Welcome to All We Can Eat, your respite from government shutdown news. Take a deep breath, settle in and start pondering what you’re going to ask about in today’s Free Range chat.
But first, a word on who else will be there. In addition to the usual endearing crew, you’ll meet Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, who write in today’s Food section about why Americans haven’t taken to goat meat as much of the rest of the world has. Don’t care about goat? You can ask these guys about anything. They’ve written books about grilling, frozen desserts, peanut butter, muffins, ham, potatoes, processed food, cooking for two, and the list goes on and on.
Other hot topics on today’s table: what’s next for pioneering chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s famed Alinea restaurant; and Spro in Baltimore, a little shop of pourers owned by coffee-obsessive Jay Caragay, where five bean suppliers, seven varieties of beans and seven roasting methods come together in geekish harmony to create a cup of coffee just the way you want it.
So we’ll see you there at noon, right? Meanwhile, here’s a quiz question, a leftover from last week’s chat:
I’m flying to visit an American friend abroad who has requested that I bring her some genuine maple syrup, which she misses desperately. However, I was planning to take only a carry-on bag (i.e., no checked luggage), and we all know that three-ounce liquids rule. So, I was wondering: If I were to take maple sugar to her instead, would she only need to add a certain amount of water to reconstitute the maple sugar into syrup? And if so, how much per ounce (or pound) of sugar?
Okay, folks, what do you think the answer is? Yes or no?
If you said yes, you know your maple.
Me, I wasn’t sure. For the definitive answer, I decided to tap an expert. It’s early spring and the sap has been rising, so I was lucky to catch Helen Thomas in between boiling sessions at her farm in western New York. Besides being a maple producer, she’s the executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association.
Helen knows all about American ex-pats who yearn for a taste of the tree. She has in-laws in England, and when she and her husband go to visit, “the rule is, one suitcase has to go over filled with maple syrup and maple products,” she said.
Because you just can’t find the stuff over there. And by over there, I mean just about anyplace other than the United States and Canada. “It’s a unique product to the North American continent,” Helen explained, for a simple reason: Outside North America, “there are no maple trees.” No sugar maple trees, at any rate. Efforts to introduce them in Europe and to start producing syrup there were failures because the climate just wasn’t right. The tree’s range is a pretty narrow one: A sugar maple is happiest in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.
So that explains the syrup requests. Now to explain how maple sugar, which is created by boiling down maple sap, can return to its liquid roots. Helen steered me to a definitive maple Web site maintained by Cornell University, and here’s the drill.
To convert sugar to syrup, you add water and then heat the mixture, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, at which point you can use it as you would any maple syrup. Recommended proportions: 3.7 ounces (7 tablespoons) of water to one packed cup of sugar yields about a cup of syrup; 7 ounces (just under a cup) of water to two packed cups of maple sugar yields about two cups of syrup. You can make a thicker syrup by using less water, but, the Web site warns, it can’t be stored for long because it will begin to revert to sugar crystals.
“Why would you want to make maple syrup from maple sugar?” the site asks, and then answers: “Sugar is easier to store, in glass or plastic. It does not need refrigeration and there is no threat of it molding or spoiling if not used for an extended time. The sugar is easier and cheaper to ship as it is lighter, and leakage is not nearly the threat compared to shipping a liquid.”
So the carry-on luggage approach makes sense. The only downside is that maple sugar costs even more than maple syrup. The most common price I found on the Internet was about $16 a pound, a few dollars more than a pint of syrup. But when you’re performing a mission of mercy for a homesick American, what’s 16 bucks? Go for it. It’s a sweet idea.