Okay, so I don't live in the woods. I am not a pioneer woman. I do not live on a farm. In fact, I grow NOTHING in my back yard and I can't seem to keep an herb plant alive for more than a few weeks. (I like to blame this on having grown up in NYC.) I do, however, have six children who, like the weeds in my "garden," are growing very fast. And I am home with them. All day. Yes, we homeschool, and so in a way, I feel a kind of connection with Laura Ingalls' mother, Caroline, and to her work: the home. Every afternoon during lunch, I read to the children from various books, and we are currently reading the "Little House" series. My eldest three (James, 9; Julia, 7; Lily,5) sit at their places transfixed by the stories of farm life--and food! Food, so glorious, and yet so simple! One of the aspects of these stories that strikes me is how seasonal their food is. In this (happy!) age of the supermarket, we can eat whatever we like, whenever. Strawberries in January? No problem! Pumpkin pie in July? You got it!
These stories, however, bring us back to a time when every food had its season, for example: in the spring and summer, berries were collected and made into pies and preserves; in the fall, the wheat was threshed and the harvest was brought in and meat was smoked and salted; in the winter, deer were hunted and maple syrup was made ready. And they blessed their food before every meal, recognizing the gift that it truly was. There was a real comfort in the rituals that every season brought, a comfort not dissimilar from what I believe our liturgical seasons and feast days bring us as Catholics. Certainly the food traditionally prepared to celebrate many feast days was chosen not only for its symbolism, but also for its seasonal availability. Think of all the fish eaten in Italy on Christmas Eve!
Although it is late January still, I am feeling the end of winter. It was 60 degrees just the other day! It was towards the end of the winter (admittedly a bit later than February in Wisconsin!) that Laura's family made their maple sugar candies from boiling maple syrup and pouring it over fresh SNOW. With no feast day in sight, I thought we might try a modern version of these pioneer candies. I have also included a recipe for maple sugar cookies, which I think are probably a bit tastier than the maple syrup cakes the Ingalls used to eat! You've got to love brown sugar!
2 cups real maple syrup
1. Using a candy thermometer, in a sturdy saucepan with high sides,
bring the maple syrup to a boil.
2. Turn the heat to very low and allow the syrup to continue boiling without stirring until the thermometer reads 233F. Be careful that thesyrup doesn’t boil over - once maple syrup finally decides to boil, it really boils.
3. When the reduced syrup has reached 233F, remove it from the heat and allow to cool, still without stirring it, until the thermometer reads 110 F.
4. Now it’s time to beat the reduced syrup with a wooden spoon. Beat vigorously for several minutes. (It can help to sing when you do this.) You are making a transformation take place: As you beat, the syrup gradually turns a pale caramel color and it becomes stiff enough to hold a shape.
5. Place in candy molds or form into patties on a plate or baking sheet and allow to cool completely. Then unmold and enjoy.
Maple Sugar Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Thoroughly blend into
the butter mixture. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill
for at least 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Roll the dough out 1/4-inch thick. With a drinking glass, cut out
cookies and transfer to parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the
cookies with heavy cream. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile make the maple glaze. Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan.
Stir over medium heat until it just reaches the boiling point. Brush
or dip the tops of the cookies in the maple glaze while still hot. Let
cool. These taste better the next day.
1 cup confectioners' sugar1/4 cup maple sugar
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 cup unsalted butter
In a medium bowl, cream the butter, then gradually add the sugar and
continue to beat. Add the eggs, vanilla extract, maple extract, and
maple syrup, and beat until light and fluffy.