For me, the beginning of spring is marked by cyclical beauty: the dripping sound outside my window as the snow begins to melt, the squishiness beneath my feet as the ground thaws and becomes mud, the sound of birds in the morning as the light comes a little bit earlier each day, the bright purple and orange of the first crocuses poking through the earth. There is one specific marker, however, that tells me definitively that spring is on its way: maple syrup season.
The Northeast is commonly known for making maple syrup, but what you may not know is that we make it in the Midwest too. The woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa—where I live—have just the right climate to produce the sticky sweet substance that adds the final touch to any pancake or waffle. Growing up, my parents hauled my sisters and I over to my family’s woods each March, where we would trudge through the barely melted snow in search of trees to tap.
To make maple syrup, you need to tap the trees in the spring as soon as the sap starts to flow. This happens once the weather begins oscillating between freezing nights and warmer days, i.e. below 32 and up to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This fluctuation between freeze and thaw creates a pumping condition in the maple trees, as the branches pull sugars up through the trunk to feed the new growth. These sugars are the sap that you use to make syrup.
In order to harvest the sap, you need to drill a hole about two inches deep in the tree’s bark. Don’t worry—this doesn’t hurt the tree! You attach a bucket below and then stick a spile into the drilled hole, so that as the temperature rises and falls and the sap flows up the trunk, a little bit of sap will drip out of the spile into the bucket. Big commercial operations make thousands of taps and connect tubing to all the trees to avoid harvesting individual buckets; we only make syrup for our small family, so we use a mixture of the old-fashioned buckets and the tubing.
Once you’ve collected the sap, it’s time to boil. It typically takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup—the sap is so diluted that it tastes nothing like syrup at all, just sweet water. We use a traditional evaporator, a large open pan over a wood fire, to boil the sap. We boil off about 6-7 gallons of water per hour, so it takes a whole day to get about a gallon and a half of syrup. Sometimes we boil overnight and sleep in the woods under the stars to keep an eye on the fire. The best part about this stage in the process is tasting the sap as it transitions into syrup—it gets sweeter and sweeter with each passing hour.
Once the sap is finally close to being syrup, we pour it off of the evaporator and take it home to finish boiling on the kitchen stove. The entire house smells like maple syrup during this last step. The whole ambience is really aided by the fact that I live in a log cabin farmhouse built in 1853—total Laura Ingalls Wilder vibes.
Once the sap is fully boiled down to a thick, sweet syrup it is canned. Then it’s off to the cold cellar with the other canned goods: tomatoes, peaches, pickles, raspberry jam, apple butter, pear jelly, tomato and grape juice… then cross your fingers and hope that you made enough for the whole year!
My favorite way to eat maple syrup is atop my family’s recipe for Swedish pancakes (my family is very Swedish on my dad’s side). They are very similar to crepes and easy to make, even in a Vassar TA or TH kitchen. I made them for my housemates last semester and if I can pull them off, so can you.
1-1.5 quarts milk
1-2 tablespoons oil
About 2 cups flour – just enough to thicken the mixture so that when poured into the pan, it spreads evenly but thinly.
Make the batter by simply mixing all the ingredients together.
You’ll want your pans to be pretty hot. Cast iron is easiest, but definitely not necessary. Preheat your pans and put just a little bit of butter or oil in the bottom, and then pour in the batter. Tilt the pan to spread the batter around so that it evenly and thinly coats the pan, then let it cook. You’ll want to see little bubbles forming in the batter before you flip the pancake, and you want it to get nice and brown on both sides. If the first couple pancakes don’t turn out perfectly, don’t fret! Oftentimes it gets easier once the pan heats up and gets a little “seasoned.” Once the pancake is fully cooked, take off the pan and enjoy!
Maple Syrup (homemade or otherwise)
Any kind of berries (my favorite is raspberries)
Butter and cinnamon sugar
Like crepes, these can be savory as well! Feel free to try with cheese, sausage, or whatever you like.
My personal favorite topping combinations:
Maple Syrup and vegetarian sausage—for that incredible maple-sausage flavor. (Or real sausage if you eat meat!)
Nutella, raspberries and whipped cream—for that chocolatey-berry fluffy goodness.
All images by Helen Johnson/The Miscellany News