wonderful things I’ll cook when the syrup is finally done.
And then, after nights of climbing into bed alone, I’ll wake up one fine March morning and see that first jar of syrup, the color of topaz. Pale topaz. He always leaves a few tablespoons in a bowl on the table for me to taste. Every year I swear it’s the best syrup we’ve ever made. About that point of ownership: I like to think of it as our syrup, from our maple trees, made at our house, but there’s no doubt in John’s mind that it’s his syrup. In all fairness, I guess since he’s the one who stays up late on all those cold, March nights, he should be awarded the title of “Master Syrup Maker.”
We’ve learned a lot over the years. Turns out that maple syrup, like wine, has good years and bad ones — years when the sap flows like water from the tap and others when it’s just too rainy and the sap gets diluted with rainwater. And there are days when it turns warm too early and the sap clouds over and gives off a slightly sour smell. Every few years John insists on giving the trees a year off, like they’re athletes in danger of being over-trained. He claims he doesn’t want to overtax them, but it’s hard to give up a year of maple syrup. I guess I’m just not Zen enough to let it go.
The first batch of syrup, what we call First Run (and which would be called “Grade A” or “Light Amber” if it were sold commercially) is a pale golden color. The flavor is light and subtle, with a pure maple essence. It’s the texture that’s really extraordinary. A thinish syrup that coats your tongue with its subtle sweetness and smooth, buttery feel.
The notion of terroir, coming from the French word terre, meaning “land” or “earth,” refers to the impact a specific piece of land lends to food that’s grown or made on it. It’s a term wine makers like to throw around, but it also applies to the making of cheese (think Roquefort or Parmesan) and coffee (Kona or Blue Mountain) or even beef (Kobe). But I think it’s also an appropriate term to consider in the making of maple syrup. If my land and trees and old farmhouse could be distilled into a single taste I think this First Run maple syrup would express it well. Clean, sweet, complex, and deeply pleasing.
Excerpted from the book NOTES FROM A MAINE KITCHEN by Kathy Gunst. Copyright © 2011 by Kathy Gunst. Reprinted with permission of Down East Books.
This segment aired on March 20, 2014.