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
- Maple-Glazed Bacon with Rosemary and Chile Powder
- Roasted Maple-Glazed Carrots and Spring Parsnips
- Whipped Maple Butter
- Maple Cheesecake with Maple-Ginger Crust
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 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.
- Kathy Gunst, resident chef for Here & Now and author of cookbooks including “Notes from a Maine Kitchen.” She tweets @mainecook.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Spring officially begins today, at least on the calendar. And here in the Northeast, it's maple syrup time.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRIPPING)
PFEIFFER: That's the sound of what maple syrup lovers call liquid gold: sap being gathered from maple trees. It was sent to us from Maine by maple syrup maker John Rudolph, who also happens to be the husband of HERE AND NOW resident chef Kathy Gunst. With all of that syrup in her house, Kathy has been thinking up a variety of ways to use it. And she joins us in the studio to share some of her ideas and recipes. Kathy, always fun to have you on the show.
KATHY GUNST, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.
PFEIFFER: And, Kathy, we have here in the studio two different types of syrup. I see different colors. Tell us a little bit about the maple syrup your husband makes and how long he's been doing this.
GUNST: Oh, boy. We've lived at this - in this old farmhouse in Maine for over 30 years, and he's done it just about every year. And I give him the credit, which is very kind of me because I help a lot. But he's kind of the master. Every year, it's a ritual that is so wonderful because it's the beginning of making food season, right? The gardens...
GUNST: We still have a lot of snow in Maine, and it's still extremely cold. But the sap is flowing. It looks like it's going to be a very good year. And what that means is that we have warm days and cold nights.
PFEIFFER: Oh, that's right. That's the secret recipe that it needs.
GUNST: That's the secret recipe. And it is still very much winter despite what the calendar tells us. And we have had really good sun and strong days. So you can hear it drip, drip, dripping. And then at night, it stops. But the last few days have been so cold that there are just these frozen icicles coming out of the spouts.
PFEIFFER: In fact, we read that maple syrup season can start as early as February. So is this a late start maybe due to this extremely cold winter?
GUNST: It has been a very late start, and I think it will go into the season late. When it gets too warm, once the trees start budding, the sap turns. It either stops or it becomes kind of sour. It takes on a kind of smelly sock that is extremely unattractive, not what you want for god maple syrup.
GUNST: But what I've learned over the year is that - over the years is that making maple syrup, winemakers will not like this, but it is a lot like wine in the sense that the land that the trees are on vary. So our farm house in Maine is on a particular type of soil. The taste of our maple syrup is going to differ from, say, maple syrup that's made in Quebec or Vermont. So I brought you two samples. On the left is a lighter syrup. This is 2014. John just finished this last night. I think it's not quite done. That's the one with the spoon.
PFEIFFER: So you're - a question about your husband. He actually goes out there with taps and buckets, and he gets the syrup out of the trees.
GUNST: OK. So let's go back to that. You tap the tree. It's literally - you tap it with a nail. You make a hole. You put this tap in it. And then you connect - we use old - we found these wonderful old metal buckets. We don't use plastic. And then you cover it. And it just comes out. And sometimes it comes out so fast that we have to empty the buckets every 12 or 24 hours. And then...
PFEIFFER: Oh, really? So that's relatively fast. It's still a relatively slow drip. OK.
GUNST: That is fast. And then when it's really, really cold, it's just frozen and nothing comes out.
PFEIFFER: And once you get it out of the tree, does it need a boiling, filtering process?
GUNST: What you do then is it's a 40-to-one ratio. Forty gallons of sap will make one gallon of maple syrup.
PFEIFFER: Is that right?
KATHY GUNST, BYLINE: So it is a Zen exercise. It is a very slow thing. So John sits in the barn with this wacky Bunsen burner thing he set up - it's like a camping stove - and he slowly boils the sap. The dog goes out there. He brings the newspaper. And he waits and - I don't have the patience for it. But in the morning, one day, probably in about another week, he will come in with this finished product, and he will say, honey, look what I made.
PFEIFFER: Forty gallons of sap...
GUNST: Forty to one.
PFEIFFER: ...turns into one gallon of syrup?
GUNST: That's right. So...
PFEIFFER: What happens to the other 39 gallons?
GUNST: It evaporates. So what you have - when it comes out of the tree, it's a clear, almost tasteless sap. So what you're doing is you have to boil it down to intensify it. So taste that on the left there. That's a very light syrup. That's the vintage 2014.
PFEIFFER: It's almost runny. It's not thick as this is.
GUNST: It's not - yeah, and I think it needs to be a little bit thicker. But I think what you're going to taste is this is first run. This is the liquid gold stuff. You can't buy that kind of syrup.
PFEIFFER: Oh, that's incredible, almost
GUNST: Isn't that fabulous?
PFEIFFER: It's intensely wonderfully sweet without being overwhelming and cloying.
GUNST: Exactly. Now, taste 2013 next to it, a much richer amber color.
PFEIFFER: And darker. I mean, it's noticeably different.
GUNST: It's thicker and darker. And now, that's a good time to talk about the grading system. That's thicker.
PFEIFFER: Hmm, interesting, little more honey sweetness.
GUNST: It's bright sugary. It tastes like you melt a stick of butter in them. They're that buttery and delicious.
PFEIFFER: Oh, yeah.
GUNST: So the grading system is very confusing because it keeps changing. It used to be there was grade A, there was grade B, and then there was like cooking grade.
PFEIFFER: And we should note here that if you're new to maple syrup, you might think that grade A is really the best. But some people would argue a lower grade has more taste, richness.
GUNST: Exactly. Unlike school, nobody wants a B. So the maple syrup producers did was they changed now the labeling. And now, for example, in Vermont, there's only grade A. And within that, there are all this different category: there is amber, there's light amber. It goes from, you know, light to dark. Now, many people believe the darker the syrup, the better it is to cook with because it's a richer, more intense maple flavor. I agree. I think it's a waste to use these very light, delicate syrups in, say, making a cheesecake or even throwing on your pancakes. It's much more delicious to kind of drizzle it on something.
PFEIFFER: And, Kathy, you've also brought in some things that had syrup on them. There's a piece of bacon here...
GUNST: Yeah. It's a piece of bacon.
PFEIFFER: ...sprinkled with, what is it, rosemary maybe?
GUNST: So this is a thick-cut country bacon which I broiled, and I brushed it maple syrup, the darker stuff, fresh rosemary and a little chili powder. This is like adult candy.
PFEIFFER: It is.
GUNST: They're saying people get addicted to it. I warn you, I take no responsibility.
PFEIFFER: It's that's crust of saltiness and sweetness.
GUNST: Salt, sweet and a little kick of spice.
GUNST: Right? That is so fabulous with cocktails or on salads, sprinkled on to soups. Then what I have next to you is an open-faced fresh ricotta sandwich. This is a whole grain bread. This is fresh ricotta cheese with sea salt and pepper and a generous drizzle of maple syrup. Give that a try.
PFEIFFER: This is an open-faced sandwich.
GUNST: It is.
PFEIFFER: So they say it looks like a piece of bruschetta.
GUNST: Exactly. It's the same thing. And the idea here is that maple syrup, which we know of with French toast and pancakes, is so delicious and savory foods. And there are just so many options.
PFEIFFER: That's true.
GUNST: I love it in granola and on yogurt.
PFEIFFER: And not just because you're here today, Kathy, but I really - it is the truth when I tell you that maple syrup is my favorite sugar. I like it in yogurt. I like it on pancakes, everything (unintelligible).
GUNST: And so much better for you than white sugar or even...
PFEIFFER: Now, is that true? Tell us about what's the nutritional difference.
GUNST: Oh, it's absolutely true. Well, let's see. It's three times sweeter than caned sugar, but it only contains 40 calories per tablespoon, and a tablespoon of white sugar contains 48. It's full of good nutrients. There's all kinds of research, you know, that maple syrup is actually very, very good for you. The maple trees originally were developed by Native Americans in the northeast. And they use syrup much like we use salt today, to season virtually everything. So it really has a history of being used not just with sweet, gooey breakfast stuff but with everything.
PFEIFFER: It's also a bit of a luxury? I mean, there's a reason restaurants tend to charge a little more for it. Is that because of the labor-intensive process you tried?
GUNST: Exactly. So I've just explained, it's a 40-one process. It comes straight out of the tree, nothing else is added. So you're paying for the labor. Another interesting new thing is you will now see maple syrups that are labeled organic. Because organic is such a buzz word, now you will see organic maple syrup. Is it worth spending five extra dollars for it? I don't think so.
PFEIFFER: Kathy, restaurants that don't serve the real thing but that kind of corn syrupy mixture, do you even consider that maple syrup?
GUNST: Oh, absolutely not. It's not maple syrup. It's interesting. It's corn syrup, and it has all these spices in it that are meant to stimulate a maple flavor, including fenugreek, which is a fennel flavor, very odd. No true New England diner would serve that stuff. No way.
PFEIFFER: Nothing like the real thing.
GUNST: It's the real thing or nothing.
PFEIFFER: Kathy, thank you so much.
GUNST: Thanks, Sacha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PFEIFFER: There you have it, maple or bust. Kathy Gunst is the author of "Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes" for maple recipes. And to see pictures of her husband John's maple syrup-making operation, go to hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
She'll blush so we'll just say, Kathy Gunst is also a James Beard Foundation Award nominee. Oops, no more time. I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.