Mémé’s Maple Boiled Dumplings
Dorothy Grover-Read
Mémé’s Maple Boiled Dumplings
Special

A favorite and versatile sweetener

Maple-baked egg cups are a slightly more subtle way to enjoy the flavor, and boiled dumplings are a celebration of maple — lots of maple

BELLOWS FALLS — When I hear that the sap is running, I'm happy indeed. Warm days above freezing and cold nights below, mean the sap run is upon us, and it can't come a moment too soon. March in Vermont brings every type of weather possible, with little bursts of perfect early spring.

The technique of boiling the sap from sugar maple trees was first developed by the indigenous peoples of our Northeast and Canada. It certainly is an important component in the terroir of our part of the world, and with good reason - its unique and delicious flavor.

It's a lesson in patience though, you need about 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. That's a lot of gathering for a little reward, but it is worth it.

Although dozens of other trees (including other maples, birch, and nut trees) have sap that can be boiled to make a syrup, the maple has the highest sugar content and produces the most distinctive flavor.

The syrup produced each year, even from the same tree, will taste different. It all depends on the weather and the time of the season when it was harvested. Some years, we have a marvelous and bountiful run; other years, not so much. Vermont accounts for more than half produced in the entire country in recent years.

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When I was a kid, sap was collected in metal buckets and harvested by hand each day. When you first put a new bucket under the tap, you can hear a distinctive ping when the drops of sap hit the bare metal. It was like music, and I'll remember it always.

Although some sugarmakers still have at least a few token buckets to display, most syrup is now collected with tubing strung throughout the sugarbush, which cuts down considerably on labor. A sugarbush is a large stand of maple trees, tapped for the sap.

It's not all about the end product. Sugarmaking has long been a part of our social lives here in New England. “Sugaring off,” the process of boiling down the sap to syrup, traditionally using wood power, has long been a time of getting together to relieve a little cabin fever and get some important work done.

The hot, moist sugarhouse filled with steam, the smell of the wood and syrup, laughter and intense concentration are all ingrained in my memory. We even have regional sayings related to sugarmaking activities. When a project has an unknown outcome - much like the boiling process and its flavors - we ponder how it will all “sugar off.”

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Maple is a favorite and versatile sweetener. Yes, it is mostly sugar, but does have a good amount of manganese and zinc, as well as some iron and potassium. Not a health food by any means, it is still a sugar treat, but one with a few little redeeming qualities. It's the sweet after a long winter, and well worth the wait.

This sweet is great in savory dishes, too, baked goods, and by itself running down the sides of a hot stack of pancakes.

Mix it with a bit of miso and glaze some salmon, make a dressing with some olive oil and grainy mustard, use it as the sweetener in a crème brûlée, or simply replace sugar in breads, muffins, cakes, and other treats. Bake it into squash, or use in roasting just about any vegetable. Make a glaze for pastries with a bit of confectioner's sugar. It's all sweet and good.

And, of course, breakfast!

Breakfast in New England is often accented with maple drizzled over pancakes or waffles, but maple-baked egg cups are a slightly more subtle way to enjoy the flavor in a savory application. They make a lovely brunch offering, or special Sunday breakfast, a perfectly baked egg sitting in a maple and butter-drenched bread cup.

Turning to my roots, I think of maple boiled dumplings - fluffy little dumpling pillows simmered in diluted maple syrup make a lovely side dish, or even a dessert.

This is an old family recipe from my grandmother, who was a French-Canadian immigrant. It is a traditional recipe from her birth area, Île d'Orléans, an island on the Saint Lawrence River, just a few miles east of Québec City.

Mémé's maple boiled dumplings

This recipe is a celebration of maple - lots of maple - but it is not as sweet as one might imagine.

When I was a kid, I thought it strange to cook something in maple syrup. But these simple ingredients, combine for a special dish, especially if you like the flavor and aroma of maple.

My mother served these dumplings with pork, but they could just as easily be a dessert.

They are light and pretty to look at as well. Use a dark amber, for the most robust maple flavor.

The dumplings are delicious in this dish, but I use this same recipe whenever I want any dumpling that simmers in a soup. Always a delicious family pleaser.

¶2 cups flour

¶1 Tbsp. baking powder

¶1 scant tsp. salt

¶{1/2} stick cold butter

¶{2/3} cup cold milk

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Work in the butter until it is the consistency of lumpy meal.

Add the milk and mix just until it comes together. It will be stiff.

In a 12-in. skillet, combine and bring to a boil:

¶1{1/2} cups dark maple syrup

¶1{1/2} cup water

Using an ice cream scoop or large tablespoon, drop the dumplings into the syrup. Don't crowd them; they will swell in the cooking process.

Cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and don't remove the lid for a full 20 minutes. No cheating! (I don't know what happens if you do, but my mother gave this instruction sternly.)

When they are done, place the dumplings in a serving dish and top with a little of the cooking syrup. Over the top, grate the zest of one lemon. This is my twist, and I think it balances the sweet. Makes 24.

Maple-baked egg cups

This recipe is a little sweet, a lot savory, and very satisfying! I like my addition of a local, nutty Swiss cheese and the chives best, but you can also use a cheddar and any herbs you like. Use any locally sourced breakfast meat you can find, or make it vegetarian with soy sausage or even some lovely sautéed mushrooms.

Use the best free-range eggs available - the taste really is better. (Do avoid jumbo eggs, however, or you will have trouble fitting everything in the cups.)

¶2 sausages (breakfast or vegan)

¶6 slices soft whole-grain bread

¶{¼} cup melted butter

¶{¼} cup dark Vermont maple syrup

¶3 ounces local Swiss-style cheese

¶6 medium eggs

¶Minced chives or parsley

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Use vegetable spray to coat every other cup in a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a skillet over medium-high, cook the sausage until crisp, then drain on a paper towel. Crumble and set aside.

Remove the crust from the bread if you wish. Flatten the slices with a heavy rolling pin. You want them quite thin.

Mix the syrup and butter and spread this mixture liberally on both sides of the bread.

Tuck the prepared bread slices into the sprayed muffin tins, folding each to create a little vessel. Distribute the sausage evenly into the lined cups. Divide and scatter the cheese over the sausage.

For each cup, crack an egg atop the sausage and cheese. If your eggs are large, first pour off a bit of the white. Sprinkle a bit more cheese on the top and a few herbs.

Bake for 15 minutes and check. They will probably need a little longer for the whites to set, but don't let the yolks go too far. If you like your yolks very runny, this is probably all the time you need. For a more pudding-like texture, it may take a full five more minutes in the oven.

Top them with a few more herbs.

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