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Why maple syrup should be your new favorite fall ingredient

Move over, pumpkin spice: It’s time for maple recipes.
Maple rosemary chicken thighs with spicy maple squash, maple cocktails and maple shortbread. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 2

Here’s the thing about maple syrup. In its most pure form, it is quite unlike the breakfast table staple we have come to know.

It’s thinner, less gloopy. It has a more mellow flavor, still quite sweet but less cloying. It’s not even very sticky. And, most importantly, it can do a lot more than be drizzled over pancakes.

Real maple syrup is a rock star ingredient. It can be used like any other sweetener — to bolster desserts, balance cocktails, thicken and sweeten salad dressings — but there’s something a little more beguiling about it, something deeper and more palatable. And paired with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, it’s a worthy contender to the seasonal pumpkin craze.

“We’ve been trying to get people to think beyond breakfast,” said Laura Sorkin, who owns Runamok Maple with her husband Eric. “Honey has kind of made the leap, where people use it on cheese and stuff. We’re hoping people will use maple that way.”

Maple syrup lends a nutty flavor to baked foods like these pecan-topped shortbread cookies. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

The pair started the company in 2009, the year Oprah named their syrup one of her Favorite Things. They produce and sell organic maple syrups, the pure variety and also flavored and barrel-aged versions. During a recent phone interview, Laura talked about the process of making maple syrup.

In the woods of north Vermont in late winter, they start tapping the trees. They own what’s called a sugar bush, a collection of maple trees. A smaller bush would yield about 2,000 taps; theirs yields about 83,000 taps.

“If you can’t wrap your hands all the way around the tree, you can do two taps," Laura said. "But most just get one.”

The tapping takes about six weeks, then the liquid from the trees goes into a large container, which goes to a sugar house. The most common process for making maple syrup is to use a reverse osmosis machine to remove the water. For every 40 gallons of sap, you get about 1 gallon of syrup.

“That’s why it’s so expensive,” Laura said. “It’s one of the last wild-crafted foods. It’s not a nice, neat convenient process.”

The syrup is boiled down, then filtered. At this point, Runamok transfers it to barrels like whiskey barrels and ages it for months. It’s part of their desire to make real maple syrup more mainstream, more of an everyday ingredient.

Growing up in Connecticut, Laura only had the real thing as a kid. She sometimes gets weird looks when she tries to explain the difference between that maple syrup and the one that’s mainly “corn syrup and flavoring.”

Maple syrup is also a natural fit for some cocktails, like this Maple Rum Cider. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

In your own kitchen, maple syrup is versatile enough to be a staple ingredient.

“Maple syrup is complementary to a lot of spices and a lot of booze,” Laura said. “I think people are worried their drink is going to taste like a breakfast. But I always point out that if you use maple syrup in your drink, you don’t even have to make a simple syrup, because it is already a syrup.”

Laura has a degree from the French Culinary Institute of New York, so one of her roles at Runamok is to come up with maple-centric recipes.

“It tastes richer, more caramel-y and deeper than standard sugar,” Laura said. “It’s great over ice cream, like a vanilla ice cream or caramel ice cream. Or fresh fruit like bananas.” Runamok has a ginger-infused flavor that is really good over strawberries, she said.

Maple and herbs come together to flavor these roasted chicken thighs. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

Try maple syrup in savory dishes like stir-fries (one part soy sauce and one part maple syrup), or in a marinade on grilled meats. One of Laura’s favorites is a reverse marinade used on chicken. While chicken breasts are grilling or cooking in a skillet, make a marinade with lemon juice, olive oil, maple syrup, raw onions, fresh herbs and red pepper flakes. As soon as the chicken comes off, put it in the marinade and let it sit for 40 minutes or so. It absorbs the sweetness and sourness of that mixture.

“Maple syrup is an all-natural sweetener, and it’s vegan," Laura said. "We don’t make health claims — it is just straight sugar — but if you’re going to have sugar, it’s the best one.”

We put maple syrup to the test in a variety of recipes and were surprised at just how versatile the ingredient can be. It beautifully coated roasted chicken thighs, made a tasty partner for cayenne pepper-rubbed acorn squash and helped balance a rum cocktail. For these recipes, we used 100 percent pure maple syrup, which you can find at most grocery stores.

Here are five of our favorite dishes.

Maple Rosemary Chicken Thighs

Maple Rosemary Chicken Thighs. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

Kosher salt

Black pepper

4 to 5 rosemary sprigs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Pat the chicken dry and season it with salt and pepper. Place the chicken skin-side up in a cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet and scatter 2 or 3 rosemary sprigs on top.

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the rest of the rosemary and the maple syrup, and cook together until the mixture is fragrant and has thickened slightly, about 2 minutes. It will get a little bubbly and frothy; that’s good. Spoon the mixture over the chicken, making sure to coat each thigh.

Roast the chicken, basting with the pan juices every 15 to 20 minutes or so, until the chicken is glossy and golden brown and registers 165 degrees with an instant thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, about 30 minutes. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes. Serve with any pan juice.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Roasted Spicy Maple Squash

Roasted Spicy Maple Squash. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

1 acorn squash, whole

Olive oil

¼ cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Salt

Black pepper

Fresh sage leaves

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Halve the acorn squash and scoop out the seeds. Leaving the skin on (it’s much easier to remove once it has been cooked), slice the squash halves into ½-inch slices. Place on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

Drizzle a healthy amount of olive oil over the squash, enough to coat each piece generously. Drizzle with maple syrup and use your hands to toss the squash, coating it in the oil and syrup.

Season with cayenne pepper, cinnamon and a good amount of salt and pepper. Toss to coat again.

Roast in the oven for 10 minutes, then flip squash and roast for another 10 minutes. Test a piece by piercing it with a fork. If squash is tender, remove from oven.

Scatter sage leaves on top of the warm squash and serve.

Serves 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Maple Rum Cider

Maple Rum Cider. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

2 ounces rum

½ ounce maple syrup

¼ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ ounce apple cider

⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 stick cinnamon, for garnish

Fresh rosemary, for garnish (optional)

Add all ingredients except cinnamon stick to a shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to make sure the cinnamon dissolves, then pour mixture along with ice into a glass. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, adding more ice if desired, and rosemary, if using.

Serves 1.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Salted Maple Granola

2 cups rolled or quick-cooking oats

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup maple syrup

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup raw slivered pecans

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Place oats on a dry baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and maple syrup. Use your hands or a spatula to gently toss the oats, coating them with the oil and syrup. Season with salt and toss again.

Scatter pecans across the top, shake the baking sheet a bit, then roast for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring halfway through. Cook until light brown and fragrant.

Makes about 2 ½ cups granola.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Maple Shortbread Cookies

Maple Shortbread Cookies. [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

For the crust:

2 cups flour

½ cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled

For the filling:

1 ½ cups packed brown sugar

⅔ cup maple syrup

2 eggs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Heat oven to 350 degrees. For crust, combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut butter into slices, and cut in with pastry blender or two knives until mixture is crumbly. Press into bottom and half an inch up the sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Bake 15 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Cool on rack.

For filling, combine all ingredients except pecans and mix until smooth. Pour into cooled crust. Distribute nuts evenly over top. Bake 30 minutes, or until filling is set. Cool on a rack before cutting.

Source: Adapted from the New York Times

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