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Cooking With Maple

04/01/05 12:00AM
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(HOST) With fresh maple syrup so available right now, commentator Marialisa Calta has some advice for cooks.


(CALTA) The sap is running, steam is pouring from the lopsided sugarhouses that dot the landscape and everything is...well...sweet. And I mean really sweet. Maple syrup, according to the ever-reliable Joy of Cooking, has more sweetening power than both granulated sugar and honey. So when you cook with maple syrup, you have to be careful.

I have no problem with maple in fudge or mousse - these dishes are supposed to be really, really sweet. But when people start pouring syrup willy-nilly into everything from pot roast to chicken livers, I start getting nervous. To some extent, the blame falls on a small group of restaurateurs - you know who you are - who feel they are signaling their authentic "Vermont-ness" by dousing foods in syrup. They serve innocent lamb drowned in maple sauces and set brussels sprouts afloat in the stuff.

The late Noel Perrin, the well-known writer, who was also a backyard sugarmaker, reacted to a recipe that combined maple syrup, crushed pineapple, and squash by saying: "I'd soon as mix 12-year-old scotch with Diet Pepsi."

I don't want to alarm anyone, but I feel it is my civic duty to alert you: there are a lot of really weird maple recipes out there. That doesn't mean that maple syrup has no place at the stove. Used with the right ingredients, in small amounts - and, at more than 40 bucks a gallon, who can afford to use it in more than small amounts? - it can transform a dish from ordinary to extraordinaire.

Rux Martin, a writer and editor based in Charlotte, gave very good advice on how to cook with maple syrup in a book called Sweet Maple, co-published by Vermont Life and Chapters Publishing in 1993. "The most successful recipes," wrote Martin, "pair maple either with ingredients that counter its sweetness - or, paradoxically, with full-flavor fatty foods that play its richness to the hilt."

In the first category she mentions pepper, lemon juice and vinegar, making syrup a good candidate for vinaigrettes, marinades, sweet- and-sour sauces and peppery glazes. Martin even suggests a whiskey sour made with grapefruit, orange and lemon juice, bourbon and a touch of maple syrup. In the category of full-flavor fatty foods, she mentions butter, cream, bacon and nuts - giving maple a role to play in breads, pastries, rich fish like salmon and meats such as pork, duck and goose. Used sparingly, syrup can work magic on root vegetables, like carrots and onions. I can even accept it in baked beans, although I prefer the slightly burnt caramel flavor of molasses.

But, to my mind, maple syrup is at its very best when it is at its simplest: poured over pancakes, waffles, french toast or oatmeal. That's when it packs a straightforward, maple-y punch. It says: "Hey! I'm maple syrup! I'm supposed to be sweet. You got a problem with that?"

To which I reply: no, not at all.

This is Marialisa Calta of Calais.

Marialisa Calta is a freelance writer and cookbook author.


FAMOUS BUTTERMILK PANCAKES

Recipe from River Run: Southern Comfort from Vermont, by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta (HarperCollins, 2001)

These pancakes were famously popular with River Run customers way before The New York Times wrote them up ("terrific pancakes, thick and puffy, but dense and crisp around the edges"; Sunday Travel section, 9/21/97). One of the secrets is whipping the egg whites. Another is serving the pancakes with pure maple syrup from Bill Smith's sugarhouse, just up the road.

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3 cups buttermilk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly
Solid vegetable shortening, or vegetable oil, for greasing pan
For serving:
Fruit of choice (optional): blueberries, sliced peaches, sliced strawberries, sliced bananas, etc.
Warm maple syrup
Cinnamon, allspice and/or nutmeg for sprinkling (optional)

Put the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Stir with a whisk to mix and to break up any lumps in the brown sugar.

Separate the eggs: add the yolks to the flour mixture and refrigerate the whites until ready to use (cold egg whites will whip better).

Add the buttermilk to the flour mixture, whisking to combine. Add the melted, slightly cooled butter and whisk gently some more. (If butter is too cold, it will congeal, if too hot, it will cook the eggs.) The batter should be fairly smooth.

Whip the chilled egg whites until very, very stiff and pour them on top of the batter. Using a poking motion with your whisk, incorporate the whites into the batter. They should not be totally mixed in; you should still be able to see a bit of egg whites here and there. The batter will be thick and gluey.

Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add shortening (don't use butter - it will burn) and swirl to coat the bottom. Test for proper heat by sprinkling a few drops of water on the heated surface; the water will form little sizzling, dancing beads when the skillet is ready.

Spoon a generous cup of batter onto the skillet to form a pancake about 6 inches in diameter. Cook until bottom is browned, and bubbles start to form on top (about 3 to 4 minutes). If you want to make fruit pancakes, add some sliced fruit at this point, just before you flip it over. (If you put the fruit right into the batter, the juices will make it to runny, and it will be difficult to cook the pancakes through.) Flip and cook the other side until browned (3 to 4 minutes more). The pancake should be cooked through.

Continue until batter is used up, keeping an eye on the heat and adjusting the temperature as necessary. Grease the pan as needed.

Serve plain, with warm maple syrup, with fruit on top, and/or sprinkled with spices.

Yield: 6 or 7 very large (6-to-8-inch) pancakes, about 3 servings


MAPLE WHISKEY SOURS

Recipe from Sweet Maple: Life, Lore & Recipes from the Sugarbush, by James M. Lawrence and Rux Martin (Vermont Life; Chapters Publishing, 1993)

Maple syrup mellows the harshness of the liquor and fruit juice better than white sugar does. It is also more convenient, since you don't have to go tot the trouble of dissolving sugar in water to make sugar syrup. For best results, use freshly squeeze fruit juice.

4 jiggers (8 ounces) bourbon whiskey
1 jigger (2 ounces) orange juice
1 jigger (2 ounces) grapefruit juice
1 jigger (2 ounces) lemon juice
1 jigger (2 ounces) maple syrup
ice

Combine all ingredients except ice in a cocktail shaker, mixing well. Divide evenly, pour into two large ice-filled glasses.

VARIATION:
MAPLE RYE SOURS

3 parts rye whiskey, 2 parts lemon juice, 2 parts grapefruit juice, 1 part maple syrup.

Yield: 2 large drinks

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