Growing Up Green: Making Toffee

Nina May

"Bringing in the Maple Sugar" (1939) by Grandma Moses, American folk artist.
[This article ran in the April/May 2009 issue of The SCOOP.]

Pale liquid flows from a handful of ancient maples in my still slightly frozen yard. They had stood proud like crimson flags last fall; now their exposed limbs are warming in the spring sun.  Mild, brilliant, blue spring days are perfect for collecting sap. With a cold ground and warm sun the moist maples run beautifully. We gather our deciduous delicacy in buckets and bottles left suspended beneath tiny spouts and tubes; they slowly fill with the sweet nectar of our Canadian maples. A welcome sight and smell overtakes the crisp spring air when the boiling begins. Wispy puffs of steamy smoke fill the evening sky and a scent, reminiscent of Sunday morning, wafts teasingly on the breeze. Like the maples, we too feel the seasonal flow of change and growth upon us. Fresh, pure air fills the head and cleanses the soul. These are the days of planning, watching and waiting for the Earth to completely thaw. We boil the sap and wait for it to transform into something wonderful with the same enthusiasm we gaze at the unfolding of life in our own backyard. With every cry of the red-winged blackbird, my excitement level intensifies. Spring is finally here, and she is received with tree-hugging arms.

Those among us with thumbs of green may find ourselves itching to have a hoe in our grip; but it is not quite time yet. We must be patient, even the leaves, blown into the far corners of my yard, are still bound by frost to the Earth. We pace our property imagining all the wonderful projects we will accomplish this year. There is talk of new flower beds, chickens for the coop and a fence for the berry patch. The sap boils thicker now, almost coating the sides of the pot. We must wait for the perfect moment to remove the sap and call it syrup, so we watch while planning our season ahead. As the steam thickens and the scent of maple fills the sky, we pull the first batch of syrup off the burner. The rich, amber liquid gets strained and bottled while I cook up breakfast foods for a true Canadian supper. The family sits to enjoy our hard-earned and scrumptious treat. Syrup saturated bacon; eggs, waffles and toast are quickly devoured. Maple glazed ice cream finishes off our meal.

These old trees give us the gift of rediscovering old recipes, as it happened this year. I remember my father throwing thick strands of syrup over patches of spring snow. We would wait just a moment or two, then snap it up, pop it over our lips, allowing the hardened toffee to soften with the warmth of our mouths. We would take turns tossing the candy down and gobbling it up. Dad always said, “It has to be just the right consistency to be proper toffee,” and he’d test and toil until the toffee was perfect. I always wondered how dad knew just when the syrup would turn to candy; I asked my husband what he thought. He guessed that my dad learned to make maple candy like he’d learned a lot of things, “by trial and error.” I imagine he’s right.

I am so pleased we made syrup this year; the past few seasons did not have such agreeable conditions so the treat is more than welcome this year. As I boil the third batch of coveted sap I leave my post to do a variety of glamorous chores: laundry, making beds, until I check the freezer… the gooey mess is solid, cracking maple toffee! I break a piece off for everyone and remind them to let their mouths warm it. Everyone agrees it was a good mistake. “Trial and error,” I say to my husband as we laugh and nibble our rediscovered family recipe. When life burns your syrup, make toffee!