It’s tempting to think of maple syrup as a winter treat, something to sweeten breakfast on chilly mornings, atop a bowl of steaming oatmeal or flowing in profusion over a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Here in Maine, though, maple syrup belongs to springtime —because, of course, early spring is when the combination of still freezing nights and warmer days drives the sap to rise in the trees. All it takes then are a few taps or spiles drilled through the bark at just the right height, not more than one or two to a tree depending on the tree’s age, and then you hear the slow drip-drip of clear, watery liquid falling into the bucket that hangs from each tap. “Sap’s rising,” the old-timers say, and newcomers to syrup making say the same thing, just because it’s such a cool thing to say. And to do.
In reality, the chemical process that takes place is more complex although the effect is the same. The sap doesn’t actually push its way up the tree; instead, in theory, it is pulled up by a kind of osmosis that occurs when starch stored in the tree’s cells breaks down and converts to sucrose. Through osmosis, water moves into the cells and pumps out the sucrose into the tubular spile or tap and thence to the waiting bucket.
But wait! That previous statement is highly debatable, indeed actively debated over and over. The whole process of rising sap, which has been studied since humans first began to walk about amid the trees, is still in dispute. You can find a great, detailed introduction to the physics of the phenomenon and the history of various theories about how and why it happens in an article by Harvey R. Brown of the Radcliffe Humanities division of the University of Oxford. Brown’s article behooves attentive study, not least because it provides a good-humored look at how scientists agree to disagree. Here’s a link to Dr. Brown’s paper.
In the event, however, sap does flow in the maple trees, whether or not we know how and why it does so, and fills the buckets hanging from the spiles. In the old days brimming buckets were collected one after the other, emptied into a drum, and transported, by horse and wagon or by ox and sledge, to the sugar shack for the long, watchful process of boiling down the watery sap, thickening it and concentrating its sweetness into rich gold or dark amber syrup. Up in the North Country along the Canadian border, that process often goes on throughout the weeks of spring as the snow slowly melts in the woods and the first peepers begin to shrill in woodland ponds and vernal pools. “How late will you be working?” I asked Carrie Braman up in Sandy Bay Township, about 15 miles in the woods north of Jackman, the last town on the Old Canada Road before you get into Quebec. “Until May 5th,” she said, “Cinco de Mayo.”
Maple Bread Pudding
An incredibly easy dessert, this does require a couple of things: 1) best quality pure maple syrup, 2) challah or brioche or other type of egg-y bread, and 3) plenty of time but not a lot of effort.
Makes enough for 8 servings.
- One 1-pound loaf challah, brioche, or other egg bread
- 1 cup dark maple syrup
- 1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- 8 eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Butter to grease a 2-quart baking or soufflé dish
- 1 or 2 tablespoons demerara sugar
Cut or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Include all the crust except for parts that are very thick and tough. You should have about 8 cups of bread cubes.
In a bowl large enough to hold all the bread, combine the maple syrup with the cream, eggs, and vanilla and whisk to mix it all together thoroughly. Add the bread cubes and fold into the mixture, stirring gently to coat thoroughly. Set the bowl aside at room temperature for an hour or so to let the bread completely absorb the egg mix.
When you’re ready to bake the pudding, turn the oven on to 375º. Liberally butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish.
Turn the pudding into the baking dish. If there’s any egg mixture left in the bottom of the bowl, spoon it right over the top. Take a piece of foil large enough to cover the dish and butter one side of it. Cover the dish with the foil, butter side down, and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pudding starts to puff and turn golden, then remove the pudding from the oven, raise the temperature to 350º, discard the foil, and spoon turbinado sugar over the top. Return the pudding to the oven, uncovered this time, and bake an additional 15 minutes, until it has puffed like a soufflé and turned a darker gold. Remove from the oven and let sit 10 minutes, then serve, still warm, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, crème fraiche, whipped cream, or yogurt.