Years ago, when I lived in a little cabin in the woods, this part of the year, and the end of winter, was an especially longed-for time. Not just because I worried that I might run out of firewood before the cold nights were over, and not because trout season was still a month away.
The combination of freezing nights and warm days made the sap rise from the roots of Acer saccharum. March was maple-sugaring season.
Tom and I tapped all the maples within range of his house, bungee-corded a clean 30-gallon trash can to the back of his tractor, then bounced off through the woods, collecting bucket after bucket of sap. We’d jerry-rigged an outdoor woodstove out of an old fuel-oil tank, with a shallow metal sink—about four feet, by six feet, by six inches deep—affixed to the top. The contraption was ugly, but it generated enough heat, and had enough surface area, to effectively evaporate 40 gallons of sap down to a gallon of syrup in a couple of hours. We even attached a faucet on one end, so we could drain off the finished syrup.
All we had to do was keep the stove stoked, and make sure the level of boiling sap never got low enough to burn. We did this for several days—until warming nights put an end to the sugaring season.
The first run syrup was always the best. It was rich and buttery-tasting, better than anything ever sold in a store. If only I could get my hands on some of that first-run syrup now…
The following article originally appeared in Roll Magazine.
Necessity has often been cited as the maternal parent of invention, and like all clichés, there is enough truth there to give the saying real staying power. Another truth, which has never achieved cliché status—but should—is, “all cooking is chemistry.” Admittedly, it lacks the inspired tone of a first-rate cliché, and it doesn’t address the notion that some cooking is High Art (a belief that most chefs, and many gourmets, hold dear), but without the various scientific processes that occur in the kitchen—intentional or otherwise—no cooking would actually take place. For the most part, we don’t even bother thinking about them.
However, circumstances occasionally force us to consciously address the processes that underlie what we do in the kitchen.
There are certain recipes that I use often, but have never memorized. They tend to be recipes for baked goods, because—unlike cooking—one can’t simply adjust a baking recipe while it cooks. Everything has to be in the batter or dough before the baking begins (that’s why professional bakers don’t refer to their instructions as “recipes;” they call them “formulas”). Pancakes are not baked in an oven, but the principle remains the same: all the ingredients must be in the batter before the cooking begins.
What happens when one of the ingredients is missing? There had better be a good substitute if you expect the pancake batter to behave as expected.
One Sunday morning, long ago, I wanted to make pancakes and the best recipe I’d found for them is in Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. You’re no doubt shocked to learn that a professional food writer should depend on something so déclassé—but Betty’s “Favorite Pancakes” are all they’re cracked up to be.
Her recipe never fails.
Unless, of course, the hapless cook does not have the specified cup of buttermilk on hand. That’s just the situation in which I found myself that Sunday morning. Clearly a substitution was required, but what should be used?
Think about the ingredient—what does buttermilk contribute to the recipe’s success? Put another way, why does the recipe ask for buttermilk instead of ordinary sweet milk? Buttermilk has certain distinct properties: it’s thicker than milk, and it’s a little sour. The viscosity probably has little effect on the recipe’s outcome, so it must have something to do with buttermilk’s sourness.
That sourness is provided by lactic acid, which develops during the culturing of the buttermilk by various strains of lactobacillus. If there had been any yogurt in the house, a reasonable substitute could have been made (but, of course, there was no yogurt in the ‘fridge).
The flavor of the finished pancakes never really struck me as being particularly tart, so I doubted that flavor was the reason that buttermilk was specified. Why else would Betty want to use buttermilk? I figured that it had to be something about the lactic acid—and then I realized that the answer was apparent: the acid was meant to react with a base (in this case, baking soda) to produce the carbon dioxide that makes the pancakes rise. So, what mild acids did I have on hand that would serve the same function?
I substituted a 50–50 mixture of orange juice and milk for the buttermilk. The result? The adapted recipe produced fantastically light pancakes with only the slightest hint of orange flavor—just enough to lend an intriguing nuance that leaves breakfasters a little curious but very happy.
I have never used any other pancake recipe since that time (other than adding different garnishes, such as berries or nuts), and if people want to believe that some mysterious art was involved in their production, so be it.
Here is Betty’s modified recipe
Really Favorite Pancakes
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup fresh orange juice (plus a little to adjust the batter’s thickness)
2 Tablespoons oil (I use peanut or other nut oils)
1 cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine first four (liquid) ingredients, whisk until blended.
Sift together the remaining five (dry) ingredients.
Stir liquid ingredients into dry ingredients. Do not over-mix (as that develops the flour’s glutens, making for tough chewy pancakes); there should still be a few tiny lumps. If batter seems too thick, add a little more orange juice.
Pour 1/4 cup of batter for each pancake onto prepared griddle (I use a non-stick one, so no additional fat is required). The griddle should be just hot enough for a drop of water to “dance” around a bit before evaporating.
Turn pancakes when small holes form in the middle, and just barely close. If first pancakes are too dark when flipped, lower heat; if too light, raise heat.
Makes about 9 five-inch pancakes.
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His contraption is virtually identical!
Sheer brilliance! I'm going to send you by email a photo of a similar sugaring off contraption that a friend ran in the woods of Maine until he got too old. But it sounds a lot like yours. I wish I could attach it here but it doesn't seem to want to accept it.