The Sugar Moon. No, it’s not the home of the tooth fairy — good guess though. Instead, the Sugar Moon is the name given long ago by indigenous North Americans to the first full moon of spring, normally occurring in March. The Sugar Moon — once celebrated by some Native American tribes with a Maple Dance — occurs during a season when nights are cold and days are warm. Just the right conditions to start the xylem sap flowing in the sugar maples.
Native to northeastern North America, the sugar maple — or Acer saccharum, to be botanically correct — is easily identifiable in the fall with its stunning orange and red foliage. It is fast growing, extremely shade tolerant and can be easily found in forested areas from Tennessee in the US to Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island in Canada. It was once an extremely popular park and street tree, freely cultivated in urban areas. Increasing pollution, and the sugar maple’s susceptibility to it, have decreased its use as a landscaping favorite but you’ll still find it along the sides of roads in townships throughout the northeast, as well as in forested areas.
Though the sap begins to flow in many species of trees at the first sign of spring, the sugar maple is where it’s at. Native Americas developed processes for collecting and boiling down the sap and passed their sugaring knowledge on to the European settlers, who further refined maple syrup production. Thank goodness, because I can hardly imagine a breakfast that can’t be made better with a drizzle of this sweet liquid. Or dinner, for that matter.
We took our Stout Sprouts maple sugaring this year at the Howell Living History Farm in Lambertville, NJ, to introduce them to the age-old practice of sap collection and syrup production. It was a snowy, muddy Saturday but the farm was buzzing. We learned how to identify sugar maples from their bark, branches and buds (they are easy to identify with their leaves, but this early in the season there is not a leaf to be seen). We helped tap trees and collect sap which was then boiled down into syrup.
Something I didn’t know before, but the temperature at which the sap is boiled is critical to producing a quality syrup — maple syrups require a sugar density between 66% and 67%, which can only be achieved if the sap is boiled at a consistent temperature that is 7 1/2 degrees F above the boiling point of water (which, depending on the barometric pressure, can change slightly day to day). This requires constant monitoring…and I can only imagine that, in the 1600s and without the aid of well-calibrated thermometers, this was quite the process. Vats of boiling and evaporating syrup had to be lifted off the fire if they got too hot or put closer to the fire if they became too cool, and the fire had to be stoked regularly over the course of several days until the syrup boiled down to the right sugar density.
All I can say is thank goodness our ancestors kept with it. The reward was worth the effort, proven by every pancake, waffle, and roast that is glazed by this delicious product. It is also why pure maple syrup far outshines any mass-produced substitute. Sorry Aunt Jemima, but my syrup is going to come from a tree.
Speaking of which, maple syrup can be used for so much more than Sunday breakfast. We made a wonderful maple-cinnamon butter that we’ve been slathering on just about everything from biscuits to sweet potatoes. It was easy to make, very kid-friendly, and made those sweet potatoes disappear faster than anything else on the dinner plate. Garnished with a little orange zest and it was almost like having a personal sweet potato pie, without the hassle.
Our Stout Sprouts rolled up their sleeves to help measure the spices and syrup and to take turns stirring the ingredients into some softened butter. We rolled our finished butter into a cylinder and put it back in the refrigerator to chill before slicing off rounds for our potatoes. And biscuits. And any other delicacy onto which we’d normally slather a little butter…say, some boiled carrots, or baked acorn squash. And know what? It’s all vegetarian!
Give this a try. It’s the perfect season for cooking with maple syrup and the history lesson alone is worth the price of admission. Oh, and be sure to mention the Sugar Moon when you talk to your sprouts about those maple trees. You may even choose to make up your own Maple Dance in honor of this recipe, to help you work up an appetite. Enjoy!
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Maple-Cinnamon Compound Butter
4 whole sweet potatoes, washed and pricked several times with the blade of a sharp knife or tines of a fork
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of Kosher salt
Zest of one orange (optional)
Begin by baking the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet in a 400 degree F oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a paring knife inserted into the potato meets no resistance. Remove from oven.
Meanwhile, prepare the compound butter. In a medium mixing bowl, incorporate the butter, maple syrup, cinnamon, allspice and a pinch of Kosher salt. Mix well.
Turn the compound butter out onto a 8-inch section of plastic wrap and form a cylinder along one side of the wrap. Proceed to wrap the butter, burrito-style, and twist the ends to form a tight cylinder. Refrigerate until ready to use (can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one month).
When ready to serve, split the sweet potatoes, top with a pat or two of butter and another pinch of salt, and a sprinkling of orange zest if desired.
Serves: 4, with leftover butter (thank goodness!)
Kid rating: Five stars. Remember how I said these were like individual servings of sweet potato pie? Yep, dessert for dinner. If you’re a kid, what could be better? And you don’t have to feel guilty. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamins A and C and are proven to raise the levels of beta-carotene in your body. Lots of great trace minerals too. Low in fat (expect for what you add with the butter….), and these are both healthy and tasty.
Parent rating: Five stars from the parents, too. When it comes to a side dish, I feel better about eating sweet potatoes than I do about eating white potatoes, even though both grace our table quite frequently. But we’re teaching our Stout Sprouts about the importance of eating “colorful” foods: things that are blue, green and, of course, orange. This diversity of colors also means diversity of nutrients and flavor, and it’s a great lesson for our girls…and a drizzle of maple syrup helps this lesson go down in the most delightful way.