Sugaring off, a rite of spring, gives new ideas to the cook

It takes only a few sunny days in early spring to start the melting of the winter snows, and that means the maple trees are ready and it's tree-tapping time.

The usual maple-syrup season lasts only from four to six weeks, not much time if you want to take a trip to the woods to enjoy a typical sugaring off.

But although the season is short and the areas limited, this is still an interesting spring tradition for hundreds of Americans.

Years ago the Indians captured the mellow liquid by inserting hollow reeds into V-shaped incisions to run the sap into birch-bark buckets, after which they boiled it over an open fire.

Later, settlers introduced wooden buckets and used iron or copper kettles for the boiling. Until recently, sap gathering and syrupmaking had changed little since its early beginnings.

Syrup gathering and sugaring-off are now favorite traditions in all the states where there are sugar maples; especially in Vermont, but also in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and southern Canada.

Maple syrup is special because of its flavor, of course, but also because it is native to North America and a link with early Colonial living.

It was the only sweetener available and was very inexpensive, for about 200 years, although honey and molasses were also used in some areas during certain periods.

In the 18th century, America produced four times the amount of maple sugar it produces today, even though its population has increased dramatically.

Now sold at roadside stands and by mail order, maple sugar and syrup are luxury items, because of the special weather conditions needed to produce sap and the hand labor involved in processing it.

Neither maple sugar nor maple syrup have been produced elsewhere, although trees have been transplanted to other countries.

Many farmers still produce maple syrup by the old-fashioned, traditional methods, and many states invite the public to visit sugar camps to follow step by step the sugaring-off process with the sugarmakers themselves. If you are near a maple-syrup producing area, check your local department of agriculture for more information.

In Colonial days maple syrup went into baked beans, corn puddings, and vegetable dishes such as sweet potatoes and squash, as well as all kinds of breads, muffins, and rolls.

There are probably still some people who have never tasted pure maple syrup, because commercial products that use maple flavoring range from everything from maple-walnut ice cream to imitation maple-flavored syrup. These people are in for a treat.

Here are a few favorite recipes that use maple syrup. Vermont Spring Chicken 1 chicken, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, cut up 1/4 cup butter, melted 1/2 cup maple syrup 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste Dash of pepper 1/4 cup chopped almonds 2 teaspoons lemon juice

Place chicken pieces in shallow, buttered baking dish. Mix remaining ingredients and pour evenly over chicken.

Bake uncovered 50 to 60 minutes at 400 degrees F. Baste occasionally.

Maple Apricot Poultry Glaze 1/2 cup apricot preserve 3/4 cup maple syrup Heat apricot preserves over low heat only until soft and liquid, then combine with maple syrup. Brush game or poultry during the last half-hour of baking. Serve additional glaze in a sauceboat. Maple Syrup Cornbread 1 1/8 cups cornmeal 1 1/8 cups whole-wheat flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 egg, well beaten 1/2 cup maple syrup 3/4 cup milk 3 tablespoons melted shortening

Mix first four ingredients, then add remaining ones. Stir until well blended, but do not beat. Pour into a shallow well-greased pan about 9-by-9 inches square or slightly larger. Bake 20 minutes in hot oven, preheated to 400 degrees F. Cut into squares and serve hot with butter. Maple Glazed Carrots 1 pound fresh carrots 2 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup pure Vermont maple syrup

Pare and slice carrots and cook in simmering water until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes, depending on size. Heat butter with maple syrup in a medium or large skillet.

Saute drained carrots in maple-butter mixture until well glazed. Pour into heated serving dish and serve immediately. Candied Sweet Potatoes 6 medium-size sweet potatoes 3/4 cup maple syrup Butter 1/2 cup water Salt and pepper to taste

Cook potatoes until tender, then peel and slice lengthwise. Cover with syrup and dot with butter. Add water and seasonings.

Bake about 35 minutes at 325 degrees F. Serves 6. Maple Apple Upside-Down Cake 3 tablespooons butter 1/2 cup maple syrup 2 medium red apples 1 1/2 cups sifted flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon mace 1/4 cup butter 3/4 cup sugar 2 eggs, separated 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup grated apples 10 maraschino cherry halves

Melt butter in 9-inch-square pan, add maple syrup, and remove from heat. Cut cored, unpeeled apples into 1/2-inch slices and arrange in syrup with maraschino cherry halves.

Sift flour, salt, and mace together. Cream butter with 1/2 cup sugar and unbeaten egg yolks until fluffy.

Add sifted dry ingredients and milk alternately in small amounts, beating well after each addition. Add grated apple.

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Beat in remaining sugar, and fold this into batter. Spread batter over the apples and syrup mixture, and bake in moderate oven at 350 degrees F. 40 to 50 minutes.

Serve warm with plain or whipped cream.

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