A maple in April is a force to be reckoned with. The sap is flowing with a vengeance, squeezed by specialized cells that expand during the heat of day to create more pressure in a maple tree than in the inside of a car tire.
The people who make maple syrup, a hearty tribe called sugarmakers, capitalize on this pressure by drilling holes in the tree, a process known as tapping. Taps allow the tree’s pressure to push the sap, which the sugarmakers refer to as “water,” out of the tree and directly into a collection system.
Unlike most sugarmakers, David Knudson’s business, Montana Mapleworks, doesn’t have a sugarbush — that is, a stand of sugar maple trees — to call his own. Instead, he leads an itinerant sugarmaking life, scouting for maple trees and striking deals with the landowners to let him tap their trees. These benefactors include his urban neighbors; several Norway maples in the alley behind his house are, as we speak, quietly draining their sap into bags that Knudson will drain into an evaporator in the sugar shack he built in a converted garage.
Around here, Norway maples are considered invasive species. I wanted to cut one down in our backyard. But the neighbors protested, saying they would miss its shade in summer. Now, thanks to Norway Maple Syrup, I have another reason to appreciate this interloper.
“I think it’s far superior in terms of caramel and depth,” Knudson told me. And each batch is different. Some are darker with more molasses flavor while other batches are lighter with more butter caramel, depending on the exact time of year the sap starts flowing, how much the tree makes and temperature fluctuations during the cooking process.
The sugar maple syrup tasted sweet and familiar, and was less interesting than the Norway or the silver, a native maple species. Knudson also has black walnut and sycamore syrups under development, both of those trees also being sap pushers.
In order to properly enjoy my new syrup, I was able to acquire a maple pecan pie recipe from my friend Sue Kost, who sells them alongside many other fine cookies and pastries at the farmers market. The substitution of maple syrup for corn syrup was a definite improvement over the usual pecan pie. With maple these little pies are buttery, nutty and drop-dead decadent.
Mini Maple Bourbon Pecan Pies
Sue uses the Pampered Chef Mini (4-inch) Pie Pans and gets six pies. Since those pans can be hard to find, I’ve adapted her recipe to standard-issue muffin tins, in which I get about 10 cupcake-sized pies.
For the crust
‒ 1 stick (1/2 cup) frozen butter
‒ 1 ¼ cups flour
‒ 1 Tablespoon sugar
‒ ½ teaspoon salt
‒ 5 Tablespoons ice water
Cut the butter into small cubes, about a half-inch on a side.
Add the flour, sugar and salt to a mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Add the cubed butter to the flour mixture and toss to coat. Cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter until the flour has turned a pale yellow and resembles a coarse crumble.
Add the water and mix until combined. Don’t overwork it. The mixture should be just moist enough that it holds its shape when you squeeze it in your hand. Add more water if needed. Form the dough into a mound and wrap in plastic, chilling for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
When ready to use, let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to soften slightly. Pat the dough into a puck-like shape and roll between two sheets of parchment paper to about 1/8-inch thickness. Find a bowl or cup about an inch in diameter more than your muffin tin. Press it down like a cookie cutter onto the rolled dough, packing as many of those circles as you can into the rolled sheet. Gather and ball up and re-roll the remaining dough to get a few more disks. If the circles start to fall apart when you lift them, place the sheet in the freezer for 10 minutes to stiffen up.
Place each disc in a well-buttered cupcake tin, gently pressing down first all around the bottom, pushing out any air bubbles. The sides will crease. Smooth them to fit with your fingers and shape into mini pie crusts.
For the filling
‒ 1 stick unsalted butter
‒ ½ cup packed brown sugar
‒ ½ cup maple syrup
‒ 2 tablespoons bourbon
‒ 2 large eggs
‒ 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
‒ ½ teaspoon salt
‒ 1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a saucepan or microwave, heat the butter, syrup, brown sugar and bourbon on high for 2-3 minutes, or until the butter is melted; whisk to combine. Let the mixture cool for 3-4 minutes.
Add eggs slowly, whisking constantly, followed by the vanilla and salt.
Toast the pecans on a dry pan on medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Divide the pecans among all of the crusts. Cover them with the molten filling, up to crust level.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the crusts are golden brown and the filling has set. Let cool for 5 minutes. Go around each pie with a thin knife to free the edges. When cool enough to handle, pry them out with the knife.
Recipe courtesy Sue Kost