A Vermont getaway puts maple syrup to the test

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2009

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Four friends and I cook dinner together every other month, alternating homes. We share recipes and tales from our lives. No spouses or significant others allowed.

Then Elizabeth got a crazy idea. For our fall soiree, she proposed stealing away to the wilds of Vermont, where her friend has a cabin. Our weekend creations would all include one key ingredient: Vermont maple syrup.

Our pre-trip, menu-planning e-mails dripped with hyperglycemic-inducing temptations: pumpkin pie with maple syrup, maple chili-glazed pork roast, butternut squash and syrup risotto, maple martinis, maple goat cheese ball, maple cornbread, waffles with . . . well, you get the picture. Thus the “maplethon’’ weekend was born.

But how much sugary goodness is too much? When does syrupy tip into cloying? Driving though the hills, over slick, leaf-covered roads for four hours, I have plenty of time to ponder that. Tucked among my bags of groceries, espresso pot, coffee, polyethylene cutting board, and chef’s knife, are some antacid tablets.

Elizabeth’s contribution is her corn bread creation, a batter in which feta cheese is laced with syrup, poured into a baking dish lined with prosciutto, and drizzled with more syrup. As it bakes, we watch through the oven door and see that the meat is shrinking and the syrup begins to caramelize. “You need to use American feta with this recipe, because it’s saltier than imported,’’ announces Elizabeth, “and you want some of the salt with the sweet.’’

In the meantime, Meg tosses a spicy rub on pork tenderloin while preparing a maple cider glaze, and I chop butternut squash for risotto while managing the iTunes selection. We are three this weekend instead of our usual five.

“It’s an interesting challenge,’’ says Meg. “I have quantities of maple syrup in my cupboard. But how to incorporate it into dishes other than just Sunday morning pancakes is interesting to think about.’’

We cook as Ella croons, “Come rain or come shine.’’ The tune is appropriate. We’ve just returned from an hourlong, drizzly walk on the unpaved mountain road, and we’re soggy. And hot. Though stormy, the weather is unexpectedly warm. With the oven blasting and sauces simmering, we open windows, pull off sweaters and socks, and work barefoot. Then we open the wine.

Elizabeth is making the appetizer: Vermont goat cheese with maple syrup, crystallized ginger, and cayenne topped with a thick slather of Seville orange marmalade. The log is surrounded by five kinds of crackers. We sample each, and determine that the more peppery, crispy crackers work best. “Sweet, salt, hot - all the taste buds should be engaged at the same time,’’ says Elizabeth.

“Dance to the music,’’ Sly Stone is singing.

All in all, the meal is balanced and not too sweet. The spicy rub on the pork works with the light maple-cider glaze. Risotto, creamy with Parmesan and pungent with fresh rosemary, benefits from a hearty dollop of syrup. A green salad with a trace of syrup in the vinaigrette, is refreshing. Alas, we wimp out on sampling the dense maple carrot cake for dessert, even though vanilla ice cream is waiting in the freezer.

You might think we’re done with our maple experiment, but in the morning we’re at it again. Belgian waffles are topped with grapes, bananas, and Granny Smiths. Vermont bacon, fried in butter and syrup, is a crispy, caramelized treat. And who knew that maple carrot cake goes well with espresso and hot milk?

It’s time to head home. We pause at our cars, admiring the mountains in the weak midday sun.

Now we really are done with maple syrup. At least for the four-hour drive home.