One of my treasured childhood memories is weekend pancakes, only one of two meals that my dad regularly prepared.
My job would be to heat up the maple syrup. I remember hauling that gallon tin of precious syrup from the fridge to the counter. My dad helped me pour the syrup into a pan and I stirred it on the stove. The reward came when the syrup was carefully poured onto a stack of buckwheat cakes, melting the pat of butter on top into rivers of sugary goodness.
I think back on those memories this time of year when cold nights and warm (or at least sunny) days make the sap run in Connecticut's abundant Sugar Maple trees. And although the sap is initially clear, boiling transforms it into a delicious golden maple syrup adored by many.
To mark this year's long-awaited season of sugaring, here are a few recipes that celebrate the maple flavor in different ways.
These Maple Baked Beans surprised me. Having never made baked beans before, I thought it would be a long arduous process with a less-than-unique result. I was wrong.
The key to this recipe, which was sent to me by my foodie mother-in-law, is the clove-spiked onion and, of course, the syrup. That subtle clove flavor was just enough to enhance the sweetness without overpowering the tender beans.
I used my trusty slow cooker instead of the oven and added about one-quarter cup of dark brown sugar for extra sweetness. Read through the directions before you start. It sounds as though the recipe was written by a grandmother with phrases such as, "Go about your business, checking on the beans from time to time."
I paired the beans with grilled chicken breast brushed with Maple Chipotle Barbecue Sauce. For our family of six, I halved the portions recommended in this recipe, but I'll be making the full portion when we make it again for a summer cookout, as my daughter requested.
In order to cook the chicken breasts evenly, I halved them horizontally and then pounded them for a uniform thickness. After marinating in the sauce for 30 minutes, I grilled them at medium high heat for about five to seven minutes on each side.
This sauce was incredible. The grill mellowed the spicy heat and caramelized the sugars, leaving a sticky-sweet coating on the chicken. The remaining sauce was used at the table for dipping and had a smoky bite to it. (Be sure to separate the sauce into two bowls, one for marinating and one for the table that does not touch the raw chicken.)
And finally, the best part of any meal — dessert. This recipe for Maple Praline Ice Cream Sauce seemed too simple when I read it. I anticipated a nice sweet topping, but not a spectacular, spoon-licking sauce. Again, I was happy to be wrong.
Saying that my little foodies and I licked our spoons clean would be an understatement. We also scraped the pan and used our fingers to reach in between the wires of the whisk so none of this sauce was wasted. The smooth, buttery sauce was perfectly sweet, with the toasted pecans adding a welcome crunch.
This recipe is simple. Do not be intimidated by the candy thermometer. You don't really need one. After boiling the ingredients, coat the back of a spoon and let it sit for a minute. If it's thick enough, stop boiling. If not, boil some more and try again. Next time, I will double this recipe because it only served six of us once.
Finally a word about ingredients — don't be lured into buying cheaper imitation syrup. "Maple-flavored" syrup is just that — flavored corn syrup. There are some things that are worth the price, and, unwaveringly, maple syrup is one of those in our household. There is no substitute.