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Maple syrup: It's not just for pancakes
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Maple syrup: It's not just for pancakes

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You may as well admit it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You do it. We all do it.

When you cook with maple syrup, and some of the syrup clings tenaciously to the measuring spoon or cup, you wipe it out with your finger and then lick the syrup off the finger. Don’t you?

Of course you do. That’s the treat for the cook, a little something extra you deserve for doing the work. A present to yourself. And it is a well-known scientific fact that maple syrup licked off a finger has no calories. It is an inexplicable scientific phenomenon that is equally true of syrup licked off of spatulas.

Whenever winter rolls around, I have maple syrup on my mind and on my finger — wait, never mind, it’s not on my finger anymore. Usually beginning in late January, when the nights are cold but the temperature rises above freezing by day, the sap in sugar maple trees starts to flow.

Many people, if not most, do not think to use maple syrup for cooking savory dishes. That’s a shame. The sweet maple flavor adds a boost to any number of foods. It’s a must-have on roasted butternut squash or Brussels sprouts. It’s great as an ingredient in salty spiced nuts. And it is a delight mixed in with pumpkin soup.

I tested the versatility of maple syrup with four dishes. One, admittedly, is a dessert. Actually, two were, but the less said about Baked Maple Egg Custard, the better. Along with the one dessert, I also used nature’s golden nectar in two meat courses and in a salad.

I should point out that I used real maple syrup. I highly recommend it, though it is not cheap. Imitation maple syrup should also work with these recipes, though the results won't be as satisfying.

Both of the meat dishes are roasts, with the maple flavor forming the main basis of the glaze. The dishes are similar in technique — you coat the meat in the glaze most of the way through the cooking process, to avoid burning the sugars in the glaze — but the flavors are quite different.

Specifically, one has bourbon. The other has the life-affirming mixture of cinnamon and cloves. Both derive considerable benefit from a kick of heat, which amplifies the effect of the maple, but you could leave out the spice if you do not like it.

Maple-Bourbon Glazed Chicken, it should not be a surprise to learn, is the one that had bourbon. Bourbon and chicken is a classic combination; and maple is one of the primary tasting notes of many kinds of good bourbon. Put it all together, and you should have a fine meal.

Which I did. The syrup adds a luscious sweetness to the skin, which brings out the natural gentle taste of the chicken, while the bourbon kicks in an earthy counterpoint that lingers pleasantly on the palate.

It is a great way to take an ordinary roast chicken and turn it into something fine.

Roast Pork Loin with Maple Glaze is even easier to make, but it is absolutely just as satisfying.

The natural sweetness of the pork is intensified by the maple glaze, of course, but not to the point where it becomes cloying. Perhaps it is tempered by the cinnamon and cloves, a combination that to my mind makes nearly everything taste better.

Nearly everything, but especially, as it turns out, pork and maple syrup. Come to think of it, the same glaze would be equally rewarding on chicken, but I wouldn’t bother putting the bourbon glaze on the pork. Why would you want to, when you can just whip one up with maple syrup, cinnamon and cloves?

My salad dressing, Maple-Sherry Vinaigrette, is appealingly nonassertive. I don’t like a dressing with too much of a bite, and it turns out that one way to calm down an aggressive vinegar is to add a little maple syrup.

That’s important, because sherry vinegar, by definition, must have at least 7% acidity. That’s higher than most other vinegars, so it needs a shot of maple syrup to make it more palatable on salads.

On the other hand, sherry vinegar also has perhaps the best flavor: rounded yet dry, often with a hint of nuttiness and a taste of fruit. The restaurant from which I snagged the recipe uses the dressing on a salad with peppery arugula, sharp and creamy blue cheese and toasted walnuts. The dressing makes the perfect accompaniment.

The dessert I made is a staple, Maple-Walnut Pie. It is reminiscent of pecan pie, without the shock of sugar that sends A1C numbers into the stratosphere.

Walnuts and maple syrup — a pairing that should always be encouraged, including on top of waffles or pancakes — are baked together in a pie with more eggs than you might guess (four) and hints and dashes of other goodies such as vanilla, butter, cinnamon and even a squirt of lemon juice.

Of all the dishes I made, the pie features the flavor of maple most of all. With a dessert, that is to be desired. In combination, the tastes of maple syrup and walnuts is simply wonderful.

And the Baked Maple Egg Custard? I thought we agreed not to talk about that.

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