Posted on March 18th, 2011
Despite living on the West Coast, as a native New Englander, March will always see something rise in my blood to match the hidden surge of sap in maple trees on a far-off coast. Here, in Portland, the seasons are two: raining, or not-raining. Lost to us is the subtle magic of maple sugaring season, and that first night that has the breath of blossom intermingled with the chill of the lingering snow.
Sugaring season is the first hint that you might not want to give it all up just yet–that the cold won’t claim the entire landscape forever. It is sweet hope on a pancake, and the hot steam of August long before August arrives in the northeastern woods. You may wake to find another foot of white bleakness deposited on the ground in the night, but you’ll fall asleep, fitfully muttering about the tender charms of that most Yankee of condiments: the dark delights of Grade B maple syrup.
Short of flying the FG editorial staff out to the east coast to experience the bewitching, yet brief pleasures of the sugar shacks that sprout mushroom-like in the snow at this time of year, I hoped that the next-best thing would be baking a classic maple sugar pie. I had a recipe culled from a slim, orange volume entitled New England Cook Book, whose yellowed pages were populated by my grandpa’s spiky notations, a longing in my heart, and hope that this ‘lost pie’ could recapture at least some of what I’d left behind on the other coast–maple sugar, exhaling sweet warmth through the winter cold.
What transpired was both less, and more, somehow, than what I had hoped for.
The pie, when we had finished with it, was nothing like the chess-style pie I had originally envisioned. A simple egg custard, with an elephant-skin surface (this seems to be a growing tradition amongst the lost pies), sat in a burnished pie crust, maple sugar granules melting across its middle. No alchemy had happened in the oven to transform the humble ingredients into the transporting dessert I had pictured–what I’d done, instead, was make breakfast. It was scrambled eggs, biscuits, maple syrup, and butter, re-invented as a single unit.
As such, I was initially disappointed. The maple flavor was barely present. It was egg-forward, which, as my grandpa would’ve said, made its name kind of bass-ackward. But.
There was something, in the simplicity of it, that still managed to get the point across. Barely sweet, what sugar was there lingered, a low burn on the back of the tongue–humming the way that maple sugar does, after the first shock of it hits your palate. The way that the memory of a landscape will hum, long after you’ve left it. It wasn’t a trip to the steamy interior of a pop-up pancake hut, deep in the woods of New Hampshire–but it wasn’t a bad approximation of the subtle charms of the breakfast that you’d have once you got there. And maybe that made it a fitting tribute, after all.
Maple Sugar Pie
1 deep pie shell
2 cups milk
3 tbs. soft maple sugar
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Beat the eggs lightly and add the maple sugar. Heat milk in a double boiler, add the nutmeg and salt, and pour slowly on the eggs and sugar. Strain. Add the vanilla.
Prepare a rich deep pie shell, keeping the edge of the dough well above the rim. Fill with the above filling and bake in a hot oven (400º F) until the edge of the crust is lightly browned. Then reduce the heat of the oven to moderately hot (350º F) and bake until a knife inserted in the filling comes out clean.