Maple has been a staple in Vermont for a long time, but who really knows how it was being used in recipes a century or so ago?
Candace Page, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, was curious about the subject and decided to dig into the history. She joined VPR Café to talk about her findings.
“I got an email from Greg Sanford, who for many years was the state archivist,” she says. “Apparently in his retirement, he was in the library going through the original reports of the Maple Sugar Makers Association in the mid 1890s when it was formed … In the reports of the annual meeting, there were sometimes as many as two dozen recipes that the members contributed.”
Page headed over to special collections unit of the University of Vermont library, where she found a variety of old recipes and cookbooks dating back to the late 20th century. She explains that the Sugar Makers Association was formed at this time to help make it into a serious industry.
“Many dairy farms were making maple syrup in March every year, but there were no quality standards, there was no grading and quite often, the farmers were at the mercy of whatever the general store would pay them for their syrup,” she says. She also explains that they wanted to organize a bit, expand the market for maple syrup and fight the fact that 95 percent of what was sold in the U.S. as maple syrup at the time was fake.
Page said it was obvious that the older recipes were contributed by farm wives. “They had an inexhaustible supply of maple syrup, maple sugar … all those things that we now pay an arm and a leg for. That was a soft spot in their living, so they thought nothing of starting a recipe with, 'Take 3 cups of maple sugar,’” Page says. The food writer says she steered clear of the recipes using the now expensive maple sugar, opting instead for the recipes calling for maple syrup, which is more affordable.
The other hurdle she ran into was the vagueness of the recipes. “These are women who are making these recipes every day. Maple butternut pie, maple rolls, maple cake … And they did it by eye – so many of the instructions and the amount of ingredients were a little vague,” Page says. But she gave it a try anyway.
The outcome? Delightfully mixed, she says. She had great success with a maple custard recipe from the 1960s, which took her less than 5 minutes, but not as much success with a maple walnut cream pudding from the 1890s, which came out more as a sauce than a pudding. “After I read these early recipes, I sort of swept all the maple cookbooks off the shelf at UVM and went through them … good recipes, bad recipes, but the absolute low point was Jell-O, which was a very exciting thing in the 1910s and 1920s, made with maple syrup … Mixing maple syrup with that artificial orange [pudding] flavor? Bad idea,” she says.
Throughout her delicious research, Page did notice a change in maple recipes throughout time. “The cookbooks show our changing approach to food. Particularly in the mid 20th century, there was more reliance in these cookbooks on packaged products,” she explains. “On the other hand, I’m a child of our time I guess, so when I got to the 2012 recipe for maple espresso milkshakes, I thought, ‘Yes, this sounds good.’”
Her favorite recipe was one that she remembers from growing up. “I always thought that my mother invented the whiskey sours we drank in our family, but I was going through a cookbook from about 1950 and there was the recipe. It turns out the cookbook was written by a friend of my grandmother's, so that’s clearly where this recipe came from,” Page says.
Candace’s Favorite Whiskey Sour
- 4 units of whiskey, can be cheap
- 2 units of fresh lemon juice
- 1 unit of maple syrup
Put in a shaker with ice cubes.
Maple Walnut Cream Pudding
(From Vermont Sugar Makers Association, 1898)
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 1 cup cream
Scald 1¾ cup milk with the maple syrup in the top of a double boiler. Combine the remaining milk with the cornstarch and salt, and add gradually, stirring constantly to the hot mixture. Cook 25 minutes, then add this mixture to eggs slightly beaten. Cook five minutes longer. Pour into serving dish and sprinkle with the chopped nuts while the pudding is still hot. When cold, cover with the cream whipped stiff, and serve.
Maple Cup Custard*
(Adapted from Real, Old-Time Yankee Maple Cooking, Beatrice Vaughan, 1969)
- 4 eggs
- 2½ cups milk
- ¾ cup maple syrup
- pinch of salt
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
Heat milk until hot but not boiling. Beat eggs slightly with a fork and slowly beat in the hot milk, then the maple, salt and vanilla. Pour into 6 custard cups. Set cups in a baking pan and add boiling water to halfway up the cups. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Test by inserting a knife blade into the center. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Cool before serving.
* Beatrice Vaughan drew her recipes from memories of her girlhood on an East Thetford farm. “A beautifully delicate custard, with satiny texture and the wonder maple flavor,” Vaughan describes.
The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with the Burlington Free Press. It is made possible on VPR by Otter Creek Kitchenware in Middlebury's Marbleworks District, offering over 70 lines of kitchenware with personalized customer service.