Friday, March 19, 2010

Maple Bars—Recreating the Taste of Vermont in Maple Season

Some years back, I spent an exciting four days during the March sugaring season going all over Vermont to steep myself in the maple culture. It seemed that wherever I went the sweet, woodsy smell of maple syrup enveloped me.

It furled up from the bubbling pot as the Harold Howrigan family in Fairfield, Vermont, took me into their kitchen and showed me how to boil down syrup for maple candy and maple on snow. It swirled in moist clouds from the evaporator (see pics) chugging away at the Morse Farm Sugarworks sugarhouse in Montpelier. And it perfumed the air at the Butternut Mountain Farms bottling plant in Johnson, where a steady stream of glinting amber-filled jugs paraded past us and boxes of maple products stretched to the ceiling.

Not surprisingly, David Marvin, owner of Butternut Mountain Farms, was highly enthusiastic about my plan to create some sweet treats that called for maple syrup. “And the more you use, the better they’ll be,” he said with a laugh.

Actually, I’ve found that really showing off the subtle but glorious appeal of maple depends as much on what kind and how you use it as how much you use. For heightened flavor in baked goods, choose the robust-tasting dark amber maple syrup, and use it both in and on the sweet. If it’s available, incorporating some pure maple sugar will boost the flavor of your treat even more.

Which brings me to these bars. They are slightly crisp and sticky, with a not-to-sweet maple shortbread crust studded with a succulent, crunchy maple-nut topping. They taste and smell like the steam that hovered during the Vermont sugaring season—subtle, natural, and haunting, with none of the all-too-familiar cloying artificial notes of imitationmaple extract. (For other maple treats, check out the story and Burr Morse's yummy recipe for Maple Kettle Corn here  or my maple-filled maple shortbread cups or maple custard pie. 

Maple-Nut Bars

Maple most often seems to be paired with walnuts, but I love these bars with pecans, too. Try 'em both! These are homey and highly munchable and especially nice with a cup of tea or glass of milk. And please do let me know how you like the recipe--I'm planning to put it in my next cookbook.

Tip: The bars will be more “mapley” if you can add in some granulated maple sugar, but are worth making even if you can’t find this enticing gourmet item. Note that the product you’re looking for should be labeled “pure maple sugar.” It’s not the same as regular sugar doctored with faux maple flavoring and coloring.

Rather bake a maple custard pie? Click here.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into chunks
1/4 cup granulated maple sugar or 1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, preferably dark amber
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons each granulated maple sugar and granulated sugar (or use 5 tablespoons granulated sugar)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup, preferably dark amber
3 tablespoons light or dark corn syrup
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups coarsely chopped pecans or walnut, chopped moderately fine

Preliminaries: Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Line a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with heavy-duty foil, allowing it to overhang the two narrow ends slightly. Grease the foil or coat with non-stick spray.

For the crust: In a large bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, sugar, maple syrup, baking powder, and salt until well blended. Beat in the egg until the mixture is thoroughly incorporated; don’t worry if the mixture looks separated. On low speed, beat in the flour just until the mixture begins to mass. (If the mixer motor labors, stir in the last of the flour with a large spoon.)

Press the dough into the baking pan. Lay a sheet of wax paper over the top and press and smooth out to even the surface; discard the paper.

Bake (middle rack) for 20 to 25 minutes, until the shortbread is lightly browned at the edges. Set aside.

For the maple topping: In a 2-quart, heavy, non-reactive saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Thoroughly stir in the sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, and salt. When the mixture begins to boil at the edges, adjust the heat so it boils briskly. Boil, uncovered, 2 1/2 minutes or until the mixture forms large glassy bubbles and boils down just slightly. Stop and check the consistency; if the syrup is still runny, boil another 30 to 45 seconds to thicken it slightly.

Pour the syrup over the par-baked shortbread, spreading it out until the dough is evenly coated. Sprinkle the nuts evenly over the top, then shake the pan to even the layer. Lay a sheet of foil over the nuts and pat down lightly to embed them slightly. Discard the foil.

Bake (middle rack) for 17 to 22 minutes, or until the filling darkens just slightly and the entire surface is bubbly. Transfer to a wire rack. Let stand until cooled to warm; don’t touch during cooling as the syrup will be hot.

When the bars have cooled to warm, cut them crosswise into sixths and lengthwise into quarters using a large, sharp knife; try not to cut through the foil and don’t lift them as they will still be crumbly. Let the bars cool and firm up completely, then lift them out; peel them off the foil as necessary.

Makes 24 21/8- by 2 1/4-inch bars.
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Irish Soda Bread--A Homespun Slice of Life

I often find that preparing recipes my mother and grandmother made conjures up fond memories of them. Pulling out a faded, dog-eared recipe for soda bread from my mother’s collection last week certainly reminded me of her. I could vividly picture her standing in our old linoleum- floored farmhouse kitchen, mixing up a dough in the tiny drainboard/countertop area by the enamel sink.

When I was very young I mostly watched and took a turn stirring as my mother made simple quick breads like cornbread, biscuits, bran muffins and popovers—all from scratch, of course. Later, I helped measure and learned to crack and separate eggs; the activities seemed so comfortable and routine and I acquired my skills so gradually, that baking never seemed difficult or out of the ordinary. In fact, it was a lot of fun!

Once the necessary reading skills were acquired, I would look through my mother's little collection of tattered cookbooks and pamphlets and pick out recipes for us to try. By the time I was eight or maybe nine, I could prepare several quick breads and muffins all by myself. My only flops (literally) were popovers, which I never mastered and avoid to this day!

Since our family wasn’t Irish, soda bread didn’t appear regularly at our table. But my mother liked to mark every holiday with the appropriate dish—plum pudding for Christmas, pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Hot Cross Buns for Good Friday, and Irish soda bread usually on St. Patrick’s Day. (She was also fairly obliging when we requested Lime Surprise—a “dreamy” Jello-whipped cream concoction—or green-frosted cupcakes for dessert.)

I’ve since learned that purists think real Irish soda bread shouldn’t have raisins—that this turns it into an altogether different loaf, called Spotted Dog. In fact, they say that incorporating anything other than flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk is just wrong. Nevertheless, my mother’s version had raisins, so it seems absolutely right to me.

But I have made some changes in her basic recipe: Although I don’t think a sack of whole wheat flour ever darkened my mother’s door much less her pantry, I’ve come to prefer a part whole wheat soda bread. (It adds a nice, nutty flavor.) Yogurt wasn’t in our home either, so would never have gone into her soda bread, but I add it because I discovered it helps keep the loaf tender and moist.

Improved Irish Soda Bread with Raisins (aka Spotted Dog)

This loaf deserves to be called improved because, thanks to the addition of yogurt, honey, and a little oil, it has a moister, more tender crumb than traditional soda bread. Due to the yogurt it also keeps better and has more protein than classic versions prepared with just buttermilk.

I use some whole wheat flour not only for the fiber and nutrients,  but because its wheaty flavor is extremely appealing. But, if preferred,  you can use all white flour with excellent results.

The bread is at its best served still warm from the oven with, as the Irish say, "lashings” of butter. (Our butter was excellent, made from Gurnsey cow we churned ourselves.)  But the bread is quite good wrapped in foil and reheated on the second or even third day. And, if sliced rather than cut into wedges as shown in the picture, it’s also good for toast.  (For a good recipe that's a little quicker, check on my applesauce raisin muffins.)

1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour, plus more if needed
1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour or white whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
Generous 1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup dark, seedless raisins, rinsed under hot water, drained well, and patted dry
1 6-ounce carton (or 3/4 cup) nonfat or low-fat plain (unsweetened) yogurt
1/4 cup clover honey or other mild honey
3 tablespoons corn oil, canola oil, or other flavorless low-saturated-fat vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk, plus extra if needed

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch diameter cake pan, pie plate or similar flat, round baking dish.

In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the white and whole wheat flours, baking soda, and salt. In medium bowl using a fork, beat together the raisins, yogurt, honey, and oil until very well blended. Stir in the buttermilk. Gently stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture just until mostly incorporated. With your hands and working in the bowl, knead the mixture until it just comes together, then shape it into a round, shaggy ball; add a little buttermilk if it is too crumbly and dry to come together, or a little more flour if it seems too soft and wet.

Transfer the ball to the cake pan. With oiled hands, smooth and shape the dough into a 6-inch diameter high-domed loaf. With a well-greased sharp knife, cut a 1/2-inch deep X that extends across the loaf top.

Bake (middle rack) for 55 to 65 minutes or until well browned on top and a toothpick inserted in a center comes out clean; cover the top with foil after 40 to 50 minutes if it starts to over-brown. Let stand on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes, then serve. If desired, reheat the loaf wrapped in foil for about 15 minutes in a preheated 350-degree F oven.

Makes one medium loaf, 12 to 15 thick slices or wedges.

Though this was my go-to recipe for decades, I've added a new recipe for seeded soda bread with fennel seeds that may even be better than this one--it's from Ariel's Restaurant in Vermont.
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