Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sugar Pie, and Tapping Maples in Edmonton(?)

The final course of the Button Soup Pork Dinner was sugar pie. If you are unfamiliar with this dish, let me introduce you by way of an aimless personal anecdote. If you are familiar with the dish, you can skip the next paragraph.

My father's family lives near Ottawa, my mother's near Sudbury. When I was little my family would sometimes drive between these two sets of relatives, following the Ottawa River valley, where there are lots of French communities, even on the Ontarian side of the border. Along the way we would always stop at a diner called Valois in the French town of Mattawa. For dessert they offered "sugar pie," a tidy translation of tarte au sucre. While some versions of sugar pie are made with corn syrup or molasses (
imagine a pecan pie without the pecans), I think the word "sugar" actually implies maple syrup, just as easterners might call a grove of maple trees a sugar bush, and the building where syrup is made a cabane à sucre, or sugar shack. Basically the dish is maple syrup thickened with flour and eggs, set in a pie shell.

This particular incarnation was a light, slightly sticky maple pudding in a short crust. In fact, the custard was so loose that if a slice was left to stand, the filling slowly ran onto the plate.

Sugar Pie

For the shell, bake off your favourite rich, short dough in a 10" French tart pan. I use the recipe from the CIA's Baking and Pastry text.
Be sure to dock and weight the dough while baking. Cool the shell thoroughly.

From The Canadian Living Cookbook

  • 500 mL maple syrup
  • 100 mL all-purpose flour
  • 250 mL cold water
  • 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 50 mL butter
Whisk the flour into the water, then stir this mixture into the maple syrup. Whisk in the egg yolks. Cook over low heat until thick. Stir in the butter. Pour into expectant pie shell. Chill thoroughly. Eat with whipped cream.

Tapping Maples in Edmonton: A Fool's Errand?

Even though maple syrup is popularly described as a "Canadian" ingredient, I consider it a highly regional specialty within Canada, as it's only made on a large scale in Eastern Ontario and Quebec. In contrast to the sugar maples that grow down east, the maple trees around Edmonton produce less, and less sweet, sap. Birch and elm can also be tapped for sap, but they have even lower yields.

These facts notwithstanding, I have a perverse obsession with maple syrup (one of my favourite desserts of all time is pouding
chômeur) as well as an abstract, academic nostalgia for the ingredient. Granulated sugar is one of the few highly refined products that I use regularly, and I'm interested in finding ways to replace it with, say, honey and maple syrup. Consider this:

For the colonists, maple sugar was cheaper and more available than the heavily taxed cane sugar from the West Indies. Even after the Revolution, many Americans found a moral reason for preferring maple sugar to cane; cane sugar was produced largely with slave labor. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, cane and beet sugar became so cheap that the demand for maple sugar declined steeply.[1]

Besides all this, making
maple syrup has an extremely low effort-to-benefit ratio: by drilling a hole in a tree and boiling the sap that leaks out, you can enjoy one of the great pleasures of the table.

Lisa and I are in the process of moving to a new house. Right now the backyard of that new house is a bit like a wrapped birthday present. The wrapping is the three feet snow that currently conceal the features of the yard. There are small tears in the wrapping, if you will: the tops of wooden stakes, promising some manner of garden; shrunken, frozen apples on one of the trees; and best of all, clinging to the topmost branches of a tall tree, those winged seed pods that fall to the ground spinning like propellers. Maple keys.

I resolved to tap this maple tree, though it is most likely of the low-sugar variety. I have only the most basic idea of how to do this.

  • Tap the tree when the sap is running. The sap runs during the spring thaw, when the days are warm and nights are cold. I thought that these conditions started last week, as there were two very warm days of rapid thaw. Then it started snowing again...
  • To tap the tree, drill a hole that is slightly smaller than the diameter of your spile (the metal spigot). The hole should go 2-3" into the trunk, at a 10-20 degree incline, anywhere 2-6' from the ground. Apparently south-facing holes have a higher yield in the earlier weeks of the sap run.
  • Lightly tap the spile into the hole and hang a bucket to collect the sap.
If I end up with even an ounce of syrup by the end of this, I'll be sure to buy proper spiles and buckets. In the meantime I'm using some 1/2" copper pipe from the plumbing section of the hardware store, and a plastic bucket supported by a wall hook. I covered the bucket with a plastic bag so that nothing falls into the sap.

Now we wait. Hopefully my premature tapping doesn't affect the process. I need a better almanac.

I'll keep you posted.


1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 668. I love this book.


  1. Yes, you can tap birch in the city, and Western maple too if you can find them. Very cool. Keep us posted. Did you ever buy the birch syrup from Warren Bard at the OSFM? I may still have some but he no longer is in business. His syrups were incredible too. I miss the rosehip syrup too.

  2. Hi Jennifer -

    I didn't hear about Mr. Bard until after he stopped selling, but I later came across a bottle of his birch syrup at NAIT. It was fantastic. Definitely a craft product that Edmonton needs.

  3. I will be excited to hear and taste the results of your tapping. Still have the big birch tree in my back yard. I could tap that if you think you will have time to process the sap.
    One of the books of wine recipes that I bought when I first started making wine has a recipe for wine from birch sap too that might be right up your alley to try.
    I read somewhere that it is not a great idea to process the syrup in the house as it produces high humidity (hence the sugar shacks). I've always theorized that the pots for deep frying turkeys would work really well for this purpose as is deep pot that can be set up outside with propane. I guess it depends on how many taps you installed and how much sap you get whether you need to do this outside.
    Did you decide that the trees along the west side of the garage are maples too? Were you waist deep in snow to get to the trees?

  4. Judy - I'd definitely have time to process any birch sap you could harvest. I think that a "low-boy," that is, a gas burner on a stand that you can run outside, would be perfect for reducing the sap. In the meantime the stove top will have to suffice.

    I haven't had a good look at those other trees, yet.

    Maybe knee deep...

  5. I am sure Warren Bard woudl be happy to help you with what to do, Allan. I have his number - recall. YOu found it for me. This would be really wonderful. The time is definitely now. It would be great to reignite this interest and expertise in him.

  6. Interesting. We planted a maple tree in our front yard in hopes to tap it some day but I have no idea how old the tree should be before attempting this.

  7. Hi Bernadette. My sources tell me that the tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter. Mind you, I have no idea how long it takes a tree to get that big.

    We should start an Edmonton maple syrup collective.

  8. Now that you've had such success- will you buy a proper spile and bucket? I've tried half-heartedly the last few years to source this in Edmonton with no luck. I'd love to hear where you buy them if and when you do!

  9. Hi Homesteader. For my two backyard trees, I'll most likely continue using the copper piping. If I ever get to tap a whole stand of trees, I'll track down some spiles.

    I doubt there are spiles on any shelves in Edmonton stores. I would most likely order them from this shop in Ontario: