The magic of maple

I smell maple syrup in the air and travel back to the kitchen of Grandma and Grandpa John. I am 12.

Daddy has brought them the first taste of maple syrup from Hazelton's Orchard. Grandma has promised to make sugar cakes with me.

Grandma heats the syrup in her cast iron pot. She shows me a long-handled wooden spoon, and she asks if I remember how to tell whether the syrup is hot enough for candy. She lifts the spoon through the hazy fog above the amber liquid and asks me whether I can see the syrup sheet.

When the sweet, thick syrup begins to boil and bubble toward the top of the pot, I know it will boil over. I begin to shift my weight from foot to foot and fidget with my hands.

Grandma is so calm. She smiles at me. I watch the liquid rise, and suddenly, about an inch from the top of the pan, the bubbles drop to the bottom.

I look at Grandma, confused.

“Butter,” she says.

I remember. Before she boils the syrup, she coats the top of the pot with a thin rim of butter. When the hot syrup reaches the top area, the butter reacts, and the liquid quickly settles down.

Grandma tells me that in the Bible it says to use oil to calm troubled waters. That's why she knows about the butter.

Grandma pours all that heavenly syrup into her mother's yellow mixing bowl. On another day it will be the Cry Baby Cookie bowl, or the Swedish Coffee Bread bowl, or the Oatmeal Banana Muffin bowl. (It's never the tomato canning bowl. It's never the pickle-making bowl or the bean soaking bowl, either.)

She hands me the metal beaters. I'm allowed to beat the syrup until it's whipped. The two metal beaters dance around each other, sending bubbles across the bowl. It's a sea of maple syrup, fluffing, thickening. Grandma finishes the last strokes for me. She lets me touch the tin maple-leaf molds that her grandma used. She's buttered the tins while I whipped the sugar, and now she's ready to ladle the mixture into the molds.

We fill eight small maple leaves about 1 inch wide and a ½ inch thick, and we fill one big maple leaf 3 inches wide in the center of the mold.

I know I'll never get to taste these. The candies will go in a tiny red metal tin lined with wax paper. On Sunday, the tin will travel to the Methodist church for the pastor and his wife.

The big maple leaf will go to my Grandpa John's black metal lunch box. He'll nibble at it all this week at the C.F. Church toilet seat factory on Flat Street.

Grandma pulls the waxed paper from the box and snaps it across the cutting tool. She drops the sugar by the teaspoonful onto the waxed paper. Syrup runs away into a thin, almost round pool.

Grandma will scold me if I put my finger in the bowl, so I wait until the candy hits the paper. I try to move the hardening sugar candy into a better-looking circle with my finger. I know these candies will be for me; I know Grandma won't mind if I try to make the candy round.

Grandma bends low and asks me whether I want walnuts in mine. I do. She lets me drop a big, fat, chunky walnut meat into my first candy. I help form six more candies, and Grandma says she'll do the rest.

It's hard to wait for the candy to set up. I spend the time telling Grandpa John every detail of candy making. We sit on the worn-out sofa. He is amazed at my story.

“Tell me the part about the magic Bible butter again,” he teases with a wink.

Before I leave, Grandma gives me a little package with my candies stacked tall inside wax paper and folded up like a sandwich. Grandma gives Daddy the little red tin.

“What will the minister get?” I wonder.

Maple Sugar Candy

Most of the higher grade syrup is made at the beginning of the maple sugar season. The darker syrup comes later. Because the lighter shade of maple is more expensive and considered (at least by my grandmother) more “delicate,” she made her candy out of the darker syrup.

In the days of my youth in the early 1960s, Grandma Russell still used her manual egg beaters to whip the syrup. These days, you can use an electric mixer, or let the kids try out the oldfashioned way of getting the job done and wear out a little of their energy in the process.

2 cups of dark maple syrup

1 Tbsp. butter, plus additional butter to rim the pan

Walnut meats, chopped if desired

Before putting the maple syrup in the pan, rim the pan with real butter. This will keep the liquid from boiling over the rim of the pan when it begins to boil.

Place the pan on high heat, and pour 2 cups of maple syrup into the bottom of the pan. Stir constantly as the syrup becomes warm so that it doesn't burn. Bring it to the soft ball stage of candy making, about 240 degrees. If you don't have a candy thermometer, the temperature can be approximated by taking a few drops of syrup when it is quite hot, and allowing it to drip into a glass of warm water. If it forms a ball, the candy is done. If it drips and won't come together, continue heating it.

When it reaches the soft ball stage, remove it from the heat, and add one tablespoon of pure butter. Allow the mixture to cool for several minutes, and discontinue stirring it. Don't let it drop down past 110 degrees, or it will harden in your pan.

At this point, the candy can be whipped with an egg beater or in a regular mixer. When the mixture is fluffy like egg whites, pour it out by tablespoons onto a sheet of waxed paper to form the candies. Or, use candy or butter molds, after first greasing them.

Maple candy can be successfully stored in a tin for about a month.

If you'd prefer to make maple cream, add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and add more butter, about a cup full. Don't whip the finished product, but ladle it into jars with tight lids to avoid spoilage.

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