Maple Custard Pie
I’m about to write something controversial, and hope a petition to revoke my New England Resident Status isn’t taken up. When it comes to maple flavoring, I prefer the artificial stuff over the real deal. I know – Blasphemy!!! I guess it comes down to what you’re accustomed to and growing up, our pancakes, waffles, and French toast were always topped with pads of butter and (if we were successful at convincing our mom to buy the name-brand syrup) a thick concoction that slowly flowed from a bottle in the shape of a substantially-framed middle-aged woman. To my taste buds, pure maple syrup or maple candy is exceptionally sweet, almost sickeningly so. I could never take more than a bite or two of it, and, to be honest, what’s the point of that? However my mother’s favorite ice cream flavor is Maple Walnut, so I guess she redeems the family a bit in that respect.
Approximately 160 species of Maple trees exist across the globe, with only one kind found in the southern hemisphere. Most maples grow to a height between 33-148ft, however I was surprised to learn that there are a few species that are more shrub-like, and in some southern Asian and Mediterranean regions, they are actually evergreen - a stark contrast to the vibrantly-colored Maple trees that bless us in New England.
In the Northern US and Canada, indigenous peoples have been harvesting Maple sap as a food source for countless centuries. Historically, a camp would be set up in a cleared forest setting (now referred to as a sugarbush – the permanent enclosed processing building adopted later in history is referred to as a sugar shack) for several weeks in the very early Spring to collect the xylem sap from (most commonly) Sugar Maple, Black Maple, and Red Maple trees. Continuous boiling of the tree sap over open fire would create the thick, sticky, sweet substance that we now consume regularly at breakfast. 17th century European settlers learned the Maple syrup processing from these indigenous groups and began producing their own syrup for sale, trade, and personal consumption. Today, in addition to family-owned operations, many sugar shacks are commercially operated, offering tours, tastings, and activities to the public during the appropriate months.
But the influence of Maple is not only felt locally. Worldwide, the Maple has infiltrated various aspects of human culture. Most recognizably, the Maple leaf is prominently displayed on the red and white Canadian flag, however it is also exhibited on the Coat of Arms of Sammatti (former Finnish municipality) and is similarly a symbol of Hiroshima, Japan (fun fact: the famous Japanese Bonsai Tree is often a Maple).
The mention of Maples have been appearing in literary works that go back centuries. Japan’s oldest poetry anthology Man'yōshū, dates back to the 8th century AD and the first verified English use of the word "mapole" was in dated to a work from 1260 AD. 127 years later Geoffrey Chaucer's famous Canterbury Tales uses the spelling "mapul” to describe the beloved tree. If more recent literary works are your speed, readers should pick up American poet Robert Frost’s Evening In A Sugar Orchard for a more modern-take on the subject.
For those who prefer stories to be expressed in the form of music, Gussie Davis (1863-1899), recognized as one America’s first successful African-American music artists, wrote We Sat Beneath the Maple on the Hill (1880). Since then, this ditty has been recorded countless times throughout the past century by various bluegrass and country musicians. Folk singer Pete Seeger’s Maple Syrup Time made a sticky splash in 1979, and (my favorite Canadian singer-songwriter) Gordon Lightfoot’s 1971 Love & Maple Syrup takes on more a metaphorical message, about love, life, and our relationship to nature with his piece.
And if you wish to absorb your maple fix through visual arts, the possibilities are wide and varied. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), 19th cen. Japan’s most famous landscape artist was known to create woodblock prints often showcasing the country’s beloved maple tree (Vincent van Gogh even owned upwards of 50 of Hiroshige’s works). Grandma Moses (1860-1961), the self-taught American “Outside Artist” who notably started painting in her 70’s, shows the bustle of a community coming together to process the maple sap and to enjoy its sweet bounty in her piece Sugaring Off (1943). And in 1966, Ed Ruscha’s Annie, Poured From Maple Syrup captured American hearts with its sticky-looking arrangement of culture and food during the Pop Art movement.
Given all of the cultural and historical influence the Maple tree has had on mankind, I felt it was only fair to put aside my taste preferences and give this recipe a shot. I crossed my fingers that the custard part of this dessert would cut down on the sweetness of the maple, making it palatable.
Unfortunately though, I’m sad to write that the actual cooking experiment was not nearly as enjoyable to make, as it was researching and writing this blog. In fact, without being overdramatic in the very least, this whole experiment was an epic failure (in my opinion)! It seemed that at every step of this recipe, if a wrench could be thrown at me, it was.
My decision to save money and forego buying premade maple sugar, and instead make my own (boil down pure maple sugar to form crystals - rapid stirring creates small granules that can then be put through a food processor) was in itself successful, producing JUST enough sugar granules that the recipe called for. But a significant amount of time was invested in making it, cleaning up the super-sticky remnants, and processing the large maple rocks in a food processor (because no matter the speed of your stirring, you will not be able to produce the texture you’re wanting). In my opinion, it’s worth forking over the extra cash and simply saving yourself the hassle.
I located a pie crust recipe in Hannah’s cookbook and, after deciding it would be cheating to buy premade at the store, rolled up my sleeves and made pie crust for the first time (substituting butter for the lard that was listed in the recipe). Either I significantly misread the recipe, the flour amount was accidently recorded incorrectly in her book, or the Pastry Gods simply had it out for me that day, but I had to add copious amounts of flour in addition to what the recipe called for. So much dough was lost on my work table and on a rolling pin from the tackiness that I was forced to give up trying to roll it, and haphazardly hand-patted it into 3 ramekin dishes (after discovering there wasn’t enough to properly fill a pie dish after I had placed it in there first).
I made the custard mixture (which disappointingly was only enough to fill one of the ramekins) and cooked it in a “hot oven” to set the crust as directed (I replicated the recipe using regular sugar to fill the remaining two ramekins). While washing dishes, I may or may not have forgotten the pies were in the oven at a high temp (400) and ran back in to lower it down to 275 to cook slowly (and by that I mean, I forgot how long they were in there for and prayed I didn’t mess them up).
Here’s where things really go off the rails; 3 staff members tasted the Maple Custard Pie. 1 staff member said that the eggs tasted off and couldn’t even swallow the bite (upon tasting one of the non-maple custards, his assessment was confirmed – the eggs had either gone bad, or were on the cusp), and the remaining staff, although not sensing bad eggs in the Maple Custard Pie, could NOT taste the maple flavoring at all. This was UNBELIEVABLE (but evidently par for the course with this recipe)! I was actually looking forward to this custard in order for my mind to be changed regarding maple-flavored foods, and the taste was just nowhere to be found! The only positive comment I can make regarding this experience was that the crust was edible, and after giving my four year old nephew some of the larger maple “candy” that I couldn’t break up in the food processor, he ate those chunks up and promptly requested that Auntie Jenny bring him home some more from the museum.
So, for any readers who still require more Mapley-goodness after this ridiculous blog post, this year's National Maple Syrup Day takes place on December 17th. And if anyone does successfully remake Hannah Dodge’s Maple Custard Pie recipe, please bring a piece into the museum – I’d love to know what it’s supposed to taste like!
Maple Custard Pie Recipe: 2 eggs, 1/3 cp of grated maple sugar; 1 Tbs flour; 2 Tbs milk. Beat eggs, add sugar, flour and milk – (unknown word) into deep pastry lined pan; dust with cinnamon or nutmeg and bake in a quick oven at first to set crust, then lower temperature
Pie Crust Recipe (to be followed at one’s own risk): 3/4 cup flour; ¼ cup corn starch; ½ tsp salt; ½ cup lard – chop and mix with a knife, only using the lard to toss lightly together. Never knead pie dough or it will be tough. Mixture(?) with 3 tbs of icy water, only just enough to roll out. Use as little dry flour as favorable in the process