Tamara's Journeys

Journeys as great as the destinations.

Sunday in Michigan

February 28th, 2016

Adventure and exploration of new experiences have been the mainstay of my Sunday series. With that in mind, today I want you to consider my sister Tara’s rollicking “Misadventures in Maple Syrup Making.”

Have you ever seen those miniscule bottles of real maple syrup on sale for $10 and thought, “Is it really worth that much?”  Well, let me assure you, it is worth every penny.  Making maple syrup — real, from the tree, maple syrup — is a wild ride where you lose all sense of time and proportion trying to tame tree juice into liquid gold.  I say this while drinking my new nectar, maple water — the beast itself, totally addictive.

My husband and I purchased a lovely piece of acreage with some large sugar maple trees and wanted to try our hand at tapping. How hard could it be? I bought my husband the equipment for Christmas, so we would be ready to make our own syrup when the time was right.  We were maple-tapping virgins ready to try.

And try we did last weekend, when the temperature in our area spiked to a wonderfully balmy 50 degrees.  The lows at night were still freezing, making it perfect tapping weather.  The tapping itself went well. The instant the whirring drill bit pulled free from the trunk of a maple tree behind our house a splendid stream of sap began oozing. We ended up with at least 10 gallons over two days!  We read up on how to make the syrup and got started.  That is when things took a detour…

This was a joke, because it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup; one or two drops of lost liquid wouldn’t yield enough for even one flapjack serving because maple sap is mostly water.  Instructions said we needed to boil the water for many hours. If you don’t boil it soon enough the sap ferments, so you want to get to it in a timely manner.  It said it was best to leave it overnight since it would take all night and then it would be ready for the next phase.  So, we poured at least a gallon into our biggest pot, set it to boil and went to bed.  Can you see where this is going?  A few hours later, a uniquely sweet yet acrid, smoky smell woke us up.  Yep, the maple sap had boiled away to the sugar, which boiled until it charred.  I am still cleaning that pot.

Try number two…  In our infinite wisdom we decided we should try a smaller amount, with a smaller pot, to see if I could make a small batch before we spent any more time on this project.  It didn’t take too long and it boiled down to a golden nectar.  But there was so little of it, it went right past syrup and went to that “soft ball” stage.  We had a coating of maple-flavored candy too hard for syrup and too soft for caramel.  It tasted good though!

With that little success under our belts, we bought a 5-gallon stock pot for round 3.  We started early in the day, in the kitchen, with our stock pot full of sap and our minds full of syrup — I mean hope.  It boiled away all day long.  No burning or smoking this time!  Just a wonderfully humid steam rolling off while we waited.  I breathed better in the house that day than I have since moving to Michigan.  Then, that night, my husband felt a drop of water hit his head.  He looked up, and we found out why you do most of the boiling process outside.  Drops of water above the pot.  Drops of water covering the whole ceiling in the kitchen.  In the dining area.  Down the hallway.  Oh yes.  We had to mop the ceiling with a towel. 

We turned on some ceiling fans and went back to boiling.  It reduced to a golden color and I put the candy thermometer in.  You have to reach 219 degrees, according to everything I have read.  If you’ve ever made candy, you know how frustrating it can be to wait while the temperature hovers a few degrees below where you need it to be, seemingly forever.  Then, it will suddenly spike and you have to make sure it doesn’t go over, because sugar changes consistency fast over small degrees.  I got it off at what appeared to be 219 degrees and we bottled a whole pint of syrup.  Whew.  What a lot of work! But we had it.

We checked it later and found that it had gone past syrup stage after all and become caramel-like again.  But, by then, we weren’t letting that stand.  It was war and we were going to win at this syrup thing! “Must beat the sap!”  I found out that you can add distilled water to syrup if it goes past the right stage and re-boil it up to the correct one.  I did that, but took it off a little below the mark.  And, finally, we had our very own, hard won, natural maple syrup!

So next time you see that price tag on those little bottles, remember this story.  WORTH.  EVERY.  PENNY.

Okay, you can stop laughing now.  I heard a story today about a couple who also tried to make maple syrup themselves.  They didn’t know to use screens over the pots when boiling over an open fire and ended up with ash in the syrup AND burned it. They wrote it tasted like sweet ashes — and still made their kids try it on their pancakes.  Kid you not. You can’t make this stuff up.

Have a deliciously sweet weekend!

Tara's first maple syrup

Tara’s first maple syrup

Tamara's Journeys

Journeys as great as the destinations.