Despite the snowy springtime in New England right now, it’s time to tap into a tradition that goes back to Native American history. In the 17th century, English settlers learned from the native people how to slash maple trees, collect the sap, and boil it down to its essential sweetness. Maple syrup and maple sugar have now make their way around the world but still have special appeal in New England, where freezing nights and warm days get the sap flowing and the sugaring season started.
It’s hard to improve on the simplicity of syrup on pancakes or waffles, but I did find more elaborate ideas in Ken Haedrich’s Maple Syrup Cookbook (1989, updated by Storey Books in 2001). Maple bread pudding intrigued me because it steams in a double boiler on a stovetop. It turned out soft and fluffy, without the crust that often forms on the top of oven-baked bread puddings. I was too impatient to make it for breakfast (it takes at least an hour to cook) but it made a hearty afternoon snack after a walk past the sap buckets in the woods.
Maple Bread Pudding (1989)
3/4 cup maple syrup [make sure it’s pure – don’t use imitations]
1 tablespoon butter, softened
4 thick slices of bread, without crusts [I used challah]
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, pecans, or raisins
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Pour the maple syrup in the top of a double boiler. Butter each slice of bread, then cut into cubes. Add the bread to the syrup, along with the nuts and lemon juice.
2. In a medium-sized bowl, beat the milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla and pour over the bread mixture. Do not stir, but press the bread down with a fork so that it is thoroughly moistened.
3. Set over gently boiling water and cook, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until a knife inserted into the top of the pudding comes out clean. Add more boiling water to the bottom of the pan as needed. [At the end, I decided to put a lid on top of the pan for about 5 minutes to solidfy the top].
4. The pudding makes its own sauce; spoon it over each serving.