Le Printemps d’Érable: Making Maple Crème

Maple syrup falls into the category of perfect food. It arrives to us almost directly from nature, with minimal processing, and cannot be improved upon. It’s consistency is almost like mercury. That might be its only shortcoming, that in its raw form the stuff itself is temperamentally hard to pin down and challenges us to find other uses for its limited versatility. Would you like some pancakes?

It’s also special because the window for enjoying it is so quick. Sugaring off season comes and goes in a heartbeat during spring. And if you live in a place where sugar shacks operate, you’ll see them pop up and close again just before the fruit and vegetable stands take their place for summer.

With just a little effort, the quicksilver consistency of maple syrup in its raw form can be transformed into a spreadable version of an otherwise identical tasting iteration of itself: maple cream (aka. maple butter). After some trial and error, using a machine to stir the syrup with disastrous results, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to do this is by hand, using a wooden spoon. There’ll be a little fatigue in your future if you try this, but the result is so worth it you’ll wonder what you were whining about.

The method outlined on America’s Test Kitchen provides the clearest steps needed to attain the best result, along with its properly Protestant work ethic comments that seem to imply “no pleasure without suffering”. So get out your wooden spoon, and prepare to suffer your way towards a state of maple-induced euphoria. It’s a quintessentially Northeastern food, perfectly commingling the bounty of nature and a type of Puritan moral code that equates hard work and reward. No instant gratification here.

Contrary to what a lot of people might think, maple cream contains no ingredients other than maple syrup. It is only maple syrup heated up to boiling, brought back down to a cooler temperature, and then stirred until buttery in consistency. The fact that it’s often referred to as “maple butter” probably conveys the impression for a lot of people that it’s got some butter in it. Nope. It is purely and only 100% maple syrup, transformed.

You will need: 1) maple syrup 2) a saucepan large enough to allow for considerable bubbling up of the heated syrup 3) a candy thermometer 4) a bowl full of ice (for cooling the heated syrup down) 5) a jar into which to decant the finished product.

1) Attach a candy thermometer to the side of your saucepan and empty the maple syrup in.

2) Heat it over a medium-high setting until it bubbles up. Don’t panic when you see the bubbles rise. Don’t stir! Keep a spray bottle full of water to one side if you really think the syrup is going to spill over. One spray will be enough to calm the rising bubbles down. But don’t get carried away with it, and whatever you do, don’t disturb or stir the syrup in any way. You’ll need to leave it on the bubble for a good 15-20 minutes, until the thermometer reads precisely 235 degrees Fahrenheit.

3) Now pour the syrup into a bowl which you’ve placed in a larger bowl already filled with ice. Take the thermometer from the saucepan and affix it to the bowl with the syrup in it. Wait until the thermometer reads approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, let it be. Don’t stir or disturb the syrup in any way.

4) It will take at least 10 minutes to reach the desired temperature of 100 degrees. Now the work begins. Grab your wooden spoon in one hand and the bowl in the other, and stir, constantly agitating the syrup until it changes both colour and consistency. First you’ll see it change from an incredibly stiff and jewel-like brown clarity to an incredibly stiff and opaque dark brown. It will require a solid 15-20 minutes of diligent stirring (no joke) until it finally reaches a beautiful silky-smooth butter-like consistency. Put on a favourite record. An average side of vinyl ought to get you through. Or watch some boring television. But keep an eye on your stirring, because when the big moment arrives, you’re going to need to spring into action.

5) Stop stirring the moment the syrup reaches an almost granular buttery consistency, just after it loses its shine. If you keep stirring, you’ll have an essentially useless hard beige candy on your hands. Scoop the stuff into your jar right now, and be quick about it.

Bang, you’re finished. Now, scoop out a spoonful of this stuff and tell me all that work wasn’t worth it. The finished result is so incredibly delicious.

The only real shortcoming I can think of is that I haven’t really found any satisfactory accompaniment to spread the stuff onto. I hate to waste its flavour smearing it on other things, like breads or biscuits or whatever. The only thing that kind of hits the spot for me is to smear it on some apple slices. But nothing, nothing, nothing tastes quite so good as a spoonful of the raw stuff itself.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965