The annual Elmira Maple Syrup Festival has gained a sweet reputation as the world’s largest maple syrup and pancake festival, according to the folks at Guinness World Records.
However, the festival on Saturday is only one of many across Ontario over the next couple of weeks where praise is paid to the sweet and sticky elixir that is a harbinger of spring.
Canada makes virtually all of the planet’s maple syrup. The eastern part of the country along with a few northeastern United States, are the only places that do make it.
That, in turn, makes maple syrup a precious and expensive commodity.
The ratio of sap from a sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) to refined maple syrup after boiling it down is about 40 parts to one. Ontario produces about 4 million litres of maple syrup each year.
With that rich reduction, of course, the default mode for maple syrup is pancakes and waffles, just make sure the doughy element of the plate is very good because you will want to use it to sop up any remaining syrup.
But the condiment also shines in the savoury realm. Imagine chicken and waffles, a classic in the southern U.S., with a drizzling of a maple syrup-based glaze; or, how about just maple syrup straight up?
Just as easy to imagine are roasted Brussels sprouts, already sweet with a touch of buttery caramelization from the oven, to which can be added a garnish of crushed, toasted pecans and maple syrup.
And in a few weeks, fresh asparagus will be popping up and the possibilities for the tender, first-of-spring spears and maple syrup, maybe with a hint of Dijon mustard, are endless.
Jeff Ward, executive chef at The Walper Hotel and TWH Social, says maple syrup is versatile and either sweet or savoury, it holds its own in a supporting role.
“I’ve used maple syrup most often in vinaigrettes and dressings in its raw form. Currently, we are flavouring an almond dressing with maple syrup as a complement,” Ward said.
Kyle Rennie is chef at Uptown Waterloo’s King Street Trio, and his ideas for savoury maple syrup creations reach into Asian-based flavours and seek a symphony of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The protein adds to the umami.
“Something I love to do as a main course is black cod marinated in maple syrup, sake and miso. That’s something that is a little bit different, but you’re playing with that balance of sweet, salty and acidic. It’s something that lends really well to a baked fatty white fish like black cod,” Rennie said.
Even heavier proteins like beef or duck lend themselves quite well to maple syrup. You could make what is known as a gastrique (a reduction of some sort of acidity such as vinegar and some sort of sweet).
To do that, basically combine equal portions of maple syrup and vinegar in a sauce pan over medium-low heat and bring to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes or until the mixture is slightly thicker. Remove from the heat and whisk in a bit of butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Rennie would agree with Ward that maple syrup is very good for marinades and dressings or a salad with apples, aged Cheddar, walnuts and a maple syrup-based vinaigrette.
However, getting the balance right comes with a couple of culinary caveats.
“When home cooks are using it as a substitute for sugar, keep in mind that maple syrup will tend to be a bit sweeter. Let’s say you’re using a cup of sugar in a recipe, then you’ll want to use three-quarters of a cup of maple syrup,” said Rennie.
As for getting a rise out your maple syrup, that balance has to be addressed too.
“When you’re baking something that is rising, you’ll want to add a touch of baking soda to the maple syrup before you mix it into your batter or dough. It will help it rise and kill some of the acidity in the maple syrup,” he aid.
If you want more inspiration, start with maple syrup itself, of course. Talk to a producer in your area about the qualities of this year’s harvest or visit a festival like the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. You can find an event in your region by visiting the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association.
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