Welcome to January!
It’s time to prepare the sugarbush!
It seems like yesterday, and yet also a long time ago, that the nation went into lockdown. Last March we were isolated on our hill in Huntington, Vermont, with only one task: boil the thousands of gallons of maple sap into maple syrup, one stick of firewood at a time. I have never been able to participate in the daily flow of sugaring so when school closed, I had a unique opportunity to help out. Luckily, Vermont schools have been open since August, so I am happily back at work, and observing the sugaring operation on nights and weekends.
Every day, Matt is in the sugarbush working on line repair and installing new drop lines. I try to get home in the light so our sugar dog Archie and I can walk into the sugarbush and look for Matt as he finishes up the day’s work. The John Deere Gator is a new farm machine that is proving indispensable for getting around the property, and it also makes nice tracks for walking!
While the tasks of preparing a sugarbush and selling the product can feel never ending, we continue to reflect on our good fortune to live and work in this beautiful place. The woods are such a place a of calm and peace in the midst of the current madness in our world. We continue to encourage friends of Couching Lion Maple Sugar Farm to visit and enjoy a few hours away from the news. The kiosk parking area is plowed and we will leave a trail map for you. Read on to find new recipes, excessive Archie pictures and general happenings around the farm.
Making drop lines! Much of a Sugarmaker’s life is spent in the woods or the sugarhouse. However, making drop lines is an activity that can be done inside, preferably while watching a fun show! Drop lines are the piece of tubing that comes off the lateral line and connects to the tap on the tree. They must be made one at a time and can be time consuming. Tubing is threaded into the tubing tool and then a “T” fitting is connected. The T will connect to the lateral line and the other end of the drop line will connect to a tap in the tree. Replacing drop lines every 3 years or less increases sap yield, so it’s a really important part of sugarbush upkeep. All tubing is made from BPA free plastic and completely recyclable.
Every year we upgrade a little bit. For several years, Matt has hiked into the woods with a chainsaw, tubing, tools and all the other things that go with the planned job. In the beginning it all seems completely reasonable until you are able to upgrade to something more efficient. While I truly do have fond memories of the years we used buckets or hauled tubing on the red sled, it’s definitely a good thing to have a small vehicle to drive to the farthest reaches of the sugarbush! Our Gator is a wonderful machine that saves us so much time and energy. The tracks also make it possible for our tiny dog to run to the farthest reaches of the sugarbush!
Look at this beautiful habitat tree! As a member of Audubon of Vermont’s Bird Friendly Maple Project, we are committed to maintaining bird habitat within the sugarbush. Clearing this tree might provide more space and light for the sugar maples, but it would compromise habitat and a food source for birds. We’re excited to see the evolution of the Audubon of Vermont Bird Friendly Maple Project as the guidelines become more consistent across states. Our little state is leading the way in protecting bird habitat while continuing to encourage the sugaring industry which preserves forestland.
This November, we were thrilled to collaborate with Birds and Beans Coffee. They included our card in all boxes, which resulted in lots of new maple customers in December. We are so grateful to our new customers who placed orders for themselves or as gifts! Now it’s our turn to include the Birds and Beans information in our January boxes. We’ve found the Birds and Beans Coffee to be fantastic. Their added environmental mission compounds the importance of choosing this coffee over all the others. Check them out at Birds and Beans Coffee.
Often January is a month of cleansing, dieting and generally resetting. What if we toss the kale salads and celery juice and the reset included napping, walking and baking brownies that actually sat atop a shortbread? This is our current strategy and it has brought a lot of happiness! I made these Maple Sugar Shortbread Brownies last week. I wrapped each one individually and they were distributed safely throughout the school by a very capable colleague.
The sharing of food was once so simple and inconsequential. Once upon a time we could have left a pan of brownies in the staff room to be devoured in bits. Now there is no staff room (we eat lunch in our cars or carved out corners in hallways) and no right thinking person would share a knife or eat from anything unsecured. It’s a new world but we can navigate it. The small lift of a shared baked item was palpable and wow, do teachers need a small lift right now! The recipe is below. Maybe you’ll feel called to bake it, slice it into squares, wrap them individually and distribute to anyone who could use a little lift.
FOR THE SHORTBREAD:
- 1 ½ cups cold unsalted butter (3 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup granulated maple sugar
- 1 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
FOR THE BROWNIE:
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 1/4 sticks)
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 2 1/4 cups granulated maple sugar
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¾ cup slivered almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
- Flaky sea salt
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, and line with parchment paper so that there is a 2-inch overhang on the two long sides.
- Prepare the shortbread: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or beaters, mix together flour, maple sugar and salt. Beat in butter on low speed until dough just comes together but is still a little crumbly. (Or pulse together ingredients in a food processor.)
- Press dough into prepared pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven. Raise oven temperature to 375 degrees.
- As shortbread bakes, prepare the brownie: Place butter and chocolate in a large bowl. Melt in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst, until smooth. (Alternatively, place bowl over a pot of simmering water, and heat chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth and melted.) Whisk in maple sugar and cocoa powder until smooth, then whisk in eggs and vanilla.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and sea salt. Whisk into chocolate mixture until no streaks of flour remain. Fold in nuts, if using. Spread mixture onto the warm shortbread base. Sprinkle lightly but evenly with flaky sea salt.
- Bake until the top is set, the center is soft, and the edges start pulling away from the pan, 23 to 28 minutes. (A toothpick inserted into the center will come out gooey.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into bars before serving.
Favorite Morning Oats
Maple syrup pairs especially well with oatmeal. This version is dressed up to include gifts from my family in Hawaii.
For one serving:
Boil 1 cup water and add half a sliced mango. Add 1/2 cup quick cooking oats. Cook for 2 minutes. Put into your favorite bowl and top with 3 tablespoons roughly chopped macadamia nuts. Drizzle with maple syrup.
This basic recipe is versatile with any fruit and nuts. We also like apples, cinnamon and walnuts. Another favorite is frozen blueberries, strawberries or cherries with a sprinkling of walnuts.
Date and Cinnamon Sticky Buns With Salted Maple Sugar Caramel Make these sticky buns on a snowy Saturday in January. They will ease the anxiety of: the pandemic, the inauguration and everything else.
FOR THE DOUGH:
- 5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
- 1 ¼ cups warm water
- ⅓ cup granulated maple sugar
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons half-and-half
- ½ cup/115 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into small pieces, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
- 1 teaspoon salt
FOR THE DATE PASTE:
- 8 ounces Medjool dates, pitted (about 1 cup chopped)
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange zest
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
For The Caramel:
You’ll need one small jar of Couching Lion Maple Sugar Farm’s Salted Maple Sugar Caramel.
- Prepare the dough: Combine 1 cup flour with the water, maple sugar, eggs, yeast and half-and-half in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Stir on low speed until combined. Let stand, undisturbed, 2 minutes, then gradually stir in 2 cups flour on low speed.
- Switch to the dough hook attachment, set the machine to medium speed, and add as much of the remaining flour as necessary (an additional 2 to 3 cups) to make a dough that just cleans the side of the work bowl. Gradually add the butter and salt, then continue beating on medium speed until the butter is no longer visible, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the dough hook as necessary. Cover the finished dough with a clean towel, transfer it to a warm location and let it rest, allowing the dough to double in size, 1 to 2 hours. (You can also cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Let the dough come to room temperature for 30 minutes before continuing.)
- While the dough rises, make the date paste: Add the dates, lemon juice and 1 cup water to a small saucepan. Cook over medium-low, stirring occasionally, until the dates are completely softened and the texture of applesauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the orange zest, cinnamon and cardamom. Transfer to a shallow bowl to cool.
- After dough has risen, remove the dish towel, punch the dough down and turn it out onto a floured work surface. Butter 2 9-inch cake pans. Using floured hands or a floured rolling pin, press or roll the dough flat and into a rectangular 15-by-10-inch shape. Use a spoon to spread the date mixture evenly over the dough, then roll the dough crosswise into a tight, 15-inch-long cylinder. Cut into 14 rolls (each a little wider than 1 inch) and transfer the rolls to the prepared cake pans, arranging 7 rolls in each pan so spirals are visible. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough rise a second time, 20 to 30 minutes.
- While the rolls are rising, heat oven to 350 degrees. Once the rolls have risen, bake until deeply golden-brown, 30 to 35 minutes.
- When the buns are done, drizzle the caramel sauce on top, saving a little sauce to brush on any remaining dry spots. Serve the buns warm. Enjoy!
We’re wishing you peace, health and happiness in the new year. Here are some pictures from our neck of the woods.
This weekend brought the first real snowfall of 2021. To learn more about how wild animals survive in winter, we love the Field Guide To January from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.
On New Year’s Day we always hike to the top of the sugarbush to a special rock outcrop with an amazing view. On January 1, our Couching Lion was enshrouded in clouds but the view was lovely nonetheless. Usually this hike includes a passel of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. We’re dreaming of a future where this is possible again!
Happy times for Archie! One bright spot in the pandemic is this little dog. Archie was a stray in Texas for the first 2-3 years of his life. A wonderful Vermont rescue organization took a chance on him and brought him North. He joined our home in April and we fell instantly in love. As a former stray it took Archie awhile to acclimate to soft pillows, lots of toys, enough food and constant adoration. Once he learned to manage this new world, it began to snow and cause new headaches for a tiny dog! This little guy persevered and with a cozy jacket, good walking path and Vermont cheddar in the pockets of humans, it turns out even a Texas dog can love winter.
This month can feel so frozen and dark…and then the sun sets like this.
As always, thank you for your support, encouragement, humor and interest in the maple sugar world. We are infinitely grateful to all of you who show up in our lives in different ways. Happy January and Happy New Year!
XO Chaska, Matt and Archie