The Big Rock Candy Mountains

I saw a friend’s post on Facebook yesterday morning about free maple sap on offer, and in a matter of hours I was there with jars and growlers to fill, ending up with 2 1/2 gallons for my very own. Now given the 40:1 reduction ratio to make syrup, that wasn’t going to yield a whole lot. So I thought of other things to make with it instead, treating the sap as an ingredient. After tasting some partly-reduced stuff from the big pot on top of his wood stove–which had a profound vanilla flavor–I figured that letting it cook down a bit before using it would make the sap more useful for what I had in mind.

It’s water-clear, with a delicate maple flavor and faint sweetness. Very nice to drink by the large cold glassful.

So into our own big pot it went, and began to reduce. At about the halfway point, I removed some and set it aside for other nefarious purposes to be named later. The rest bubbled merrily, and filled the house with a divine aroma. It’s honestly one step removed from magic that one can drill a hole in a tree, catch the clear liquid that comes out, boil it down, and end up with one of the most sublime sweets in the world. And when there’s a first grader involved, demonstrating this process is essentially the same as telling them that crack grows on trees. The clamor for another trip to the sap’s source was interrupted only by more fervent clamoring to check the syrup’s progress for the millionth time and discuss exactly when and how much would be consumed and at what stages until every drop was gone and then when could we go get some more sap and do it again.

Given the small amount involved, we voted to reduce it past syrup to candy. I poured the thick, sticky goodness into little bowls to harden (and should really have either buttered them first or just poured it onto parchment instead) and then we dug out the rounded sweets with spoons and moaned with delight. As with so many other things, homemade is a world removed from all but the very best local products. And the possibilities for bespoke viscosities along the spectrum from sap to syrup suited to different culinary applications have got me as excited as the narrator of that great old hobo song (or a six-year-old crackhead).

12 comments to The Big Rock Candy Mountains

  • As a native of Massachusetts (far displaced) who used to go on field trips as a kid to the sugar shacks, I’m very nostalgic reading your post.

  • Vicki Murphy

    Have never done this. But sounds heavenly!

  • completely agree on the magic of the whole thing!
    We made sugar out of our first batch but we’re gonna try for syrup with the second batch. Yesterday was not a good sap day — guess the night was not cold enough.

    I also agree that it is a truly delightful drink just as it is — why has no one sold it? Can’t you see it being the next health craze?

    Another use my aunt (who does serious sugaring up in VT – hundreds of gallons of syrup!) just told me about for the sap is to cook beans in it – she said it’s really nice for that. She freezes some buckets of it to use throughout the year (or just drink.)

  • Coincidentally this was one of the subjects of a recent Nerdnite Boston and I’m now apprised of what it all entails. Fascinating stuff.

  • There is nothing, absolutely nothing, better in this world than real maple syrup (or maple sugar). Kiss a maple for me today.

  • Mo

    I’m soooo jealous of this post! It sounds divine! Ever since I was little and I read the Little House on the Prairie books I’ve wanted to make maple sugar (and cheese…and all sorts of other stuff they detail making!) I bet it must have been so fun to do it with your child! I love when my preschooler helps me cook/play in the kitchen.

  • Peter

    Nicole: I too am a native of Massachusetts, and still manage to get nostalgic even though I live in a neighboring state.

    Vicki: You should. It’s wonderful.

    Eve: That’s the first thing I thought of- saving it in the freezer for use later on in the year when the fruit starts to happen. The health drink idea is great, too- my buddy and I talked about that. The profit margins would be much bigger.

    Franklin: I have high hopes for the birch tree, too.

    Zoomie: And when it’s fresh-made, the flavors seem more complex.

    Mo: Cheese is easy. You should try.

  • Mo

    Yes, I plan on working on cheese. The best I’ve done is ricotta, which hardly counts! I have everything I need to make mozzarella and then want to find a good recipe for some easy farmer’s cheese. I’m hoping to get dairy goats next year and would love figure out cheese before then!

  • Note that the sap-to-syrup ratio for birch is more like 80:1 or worse, the season is shorter, and it’s easier to scorch. I’ll bet it’s something else, though.

  • Janet

    Who ever thought of taking sap out of a tree, cooking it down to a syrup was a genius.
    It’s been years since I’ve been to a Maple Syrup farm. The best part was when they would take the cooked syrup and pour it on to snow/ice so it would harden into a taffy. Best ever treat!

  • If we have more sap than we can make use of, would you want some?

  • Peter

    Mo: Oh, goats would be amazing. You’ll have more cheese than you know what to do with.

    Franklin: It’s really nice, but the ratio is a drag.

    Janet: Sugar on snow has been an inspiration to my son.

    Eve: Yes! Yes!

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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