The sugar maple, Acer saccharum, is native to the hardwood forests of eastern Canada and the northern parts of central and north-eastern United States. For a long time, people thought it wasn't cold enough in New Zealand for sugar maples to produce but in colder parts of the country around this time of year people can be seen happily tapping their mature maple trees and turning the sap into delicious syrup.
The process of tapping the trees is actually incredibly simple. Get out an old-fashioned brace and bit hand drill, drill a small hole about 30cm up from the ground, on the north-facing side of the trunk and then, as soon as sap starts to come out, stop drilling and insert an 8-10cm length of narrow metal piping. This acts as a dripper tap for the hole. A jar goes under the drip line to collect the sap, which will run in the mornings once the sun hits the tree trunk. The sap comes out looking like colourless water and, at this point, contains only 1 per cent to 3 per cent sugar by weight.
At the start of winter the sap has almost no flavour, then gradually, as the season progresses, it develops more flavour and gets darker. By late August/early September the sap starts to take on quite an astringent green taste and gets very dark. Once you see this shift, you know it's time to stop. The pipes come out and in a matter of months the drill holes have grown over.
Having frost in the ground is the key to successful tapping, as this delivers moisture down to roots and creates a positive pressure in the sap that pushes it up the trunk (normally sap rises only through the growing season, not when the maple is dormant).
Maple trees are not considered sturdy enough to tap until the trunk reaches diameter of 250cm, which in New Zealand equates to 12-20 years' growth. If you start tapping when they are smaller, you run the risk of weakening the tree.
The collected sap must be boiled straight away or it will ferment. From 40 litres of sap, you'll end up with a single litre of syrup. Once it starts reducing, you need to watch it very carefully so that it doesn't get burnt or over-caramelised (the lighter the syrup, the higher the grade). Which all goes towards explaining just why maple syrup is so expensive to buy.
But, oh my ... that wonderful, woodsy, earthy, sweet caramel flavour ... there's nothing else like it. Just a teaspoon added into salad dressing, icing or a dessert adds a wonderful sweet nuance and the following three recipes bring the flavour of maple to the fore.
Maple Pear Tart
Ground walnuts or almonds also work well in this lovely tart.
Ready in 1 hour + cooling
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350g sweet shortcrust pastry or 1½ sheets store-bought shortcrust pastry, joined
2 Tbsp maple syrup, to glaze
Mascarpone or vanilla icecream, to serve
100g butter, at room temperature
1 cup roasted shelled hazelnuts or ground hazelnuts
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp brandy (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp finely grated orange zest
½ cup flour
2 unpeeled pears, quartered and cored
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Place an oven tray in the oven to heat — the tart will sit on this and the heat will help the base to crisp.
Roll out the pastry to a circle about 32cm in diameter and gently lay into a 26cm loose-bottomed tart tin, pressing into the corners and ensuring a little overhang around the edges of the tin. Trim the edges and chill.
While the pastry is chilling, make the filling. Combine butter, eggs, hazelnuts or ground hazelnuts, sugar, maple syrup, brandy (if using), vanilla and orange zest in a food processor and whizz to a smooth paste. Add flour and pulse to just combine. Spread evenly into the chilled tart case.
Cut each pear quarter lengthways into 5-6 thin slices, then arrange each quarter on top of filling, retaining its shape and pressing slightly to fan the slices.
Bake until the tart is golden and set in the centre (about 40 minutes). Brush with maple syrup while hot and leave to cool in the tin. Remove from tin and serve with mascarpone or icecream. This tart will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days. Return to oven for 10 minutes to heat through before serving.
Raw Berry Cheesecake
This makes a fabulous special occasion dessert that keeps happily in the fridge for up to a week. If your dates are hard and dry, cover them with boiling water, stand 5 minutes, then drain. This softens them up and makes them nice and easy to puree. For the filling you need a blender or a Nutribullet rather than a food processor to puree the mixture to a very fine smooth texture.
Ready in 20 mins + soaking + chilling
¾ cup desiccated coconut or coconut flour
1½ cups soft dates, pitted and chopped
1 cup blanched almonds
½ cup raw cashews
3 Tbsp good-quality coconut oil, chilled until firm
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups raw cashews
500g fresh or thawed frozen boysenberries or mixed berries
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup melted coconut oil
Line the base and sides of a 26cm springform cake tin with baking paper.
To make the base, place desiccated coconut or coconut flour in a food processor. If using desiccated coconut, whizz to a fine coconut flour. Add all remaining base ingredients and pulse to a fine, gravelly texture. Press the mixture into the base of the prepared cake tin firmly and evenly. Chill while you make the filling.
To make the filling, pour boiling water over the cashews to fully cover and leave to soak for at least 2 hours (you can also soak them overnight). Drain thoroughly and place in a blender with berries, maple syrup, lemon juice and vanilla extract.
Blend until very smooth. Slowly pour in the coconut oil with the blender going until it is completely combined into the mixture. Pour the filling over the chilled base, cover and chill for a minimum of 6 hours or up to a week until needed.
Garnish with edible flowers, berries and thread coconut. Cut into small wedges to serve, wiping the knife clean between cuts.
Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer, thaw before serving.
These moreish snacks are also great chopped up for a sweet, crunchy dessert garnish.
Ready in 15 mins
Makes 1 cup
1 cup nuts, such as walnuts or almonds
2 Tbsp maple syrup
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and line an oven tray with baking paper. Place the nuts in a bowl, add the maple syrup and toss to coat.
Spread out on the prepared tray and bake until the syrup has set and the nuts are crunchy (10-12 minutes).
When cool, store in an airtight container, they will keep for a couple of weeks.