Maple season

Cynthia
Cynthia Stone
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The appearance of artificially flavoured muffins, loaves and tarts in the local grocery stores this week is the only nod I've seen to the celebration nearing its finish in Quebec, Ontario, the northeastern U.S., and other locales fortunate enough to grow sugar maples.
Just because we don't have sugar shacks dotting the landscape doesn't mean we have to settle for sickly sweet confections with little or no real maple syrup in them. I know the real thing is expensive, but a little goes a long way and absolutely nothing is an acceptable substitute to satisfy your great Canadian craving.
Here's a simple spread that's not only delicious with these light, fluffy pancakes, but also fantastic on toast, bagels, scones and English muffins. I wouldn't turn down carrots with a dab on top, either. If you're planning a special weekend brunch tomorrow, slice up a couple of pears or apples, or both, and fry in butter until golden. Stir in a nice glob of maple butter and spoon over the pancakes for a delectable treat. If you don't have buttermilk, put about 2 tbsp. of vinegar in a 2-cup measure, fill it up with milk and allow to sit for 5 minutes. This recipe serves about 6.

Buttermilk Pancakes with Maple Butter
Maple Butter:
1 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup butter
Pancakes:
1-3/4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch salt
2 cups buttermilk (or soured milk)
2 eggs
2 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tbsp. melted butter or margarine
For the maple butter, in a heavy pot, heat syrup to the soft ball stage, or 235 to 240 F on a candy thermometer. If you don't have one of those, drop a wee bit in a glass of ice-cold water and watch it firm up, sink to the bottom, and puddle there, looking like a tiny blob of warm taffy. Pour over butter and beat with an electric mixer on high speed 5 minutes or until thick and creamy. Refrigerate leftovers but they keep quite a while.
For the pancakes, whisk or sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Whisk together buttermilk, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla and butter. Stir wet ingredients into dry until well mixed but don't worry about a few lumps. Allow to rest half an hour if you have the time. To cook the pancakes, brush a little vegetable oil or melted butter in a non-stick pan and pour small spoonfuls into the pan - about 2 to 3 inches across. Cook over medium heat until bubbles bloom all over the surface, about 3 minutes, then flip them. The second side won't take as long since the pancakes are almost cooked through; you just want colour on the bottom. Serve with maple butter.
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If you're looking for a spectacular starter for your next dinner party, this is it. Don't underestimate the power in the small amount of maple syrup in this recipe - it packs a flavour punch. Honey was in my original mix, but once I went maple there was no going back. I realize walnut oil isn't easy to get and costs a fortune, so feel free to substitute any light oil - almost as good. Toast walnuts in a dry frying pan over medium heat, stirring just until you can smell their fragrance. I struggled with the word "optional" after the fresh mint because I'm not sure it is, but if you can't find any and really want to try this dish, you should. If you like a mixture of colours then use a yellow or orange pepper, but there's something elegant about the simple combination of red and green. Depending on what's following this, you can count on serving 4 to 6 people.

Spinach Strawberry Salad with Maple Walnut Vinaigrette
8 cups fresh baby spinach, washed and well dried
1 red pepper, diced
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup thinly sliced strawberries
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
Dressing:
1/2 cup walnut or vegetable oil
2 tbsp. maple syrup
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. each salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Arrange spinach on a large platter. Top with red pepper, onion, strawberries, walnuts and mint. Combine dressing ingredients in a blender and whizz (or whisk briskly by hand) until emulsified. Pour over top and serve right away. Alternatively, toss salad ingredients and dressing in a bowl.

Maple Orange Ginger Pork Chops
Here's an easy one for your weeknight recipe file … delicious, too. If you don't have fresh thyme, substitute 1/2 tsp. dried, but add with the chili powder.
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper
6 thick pork chops
vegetable oil for frying
2 tsp. butter or margarine
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 tsp. hot chili powder (ancho or chipotle are extra good)
1 thumb-sized piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and grated
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. fresh chopped thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Combine flour, salt and pepper and dredge chops, shaking off the excess. Brown in hot oil and place in a single layer in a baking dish. Add butter to pan then fry onion and celery until soft and golden. Stir in chili powder and cook another minute. Add ginger, maple syrup, juice and Worcestershire. Cook together, stirring, a minute or two and add thyme then season to taste. Pour over chops and bake, covered, about 30 minutes at 350 F. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes or until just cooked through - don't overcook or they will be tough. Bring the pan juices to a boil and simmer a few minutes to thicken while the pork is resting. Serve chops with sauce and a couple of simple sides like rice and broccoli.

Maple Custard Pie

Doesn't get much easier or self-indulgent than this sweet treat. You can make your own pie crust but the middle of this is so good you can easily get away with store-bought. Sprinkle on a handful of chopped pecans before baking if you like.
2 eggs
1 cup maple syrup
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla
pinch salt
1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
Whisk eggs lightly but don't beat them. Whisk in maple syrup, sweetened condensed milk, juice, vanilla and salt. Pour into pie crust. Bake at 425 F for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350 and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, just until custard is set in the middle, but still a bit wobbly.

Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John's. Questions may be sent to her
c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John's, N.L., A1E 4N1.

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Quebec, Ontario, U.S. St. John's

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