Holiday season is fast approaching. I don’t know about you, but I’m already salivating just thinking of juicy turkey, cranberry-glazed ham, hot-buttered rum and pumpkin pie.
But what really tickles my fancy this time of the year is the discovery of what is soon to be my go-to dessert – this year’s winner of the secret ingredient category – Maple Bacon Cheesecake.
Pure maple syrup, an all-American staple, is the secret ingredient in the 57th Wichita Eagle Holiday Cookbook Contest. Kansans once again took the challenge and got cooking with it. From a crunchy, sweet granola for breakfast and a bourbon maple glaze for beef to baked beans (a natural for maple) and a maple dressing for a nutty apple salad, the use of maple syrup was outstanding.
What is it about maple syrup that delights and interests us? Is it the long history of use thoroughly entwined with the very beginnings of our country or the fact that it is relatively rare, being produced mainly in the New England states and Canada? Or maybe it’s just because its smooth, unique sweetness is the perfect addition to almost any dish – savory or sweet.
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Where maple syrup comes from
Maple syrup is made from the sap of the sugar maple tree. Other maple tree species also can be used to harvest sap, including the red and black maple. But the sugar maple is the primary source. The sap, a product of the starch these trees store in their trunks and roots, rises in the spring. During the thaw, the trees are “tapped” through holes bored into their trunks to collect the sap. The sap is brought to a boil and carefully watched to allow the water to evaporate. What is left is pure maple syrup. It has been made this way – and continues to be made in this same basic fashion – for a very long time.
It’s not the number of trees that count in sap yield, but rather the number of tap holes. According to www.vermontmaple.org, the official site for Vermont maple syrup, an average yield for each tap hole is five to 15 gallons. But with favorable conditions, a single tap hole can produce as much as 40 to 80 gallons of sap a year. It takes about 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of maple syrup.
What’s all this have to do with this year’s secret ingredient?
For anyone who has ever licked their fingers after pouring maple syrup on fluffy pancakes or enjoyed the richness of baked beans spiked with maple syrup — everything.
Real maple syrup, while more expensive than “maple-flavored” syrups, provides some unique health benefits. An ounce of syrup has only 34 calories and contains nutritionally significant amounts of zinc and manganese. It has 15 times more calcium and one-tenth as much sodium as honey. It also has beneficial antioxidants from its natural phenols.
In addition to being used as a topping for pancakes, waffles and french toast, maple syrup and its imitations also are used to flavor many things, including bacon, ice cream, hot cereals, fruit, sausages, squash of all varieties, cakes, breads, tea and hot drinks. Looking at the creative use of maple syrup in the secret ingredient category this year, it also can be used in salad dressings, glazes and sauces for meat and poultry.
Selecting and storing
Two grades of maple syrup are available: Grade A with its three versions — Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber — and Grade B used in cooking and processed food. The lighter the color of the maple syrup, the more subtle the flavor.
Store maple syrup unopened in a cool, dry place. When opened, store it in the refrigerator. It’s important to note that if mold appears on the surface of the syrup, throw it away. The mold may not have contaminated the entire bottle, but get rid of it to be safe. The syrup can be frozen but must be brought to room temperature before using to make it pourable.
It’s easy to substitute maple syrup for the sugar called for in recipes. Use three-quarters of a cup of maple syrup for one cup of granulated sugar. When you are using it as a substitute in baking, reduce the liquid required by 2 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup maple syrup. You also will need to add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Here are some recipes from the secret ingredient category. Hope you like them as much I did. Thanks to all of you who sent recipes in and made maple syrup your go-to kitchen staple.