Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on a class about maple syrup production. The class was held in Brookville and put on by Penn State Extension.

I’ve never tried to make maple syrup or to even contemplate collecting the sap from maple trees, from which the syrup is made. I have been familiar with “real” maple syrup for most of my life since Dad hails from New England.

Trips to visit Dad’s hometown of Shelburne Falls, Mass., always included a stop at Gould’s Sugar House. It was a combination of tourist gift shop and restaurant. The family made it’s own maple syrup so it was a given that my family would stop at least one morning while visiting the area and sitting at picnic style tables order pancakes with “real” maple syrup.

For anyone growing up in New England, having a bowl of dill pickles brought to the table along with the pancakes, sausage and syrup might seem a little strange. There is a good reason for it and in Shelburne Falls its part of the local tradition. The people who grew up there know that eating the pickles will help to cut the sweetness of the syrup.

The sweetness doesn’t bother me because I don’t drench my pancakes in syrup. I pour a little on but I don’t want to eat soggy pancakes. I’ve tried maple syrup from various areas in Vermont and Massachusetts but around Shelburne Falls the syrup seems to be a little bit sweeter, which might be why they started putting out the bowl of pickles.

While I have no experience in maple syrup making, Dad has often told me about helping out when a friend’s family made maple syrup when he was a young boy. A fire had to be kept going all night long so the boys would keep bringing in the wood. Dad said as a treat the children would get a dish of fresh, clean snow and maple syrup would be ladled over it causing the maple syrup to harden somewhat. It was more like maple taffy than a hard candy, he says.

The Penn State Extension class talked about the process from identifying maple trees that have the right type of sap to tapping the trees, collecting and boiling the sap until it becomes syrup and then filtering it. But why is the syrup that I get from a family in Massachusetts sweeter than others. I can only surmise that they tap mostly sugar maples on their farm. From the recent class, I know that black maples and silver maples can also be tapped for sap to make maple syrup but sugar maples can have a sweeter sap. I guess that should be obvious from their name. I had always thought they were the only maple trees one could get the sap for maple syrup from so I was surprised to learn about the silver and black maple varieties.

Vermont is the number one producer of maple syrup while Pennsylvania ranks 4th among the maple syrup producing states.

According to information on the University of Vermont, Proctor Maple Research Center’s website, a standard gallon of maple syrup contains eight pounds of sugar plus water and traces of other materials, which bring its total weight to the required 11 pounds.

It takes 86 gallons of sap containing 1 percent sugar to make 1 gallon of syrup. Sap with a sugar content of 2 percent requires 43 gallons, or just half as much, to make a gallon of standard syrup. A gallon of syrup can be made from only 22 gallons of sap containing 4 percent sugar. So the sweeter the sap, the less is needed to make syrup.

To be labeled as maple syrup in Pennsylvania, the syrup must be at least “66 percent sugar solids and no more than 68.9 percent, according to information provided by Scott Weikert, Penn State Extension educator. It was also noted in the class that maple syrup is about two-thirds sucrose.

While that may cause many people to pause, everyone needs to remember that maple syrup is not eaten by the cupful; instead a little bit of it is added to another food item.

There are many ways to use syrup in cooking besides as a breakfast food topping. It can be used to add a little sweetness to baked beans. Adding a little barbecue sauce as well provides a nice flavor that brings canned baked beans to another level of taste. It can be drizzled over ice cream or poured into the center of peeled, cored apples with some raisins and walnuts and then baked in the oven. Serve the apples with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s a quick, easy dessert for one or two people. If you want to go a step further you can slice the apples, layer them in a baking dish, mix raisins and walnuts in with the apples, pour some maple syrup over everything and bake or add a little maple syrup to your favorite apple crisp recipe.

I stock up on maple syrup when we return to Dad’s hometown. My great-Aunt Ena took my dad to visit a family she knew who makes maple syrup when he was a young boy. Aunt Ena is long gone now but the family she first introduced us to is still making syrup. In fact, dad has gone there so long it is the third generation of the family running the farm. According to Aunt Ena, the fancy or lightest colored syrup with the mildest taste is the best. It’s my favorite but other people may prefer the darker syrup with a more robust flavor. The light syrup is usually the first made when the sap is at its freshest and hasn’t been stored too long in the collection container.

A favorite recipe, that I was given many years ago, combines maple syrup and cheesecake. This is a very rich dessert and a small slice of this cheesecake with a cup of coffee or tea will satisfy the most intense craving for a decadent dessert. The note on the recipe lists Carolyn Tandy, chef and owner of Emma’s Restaurant in Jericho, Vt., as the author. A quick Internet search provided no current listing of this restaurant in Jericho but I can attest to the wonderfully light maple taste and rich creaminess of this maple cream cheesecake.

MAPLE CREAM CHEESECAKE

Makes 1 nine-inch cheesecake

Crust:

4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, melted

1 3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

3 tbsp. light brown sugar

Cheesecake:

20 oz. (2 1/2 8 oz. packages) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

14 tsp. baking soda

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup dark maple syrup (I used the light syrup)

Topping:

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup maple syrup

Chopped walnuts for garnish

TO MAKE CRUST

In a small bowl stir together butter, graham cracker crumbs and brown sugar. Press into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch spring form pan.

TO MAKE CHEESECAKE:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. Beat in sugar and eggs (1 at a time). Beat in vanilla.

In a small bowl stir together flour and baking soda. Add to cream cheese mixture, mixing well. Mix in cream and maple syrup. Spoon into spring form pan over crust.

Bake until firm, about 1 hour, or until the cheesecake doesn’t quiver when jiggled and is fairly firm when you touch the top. When cheesecake is done, turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake in the oven for 1 hour (the cheesecake will continue to firm during this time). Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Refrigerate. Remove from spring form pan after the cheesecake has cooled (otherwise it will crack).

TO MAKE TOPPING

Beat heavy cream until soft peaks form and beat in maple syrup. Frost the top of the chilled cheesecake with cream and sprinkle with walnuts.

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