I grew up in Boston, so I was steeped in Yankee food traditions from an early age. My family picked blueberries in the summer and apples in the fall, regularly cooked from the Boston Globe Cookbook, and ate franks and beans and B&M brown bread for supper almost every Saturday night. Given my New England upbringing, you might expect me to have a militant allegiance to Real Maple Syrup, but the fact is that I’m not a huge fan of the stuff.
Sure, the flavor of bona fide maple syrup is great. But for me, it’s just too runny. It doesn’t sit on top of your waffles like that glistening pool of syrup in the picture on the Aunt Jemima bottle. Instead, it immediately sinks in, transforming your waffles into limp, sodden sponges. Why bother going to the trouble to make your waffles crisp, your pancakes light, if you’re just going to douse them with something that will instantly sog them out? And worse, because of its thin consistency, maple syrup doesn’t linger on the palate, so you have little time to enjoy its wonderful flavor.
Enter maple cream.
I first encountered this lovely product (also known as maple butter) at a Vermont sugarhouse I visited one March. As I passed through the little gift shop, I spied a stack of small jars labeled Maple Cream next to a plastic tray of soda crackers topped with a humble-looking beige paste. It was an uninspiring display, but—because I am constitutionally incapable of resisting a free sample—I paused for a taste. The sweet spread was deliciously silky, almost buttery, and it packed a powerful maple wallop.
Curious about how much butter and cream this luxurious concoction contained, I checked the ingredients listed on the jar: pure maple syrup. Nothing else. I immediately snatched up three jars of maple cream and headed for the checkout. The next few weeks found me spreading it on just about every bread-type item I consumed—and often eating it by the spoonful, straight from the jar.
Maple cream is just maple syrup, cooked to the soft-ball stage, cooled to about 100 degrees, and then beaten with a spoon until very fine crystals form, turning the syrup into a thick, pale, opaque mass. (I like to add a tiny bit of vegetable oil to keep the foam down during boiling, and I add a pinch of salt because I think most things that are very sweet benefit from salt, but those are optional.) Making it is simple, but it would be dishonest to describe it as easy. The challenge lies in the beating of the cooled syrup, which requires strong arms, a sturdy grip, a resolute nature, and—if possible—a similarly equipped assistant to share stirring duties when the going gets tough.
First, set up an ice bath by putting a clean medium saucepan inside a large bowl full of ice. It’s not necessary to add water, since the ice will begin to melt as soon as you pour the hot syrup into the saucepan.
Then pour the syrup into a medium saucepan, and add (if desired) the oil and a pinch of salt.
Heat the syrup over medium heat without stirring or disturbing it in any way. There’s nothing to do except wait at this point, but take my advice: Don’t get over-confident and walk away. If you do, the syrup will take offense at your cocky attitude and it will boil over just to teach you a lesson. I usually lower the heat as the temperature approaches 232 degrees, as it can overheat very quickly, resulting in maple candy rather than a creamy maple spread.
Boil the syrup until the temperature reaches 235 degrees. (I usually continue to heat and monitor the temperature for 60 seconds after the thermometer first hits 235 degrees, just to be sure the entire contents of the pan are precisely at the desired temperature.) Then pour the hot syrup into the saucepan in the ice bath.
Let the syrup cool until it reaches 100 degrees. The exact temperature is not as important this time, so don’t fret too much about it. At this point, remove the saucepan from the ice bath and start stirring with a wooden spoon. I like to think of this as a marathon, not a sprint; speed isn’t as important as maintaining a constant, steady pace. At first it just looks like thick syrup or clear caramel.
Over time (anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes), the syrup starts to lighten in color; this is the crystal structure starting to form. My arm is usually getting a bit tired at this point, but I’m almost there.
When the maple cream starts to lose its shine and takes on the texture of natural peanut butter and the color of tahini, stop stirring.
Work quickly here, because the maple cream remains pourable for only about 30 seconds. Using a rubber spatula, scrape it into a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.