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Maple syrup (Recipe: poached pears)


Apologies to the good people of Punxutawney, Pennsylvania, and their famous groundhog, but there's no better harbinger of Spring than the appearance of sap buckets dangling from the sugar maples in our town cemetery.

All over New England, soon after the trees are tapped in February and March, the sugaring houses begin the alchemy of turning the sap into maple syrup. The season when the most flavorful sap "runs" from the trees is short, only 4-6 weeks, and sap tapped at different points during that season will result in different depths of flavor.

The USDA grades maple syrup into four categories:

  • Grade A Light Amber, very light in color, mild, delicate maple flavor; usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder. Best for making maple candy and maple cream.
  • Grade A Medium Amber, a bit darker, more maple flavor. The most popular grade of table syrup, usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, in mid-season.
  • Grade A Dark Amber (which used to be called Grade B), very dark, with a stronger maple flavor; usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.
  • Grade B (formerly Grade C), sometimes called cooking syrup, made late in the season, very dark, with a very strong maple and caramel flavor; often used for cooking and baking.

All maple syrup is made the same way: the sap is boiled to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugar to approximately 60 percent. This process, relatively unchanged over more than two hundred years, originated in Canada with the First Nations peoples (North American Indians), who would make a gash in the tree, and then fashion a funnel out of bark to extract the sap. The water content would be reduced in one of two ways: by plunging hot stones into the sap, or by freezing the sap overnight and removing the layer of ice from the surface the next morning.

Settlers in the American colonies relied on maple syrup as an inexpensive sweetener, because sugar imported from the West Indies was a costly commodity. As production took hold in the southern United States, and transportation routes opened, the price of sugar began to drop, and sugar overtook maple syrup as the sweetener of choice.

Some tidbits about maple syrup:

  • If you've never tasted maple syrup, think of it this way: it has the sweetness of agave nectar, the color of molasses, the consistency of fresh honey, and the taste of all three combined.
  • All of the world's supply of maple syrup comes from North America; Canada produces more than 75 percent, followed by Vermont and New York State. The town cemetery in Chepachet, Rhode Island, contributes an infinitessimal amount to the total world production.
  • It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which accounts for the high price. Our town's only sugaring house, at Chepachet Farms, welcomes lots of school groups, so the farmer has strung 40 empty one-gallon milk jugs around the inside of the ceiling to illustrate how much sap it takes to make one gallon of syrup.
  • Aunt Jemima does not make maple syrup; available in supermarkets everywhere, this artificial product lists corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredients.
  • Maple syrup can be stored in sealed containers on the pantry shelf; once opened, the syrup must be refrigerated. You can freeze it, but defrost before using.
  • The trace minerals manganese and zinc, both present in maple syrup, are essential for heart health; zinc also provides known benefits to the health of the prostate.

Without maple syrup, would we have pancakes? Cupcakes? Pork chops? Bacon? Corn bread? Scones? Baked beans? Teriyaki sauce?

Yes, we would, but none would taste quite as good as they do when made with pure maple syrup from your very own town cemetery.

Poached pears

Here in the part of Rhode Island known as Apple Valley, we also have wonderful pears from the local orchards. This simple, yet elegant, dessert serves 4; can be multiplied.


4 pears
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract


Peel the pears and, from the bottom, remove the cores, leaving the stems on. Place in a nonreactive pot with lemon zest, lemon juice, and maple syrup, plus enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until tender when pierced with a knife. Allow pears to cool in the poaching liquid. (This can be done several hours ahead.) Remove pears to serving plates, and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in sugar, butter and vanilla, and reduce the sauce to desired consistency. Drizzle the sauce over and around pears, and serve.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Indian pudding
Maple-glazed salmon
Honey-roasted beets

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Well being Canadian I love me some maple syrup. I am acutally a grade B girl myself...I feel it has the best flavor!

I'll take grade B anyday...more flavor and bite! The pears would be perfect on top of thick Greek yogurt!

I grew up in Canada, on the border of Quebec and Ontario, in the country. When I was little, our kindergarten class went to a cabane a sucre to learn about maple syrup - they poured warm syrup on a horse trough filled with fresh snow, and we ate it with popsicle sticks. It was the only time I ever ate snow without getting in trouble!

Now that I live in England, I've found most of my friends and coworkers have never even had real maple syrup before. Such a shame!

What a great recipe! I have some maple syrup from my trip to Vermont, and poaching pears would be perfect! You are so right about Aunt Jemima - what a difference the "real thing" makes!

Interesting post, Lydia! After tasting real maple syrup, I can no longer have the fake stuff and I also refuse to eat pancakes if I don't have maple syrup. So you can imagine that when my supply ran out, it was pancake free-zone at our place till my Canadian friend gave me two cans of maple syrup from her uncle's trees in Quebec. Unfortunately, I don't have my own maple syrup from my town cemetery ;-)

I love Grade B myself. It is so thick and delicious.
Lydia, I am inspired. In all my years of cooking, I've never poached pears...perhaps this weekend I'll try my hand at it!

Amazing: while trolling through my pantry yesterday I noticed an overstock (if there is such a thing) of maple syrup and found myself wishing for a post from you about it. Thanks for getting on that so quickly! Grade B here, too.

mmmm poached pears! my favorite and i haven't gotten my hands on any this year yet. thanks for the inspiration.

Our dinner last night due to distractions (read that no plans) resulted in maple syrup on waffles! Pretty good.
If only we'd had pears to put on the waffles!

I was just thinking about poached pears yesterday but can not make up my mind on the poaching liquid. I think I know how I want them poached now. Thanks for the recipe.

I love poached pears, especially on waffles. The maple syrup adds a fantastic flavor, I bet. Yum!

Oh god I love maple syrup. For years now Isaac hasn't been able to understand my obsession. But, recently, when we were upstate we went to a farm co-op that had real, locally made syrup. I bought a little pint. One day, he made me a cup of tea and I asked for some maple syrup in it. A little drip got on his finger, and he tasted it. It was like watching the sun rise! "Oh my god," he said, "This doesn't taste like Aunt Jemima at all!" I'd been trying to explain this to him forever, but finally, he learned. Yay maple syrup!

Peabody, my Canadian husband agrees with you.

Tartelette, love the idea of the Greek yogurt to balance the sweetness of the maple syrup.

Erin, that does sound like fun! Ted made maple candy in the snow many years ago -- I thought he was a bit nuts, pouring it on the snow in our front yard. But it was delicious. We'll have to get some pure syrup to you so you can introduce your UK friends to the real thing.

TW, what amazes me is that my mom used to buy Aunt Jemima syrup all the time when we were kids, and we loved it. Now I can't imagine eating it, especially when pure maple syrup is made right in my town.

Nora, I'm always happy to send emergency supplies to friends in need!!!

Sharon, poaching pears is so easy, and they make such an elegant dessert. You can always add a bit of rich vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, too.

Susan, an overstock? I need to match you with Erin and Nora and redistribute some of your extra maple syrup!

Aria, if you can't find maple syrup, try this with molasses or honey. Won't be quite the same, but it's a delicious alternative.

MyKitchen, waffles and syrup is one of my favorites. When I was a kid, I had to make sure that the syrup got into every single square of the waffles before I'd eat them! (That sounds a bit obsessive now, doesn't it...)

Mandy, glad to help!

Jennifer, I'm a big fan of poached pears. I even like them in salad.

Ann, how much more fun your cooking life will be now that Isaac has seen the light! He'll never want to ruin good food with fake syrup again.

I love poached pears and never would have thought of including maple! Sounds delicious

Lydia, your post reminded me that I haven't eaten maple syrup in a while now. Gotta try something with it on the weekend!

Field trips to the maple syrup bush were a regular part of the school curriculum in elementary school! I love maple syrup...

Lydia, I learn something every time I visit the pantry. I just picked up some Trader Joe's maple syrup the other day. The pears sound delicious--about how long do you poach them before they're "tender when pierced with a knife"?

Mike, in our Canadian-American household, we're always looking for new ways to use maple syrup!

Patricia, can you find pure maple syrup in Brazil? If not, I'll be happy to send some.

Brilynn, I'm in awe of the Canadian education system!!!

Terry, it depends on the ripeness of the pears, but usually 15-20 minutes over the lowest possible heat will do it. They'll continue to cook as the poaching liquid cools.

You are such a dear, Lydia. Thank you. I can find it in special stores (imported food stores), but the first time I tasted it was from a jar that Brilynn (from Jumbo Empanadas) sent me.

That's the one I buy!

Patricia, once you taste the real thing, you never want to buy anything else. If your store ever runs out, please let me know.

Susan, what would we do without Trader Joe's?!

Hi Lydia,
I was surprised that Maine wasn't in the top of the maple syrup producers ... but, I don't really know a lot about maple syrup myself. Just know how wonderful it tastes! Unfortunately we grew up with the Aunt Jemima's, then as adults discovered REAL maple syrup. Funny that your cemetery yields so much.
Just checked my refrigerator and mine comes from Madison & Skowhegan, Maine.

Meg, I was surprised, too, because Maine maple syrup is delicious. But maybe not available in the same quantities as the other states' syrup. And yes, we are proud of our little village -- we get syrup from the cemetery, and we have one of the strangest July 4 parades of all time, called the Ancients and Horribles Parade. Those are our claims to fame!

I tried this recipe last night, and loved it! I served the poached pears with some vanilla ice cream and buttercrunch candy and the whole thing was quite delicious :) (I did not make the sauce at all). The poached pears are just so luscious with the flavors of lemon and maple syrup. I will be making this often. Thank you, Lydia!

Nupur, I'm happy -- I love the idea of adding crunch with the candy. What could be sweeter than that?! Thanks for leaving a comment to let us know that you enjoyed this recipe.

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