A maple tree in April is a force to be reckoned with. The sap flows with a vengeance, squeezed by specialized cells that expand during the heat of day to create more pressure in a maple tree than in the inside of a car tire.
The people who make maple syrup, a hearty tribe called “sugarmakers,” capitalize on this pressure by drilling holes in the tree, a process known as tapping.
Taps allow the tree’s pressure to push the sap, which the sugarmakers refer to as “water,” out of the tree and directly into a collection system. A maple in April is a creature in the zone exercising its superpower, pregnant with sweet possibilities. It is an engine firing on all cylinders. A motivated counterparty.
Last winter a new guy showed up at the farmers market in my town of Missoula, Montana. He seemed to be everywhere at once, speeding around and chatting with other vendors, while juggling a steady queue at his stand, where motivated shoppers were eager to buy the syrup he makes from three distinct types of maple tree.
Most sugarmakers have a stash of tapped sugar and red maple trees called a sugarbush. David Knudson doesn’t have one to call his own. His business, Montana Mapleworks, relies on the cooperation of landowners with maples on their properties — including his urban neighbors; several Norway maples in the alley behind his house are, as we speak, quietly draining their sap into bags that Knudson will simmer into syrup in the sugarshack he built in his garage.
Around here, Norway maples are considered invasive species. I wanted to cut one down in our backyard. But the neighbors accused me of plotting a crime against nature, so I relented. I’ve since come to appreciate the tree for its shade, and the tree house. And now, thanks to Norway Maple Syrup, I have another reason to appreciate this interloper.
“I think it’s far superior in terms of caramel and depth,” Knudson told me. And each batch is different. Some are darker with more molasses flavor while other batches are lighter with more butter caramel, depending on the exact time of year the sap starts flowing, how much the tree makes, and temperature fluctuations during the cooking process.
The sugar maple syrup tasted sweet and familiar, and was less interesting than the Norway or the silver, a native maple species. Knudson also has black walnut and sycamore syrups under development, both of those trees also being sap pushers.
In order to properly enjoy my new syrup, and further appreciate my Norway maple tree, I was able to acquire a maple pecan pie recipe from my friend Sue Kost, who sells them alongside many other fine cookies and pastries at the market. Her pies remind me of the Bama brand pecan pies from the 7-11 that I used to pig out on late night back in the day. The substitution of maple syrup for corn syrup was a definite improvement over the usual pecan pie. Maple pecan, after all, is a noted combination in ice cream. With maple syrup these little pies are buttery, nutty, and drop dead decadent. Like a pecan pie should be.
Mini Maple Bourbon Pecan Pies by Sue Kost
Sue uses the Pampered Chef Mini (4-inch) Pie Pans and gets six pies. Since those pans can be hard to find, I’ve adapted her recipe to standard-issue muffin tins, in which I get about ten cupcake-sized maple pecan pies.
1 stick (1/2 cup) frozen butter
1 ¼ cups flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons ice water
Cut the butter into small cubes, about a half-inch on a side.
Add the flour, sugar and salt to a mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Add the cubed butter to the flour mixture and toss to coat. Cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter until the flour has turned a pale yellow and resembles a coarse crumble.
Add the water and mix until combined. Don’t overwork it. The mixture should be just moist enough that it holds its shape when you squeeze it in your hand. Add more water if needed. Form the dough into a mound and wrap in plastic wrap, chilling for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
When ready to use, let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to soften slightly. Pat the dough into a puck-like shape and roll between two sheets of parchment paper to about 1/8” thickness.
Find a bowl or cup about an inch in diameter more than your muffin tin. Press it down like a cookie cutter onto the rolled dough, packing as many of those circles as you can into the rolled sheet. Gather and ball up and re-roll the remaining dough to get a few more disks. If the circles start to fall apart when you lift them, place the sheet in the freezer for ten minutes to stiffen up.
Place each disc in a well-buttered cupcake tin, gently pressing down first all around the bottom, pushing out any air bubbles. The sides will crease. Smooth them to fit with your fingers and shape into mini pie crusts.
1 stick unsalted butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a saucepan or microwave, heat the butter, syrup, brown sugar and bourbon on high for 2-3 minutes, or until the butter is melted; whisk to combine. Let the mixture cool for 3-4 minutes.
Add eggs slowly, whisking constantly, followed by the vanilla and salt.
Toast the pecans on a dry pan on medium heat for about five minutes, stirring constantly.
Divide the pecans among all of the crusts. Cover them with the molten filling, up to crust level.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the crusts are golden brown and the filling has set. Let cool for 5 minutes. Go around each pie with a thin knife to free the edges.
When cool enough to handle, pry them out with the knife.
Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.