Blog Maple Walnut Cake
Because maple trees bear such gorgeous colors come October, many people associate autumn with all things maple, including the making of syrup. But it's right now, in the transition between winter and spring, that the maple sap starts flowing, and when temperatures reach the mid-30s during the day and dip back into the 20s overnight, it's time to start sugaring. Big operations use miles and miles of plastic hose and vacuum pumps to draw the sap from the maple trees, but some of my neighbors still do it the old-fashioned way: drilling holes into a maple tree (albeit with a power drill these days, rather than a hand tool), placing metal spouts in the holes and hanging covered buckets to collect the sap. If you have enough people to help, it just takes a few hours to set 300 or so buckets, depending on how deep the snow is and how steep the hills are. The driller takes the lead, putting one hole in the smaller, 40-year-old trees or up to four in some of the more ancient specimens, then a helper hammers in the metal spouts.
The rest of the crew follow with the buckets and lids, banging apart the buckets that have gotten stuck together in storage since last spring, and hooking each one onto a spout. The least popular job is fitting the lids on the buckets—trying to slide a crudely bent square of metal onto a round bucket rim is fiddly at best. Setting all the taps can feel like a big accomplishment but of course it's only the beginning. If the temperatures fluctuate just right, each sap bucket will need to be emptied every 24 hours. In a good year, sugaring season lasts for at least a month. The sap is poured into 5-gallon buckets and then into a tank pulled by a tractor or a team of draft horses. From there it goes to the sugarhouse, where the magic begins. Hours of boiling and evaporation turn 40 gallons of watery sap into 1 gallon of sweet syrup, and the steam that rises from the vented roof is pure ambrosia. Sugaring is a round-the-clock endeavor, as the sap can't be stored long before boiling, the evaporator can't be left untended (especially if it's wood-fired), and the syrup needs to be drawn off at just the right density. Meals are taken in the sugarhouse, but if the night isn't too cold, it can be a wonderful place to pass the time. Each spring, Vermont sugarmakers open their sugarhouses to the public for a weekend so visitors can see the process up close and taste a sample of syrup; this year's open house is March 26 through 28. Of course, if you know someone who sugars, offer to bring dinner and you're sure to be welcome just about anytime.
And if you aren't within driving distance of a sugar house, you can comfort yourself with this week's recipe—the smell of this maple walnut cake as it bakes and cools is just as heavenly as the steam rising from bubbling sap. You can simply dust the cake with confectioners' sugar but, for company or for a potluck supper, why not go all out and frost the cake with maple buttercream, then decorate it with a simple and eye-catching maple leaf shape. It's easy to do: Frost the cake but don't pipe around the edges. Place the maple leaf cookie cutter on the frosting, pressing it very lightly into the surface. Carefully spoon sparkling sugar inside the cutter and use a small clean paintbrush to gently brush the sugar into all the corners to completely fill out the leaf shape. Lift the cookie cutter and repeat in a different area. Tint a small amount of buttercream to match the sugar color and pipe a thin border around the outline of the leaves. Then pipe a buttercream border around the edges of the cake.
Maple Buttercream Frosting
Beat 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) soft unsalted butter and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add 1 pound (4 cups) confectioners' sugar and mix until completely incorporated. With the mixer running on low, slowly add 1/2 cup maple syrup, then increase the speed and continue to beat until the frosting is smooth.