Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Maple Syrup

I think it's finally safe to put away the snow pants. The weather can be so strange in late winter/early spring. Just a couple of weeks ago we had our last big snow. We hadn't managed to make a snowman at that point and the girls and I determined that we wouldn't close out winter without sticking a carrot in some kind of face. Sadly, we found the snow to be too fluffy and couldn't make it pack well enough to form any kind of ball. We tried mounding it up and had more success than rolling. But still we succeeded only in making it look like a mound.

Not to be deterred, we thought maybe it would still be a creature made of snow - maybe a giant snowman with just the top of his head sticking out of the ground. We needed a big hat in order to pull it off, so Ava went inside and got a sombrero from one of the Mexican restaurants in town. We set to work with our "carrot" and "coal" and this was the end result.

We named him "Pepe the Snow Head."

And last week already we were out in our shirt sleeves. Ava is finally up on two wheels. Funny story: My 11-year-old, Sophie, never learned to ride. She tried to learn a few times at a younger age and had enough bad spills that she was willing to hang up her self-respect along with her bike and never try again. One nice day this spring I saw her privately and secretly trying to teach herself. This told me two things: That she really wanted to learn, and that she didn't feel good about herself.

I vowed that she would learn, and that we wouldn't put off Ava's learning any longer either. I worked with Ava for awhile and though she gamely tried, it didn't come together for her until I told her to constantly wiggle her handlebars back and forth from right to left and that would keep her from falling over. Well, that's what did it for her and she took off down the road.

We had the family come out to see and to praise her efforts. And then Sophie burst into tears. "Now I'm the only one who can't!" she wailed.

So next I worked with her. She was reluctant, nay, resistant. She can be quite bullheaded at times and she was determined that NOT being able to ride her bike was equal to winning the argument, which was most important at the moment. I didn't care. I yelled, I threatened, I took away privileges, I told her to wiggle the handlebars back and forth and she RODE that stupid bike down the drive, yelling, crying and trailing snot in the breeze behind her. It was exhausting and soul-crushing for me, not at all a shining moment in parenting history. But did you catch it?! She RODE the bike. There was success! A tiny little giggle broke through her snot-encrusted face and a seed of pride took root in her soul. Thank the Lord above. Motherhood is not for the limp.

Weather that alternates between snow head building and bike riding is tough on the sinuses, in my opinion, but it's great for maple syrup production. I heard a discussion on the making of maple syrup on NPR recently. It was said that the sap flows best through the trees when the weather starts to warm. It's best when the days are a bit above freezing and the nights are just below. But as soon as the tree begins to bud, the sap will no longer be sweet.

I thought to myself that this cold, consistent spring was probably really great for collecting maple sap. Later in the week, I came home to find this bottle sitting on my kitchen counter.

That's my daddy's angular handwriting on that scrap of paper. I called him up and found that he had been helping a buddy with the boiling of his maple syrup during this record-breaking season of production. He got a couple of gallons of the stuff as payment.

It is nothing out of the ordinary in this area to drive through the country and see something like this on either one tree in someone's yard, or a whole orchard of trees in a heavily wooded area.

As it warms and the sap begins to move, it is collected in buckets like these, set under a hole drilled low on the trunk. Skinny trees can only have one tap, but older, fatter trees can have two or even three taps bleeding the sap into the collection buckets.

Once you have enough sap acquired, it's time to boil it down into syrup. It has to boil for a long time in order to remove the water from the sap, which thickens to the consistency we recognize, and to concentrate that wonderful flavor. It can be done at home on the stove top, but you should have a fan and a dehumidifier running. Professionals like to use outdoor ranges to avoid the build-up of moisture in their homes.

As the sap boils, the foam must be skimmed off from time to time, removing impurities from the final product. The temperature should be brought to seven degrees above boiling, and remain at that temperature throughout the process.

Once it's boiled to the consistency you like, you can filter your syrup if you choose. Or you can let it cool and let the crud sink to the bottom. You'd fill your bottles with the clean syrup at the top and avoid the impurities in that way.

As with anything homemade, I think a product always seems more wholesome and delicious when one makes it one's self. But be forewarned: It can take 25-75 gallons of raw sap to make one gallon of prepared syrup!

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