Fresh maple syrup adds distinct note to custard

Four years before Thoreau published “Walden,” Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894) published her journal of observations and musings on the natural world around Cooperstown, N.Y.

The daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, she was an acute observer, noting, for example, which flowers ruby-throated hummingbirds preferred and considering whether flower structure or fragrance were more important in attracting them.

Susan carefully recorded the date that each tree species flowered and when their leaves emerged. From her journal we learn that American chestnut trees were still common in Cooperstown, but enormous white pines that were over 300 years old were being carelessly felled. She witnessed two instances of flocks of passenger pigeons flying overhead and noted that their populations were greatly diminished.

Living in her parents’ mansion on the shore of Otsego Lake, Susan found the daily life of rural people around Cooperstown almost as exotic as the natural history of hummingbirds. On April 1, 1848, she noted, “Fresh maple sugar offered for sale to-day; it is seldom brought to market as early as this. A large amount of this sugar is still made in our neighborhood, chiefly for home consumption on the farms.

“In the villages, where foreign groceries are easily procured, it is eaten more as a dainty than in any other way … With our farmers, however, it is a matter of regular household consumption … and it is said that children have often grown up in this county without tasting any but maple sugar. Maple molasses [syrup] is also much used, some persons preferring it to that of the cane, as it has a peculiar flavor that is liked with puddings or buckwheat cakes.”

At the beginning of the 19th century, Americans of moderate means used molasses, maple sugar or boiled cider instead of the more expensive white cane sugar. The price of refined cane sugar kept dropping, though, as production methods became more efficient.

Susan remarked that, at least in upstate New York, white cane sugar was now cheaper than maple sugar. “The farmers, however, are willing to turn their trees to account for their own use, as it saves them some cash, and requires but little outlay of labor.”

Maple sugar was easier to store than maple syrup and could substitute in recipes in equal measure for granulated cane sugar. I have found maple sugar listed as an ingredient in late 19th-century community cookbooks, especially those published in Vermont, but I have not seen maple syrup mentioned except as a condiment.

Because today the syrup is more available in markets and less expensive than maple sugar, I often substitute maple syrup for maple sugar in recipes by reducing the total amount of liquid.

My recipe for maple custard came from a pamphlet, “The Household Receipt Book for 1874,” which was published annually in Burlington, Vt., by Henry, Johnson & Lord. This publication marks the proliferation of different types of print media offering advertising space and the beginnings of advertising as a profession. The pamphlet could be stamped with the name and address of a retail pharmacy and distributed free to customers. It included a selection of recipes and carried advertisements for druggists and medical products.

The pages included ads for a Shaker preparation of valerian and one for Professor Mott’s Magic Hair Invigorator. It’s good to know that if your hair lacked energy there was a product to revive it.

The recipe writer assumed that the custard would be put in a pie shell, but it works well baked in individual ramekins. Apparently, no one proofread the printed recipe, because eggs, which are essential to custard, were omitted. The original was very sweet, calling for two cups of maple sugar. One cup of maple syrup is plenty and does not add too much liquid for the quantity of eggs. The maple flavor gives a subtle distinction to this baked custard.

Maple Custard
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Maple Custard
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  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 qt. whole milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the eggs in a large bowl then mix in the maple syrup, vanilla, salt, nutmeg and milk.
  2. Butter 12 custard cups and place them in a roasting pan. Pour the custard into the custard cups. Add some hot water to the pan so that the water comes almost halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 50 minutes.
  3. When the custards are done, a knife inserted halfway to the center will come out almost clean. The centers will still be wobbly, but if you tilt one of the custard cups 45 degrees, the custard will not pour. Let the custards cool on a rack before refrigerating them.
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