Here in Upstate New York, one of the earliest festivals for us non-winter-sports folk is Maple Fest. In late winter/early spring the sap in the living, growing part of the sugar maple trees just under the bark, encouraged by the wild fluctuations in temperatures, begins to “run” up and down the tree. Native peoples discovered that boiling this very slightly sweet clear liquid produced a syrup with a unique flavor that makes virtually any other food more wonderful.
Today Kevin and I fought off cabin fever and ventured out under skies that were looking decidedly November-ish and broke our three week low-carb diet regimen to enjoy all- you-can-eat pancakes with local maple syrup at one of our favorite places, the Log Cabin Restaurant. Kevin says I am a syrup snob because I turn up my nose at maple flavored pancake syrup, but after three weeks of no sugar, the rich flavor and sweetness of real maple syrup made a believer out of him. It was so good we actually sat there giggling like two kids let loose in an ice cream shop.
My love affair with maple syrup started with my father, who spent his teenage years working on a dairy farm north of Syracuse that also made syrup. The memory of childhood visits to the Valley farm, the white plumes of the horses’ breath as they drew heavy sleds through the woods collecting the sap from the buckets hung on hundreds of trees, the smell of wood smoke and sweet syrup in the sugaring house, and the treat of syrup poured onto snow to make maple lollipops, is one that stays with you. This afternoon, after our feast, we took the horse drawn wagon ride a quarter mile down the road to see the sugaring operation at Packard Farms, a family farm in operation since 1821. We enjoyed a very informative presentation about modern collection and syrup production methods, grading and product quality control while standing under hand-hewn 6″ x 6″ beams. I caught Kevin’s knowing smile when I pointed them out to some young visitors who were standing with us. He knows I cannot resist a “teachable moment”.
Returning home with our treasure, a quart of grade A amber syrup, I thought I would pull out “old faithful”, my beat up copy of the cookbook my mother often used. “The Victory Binding of the American Woman’s Cookbook – Wartime Edition” published for the Culinary Arts Institute by Consolidated Book Publishers, Inc., Chicago, 1943. I learned to explore foods and respect cooking as an art from my mother, but I have to say I learned how to cook and mastered my first go-to dishes from this book. Even with everything available online today, its torn binding speaks kitchen love on every stained and dog-eared page. Because sugar and other food items were rationed during the war, it has a treasure trove of recipes using maple syrup and honey and other food items available locally to the American family from neighborhood Victory gardens and family farms.
Somewhere in our genes I think we have this sense that we should learn how to make do, to thrive in the face of deprivation. I don’t think we really appreciate though what our grandparents and parents went through – what living in a country at war really means. The opening paragraphs of this section of the cookbook gives us a glimpse.
A quick check of ingredients on hand and a couple of reasonable substitutions and I decided a pan of Maple Sirup Gingerbread was just the thing. I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about developing a cooking sense is that you know what will work when you have almost enough of something. This recipe is quick and easy, uses ingredients you probably have on hand, but with a little twist. Have I mentioned that pure maple syrup is, well, pure!
MAPLE SIRUP (sic) GINGERBREAD
1 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup sour cream (I only had 1/2 cup so I used it plus 1/2 cup kefir)
1 egg well beaten
2 1/3 cup flour (I used 1 1/3 c Unbleached all purpose and 1 c mixture of oat, rye and whole wheat flour)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. Ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp melted shortening ( I used coconut oil)
Blend syrup, cream, egg together. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into liquid, beating well. Add melted shortening and beat thoroughly. Pour into paper lined pan (loaf or I used 8″ x 8″ square). I am sure you could use spray or grease and flour but I had parchment paper so I used it.
I am actually glad I used the paper though because it made removal from the pan and cutting so much neater.
The finished product? Oh my goodness! Light, not too sweet. Texture halfway between bread and cake. No one flavor was overwhelming, just that richness that maple brings at the beginning and a nice delicate ginger note at the end. Enjoy!