For days the sun shone and the weather was warm. There was no frost on the windows in the mornings. All day the icicles fell one by one from the eaves with soft smashing and crackling sounds in the snowbanks beneath…When Mary and Laura pressed their noses against the cold window pane they could see the drip of water from the eaves and the bare branches of the trees. The snow did not glitter: it looked soft and tired…Then one day Laura saw a patch of bare ground in the yard…
Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots. “It’s a sugar snow,” he said.
After supper, Pa took them on his knees as he sat before the fire, and told them about his day at Grandpa’s, and the sugar snow.
While there are many gadgets and technologies to aid in larger scale tapping, non-commercial maple tapping hasn’t changed that much in the 150 years or so since Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa tromped through the woods of Wisconsin to extract sap. To illustrate this, the maple tapping story/recipe in italics comes straight from the pages of Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods (with a few added suggestions in bold from our slightly more modern methods).
“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs…he had them all ready when the first warm weather came and the sap began to move in the trees. Then he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hold in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end.”
Farmer drills a hole into the maple tree to make room for the wooden spiles.
“The sap, you know, is the blood of a tree. It comes up from the roots, when warm weather begins in the spring, and it goes to the very tip of each branch and twig, to make the green leaves grow.
“Oh, didn’t it hurt the poor tree?” Laura asked. “No more than it hurts when you prick your finger and it bleeds,” said Pa.
“Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap…Then he hauls it to a big iron kettle that hangs by a chain from a cross-timber between two trees. He empties the sap into the iron kettle. There is a big bonfire under the kettle and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.”
“When the sap has boiled down just enough, he fills the buckets with the syrup. After that, he boils the sap until it grains when he cools it in a saucer.”
The largest batch of sap (70 gallons or so) takes 24 hours to boil down enough to bring inside. Farmer spends the night outside by the caldron, stoking the fire every few hours.
Once the sap outside has boiled down enough to fit into a few pans on the stove, it must boil down again. Normally, boiling point is 212 degrees. The sugar in the sap makes it boil at a higher temperature. Therefore, when the sap reaches 219 degrees, it’s officially maple syrup and it’s ready to be poured into clean hot jars. We ladle the syrup into the jars and cover them with sterilized lids and clean rings and wait for the lovely popping sound of hot jars sealing.
40 gallons of sap = 1 gallon of syrup
They could eat all they wanted, for maple syrup never hurt anybody. There was plenty of syrup in the kettle, and plenty of snow outdoors. As soon as they ate one plateful, they filled their plates with snow again, and Grandma poured more syrup on it…They all ate till they could hold no more, and then they began to dance again.
Recipe for Whole Wheat Apple-Spice Pancakes (inspired by Better Homes and Gardens, with no sugar added):
1. Mix dry ingredients:
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinammon
2. Mix wet ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup applesauce
2 tbl oil or melted butter
3. Combine dry and wet ingredients until just mixed. Cook in 1/4 cupfuls over greased griddle and enjoy with (preferably) real maple syrup and fruit.
*All quotes and two pictures from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, illustrated by Garth Williams