Maple Syrup Baked Beans (from My Island Bistro Kitchen)

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Growing up, baked beans was a traditional Saturday night supper in our household.  While I haven’t continued the Saturday night tradition, I do frequently have baked beans on the menu.

Baked beans make a very economical dish and freeze well for reheating later in the microwave.  These are a staple packaged in meal-portion sized dishes in my freezer.  I will make up a large batch and then divide them into serving sized containers that will freeze well.  I serve baked beans with homemade bread and molasses and mustard pickles and sometimes tomato chow.  When prepared ahead, they make a quick and nutritious meal.

We know beans are a good source of fiber and protein so they are good for our diet.  Making your own homemade beans is not difficult although it is a somewhat lengthy process:  The beans have to be soaked in water overnight, pre-cooked for about an hour or so, then baked in the oven for about 3 hours.  The bonus of homemade beans, however, is that they taste so much better than canned beans off the store shelf.

I like to use yellow-eye beans as I find they cook well and are not hard as I find dark beans to be.  My grandmother always grew the dark beans solely for the purpose of drying them and using them to make baked beans.  I always found the beans to be very hard despite that she would have baked them in a bean crock in the wood stove oven for hours and hours.

Soaking the dried beans accomplishes three things:

1) It softens the beans and lessens the cooking and baking times (the beans also expand to double or triple their size in the soaking process);

2) It allows the beans to absorb the liquid (become rehydrated) thus they will cook more evenly and hold their shape when baked (i.e., they won’t split open or become mushy)

3) It removes the indigestible complex sugars, making the beans easier to digest.

The jury is still out on adding a small amount of baking soda to the cooking process of the beans.  Some say doing so will make the beans more tender, particularly if the water is hard.  Others claim the soda may also aid in digesting the beans while others subscribe to the theory that the baking soda does nothing for the beans.  My mother always added the baking soda to the beans and I continue the practice of adding 1/2 tsp of baking soda when cooking beans.  I figure 1/2 tsp will not harm the beans and, if it does do some good, so much the better.

Beans, on their own with no seasonings, can be very bland and tasteless.  I don’t think my grandmother added much to her baked beans other than some molasses, brown sugar, and water.  My mother always added some onion and ground mustard along with molasses, brown sugar, and water but very little else.  I like to gently spice the beans up a bit and, over the years, have perfected a recipe that suits my taste.  When an ingredient calls for a “dash”, I use an actual measuring spoon that has the “dash” as a measurement.  Spices, and the amount added, are very much a personal preference so each cook should adjust them to his or her own tastes.  My recommendation, of course, is to make the recipe the first time using the measurements called for and then decide what needs to be adjusted for the next time.  As well, if there is a particular spice that you absolutely do not like, simply omit it.  The recipe that I have developed does not use large amounts of any one spice.  I did this because I still wanted the original bean taste and didn’t want any particular spice to overpower the natural taste of a traditional baked beans dish.

Some like to add salt pork, regular bacon, or cut-up weiners to the baked beans.  I prefer just the beans but that is a personal preference and meats can certainly be added, if desired.

As those of you who have been following my blog will know, I recently went to Woodville Mills, near Cardigan, PEI, to visit a sugar shack that was in operation producing maple syrup.  Since I like to add some maple syrup to my baked beans, I thought this was a good time to share my recipe with you so, here it is.  Enjoy!

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Ingredients:

 Method:

Place beans in large bowl.  Add enough cold water to completely cover the beans. Cover.   Soak overnight.

Soaking the Dried Beans
Soaking the Dried Beans

Drain soaked beans in colander.  Discard water.  Place beans in large pot and add 4 cups fresh cold water.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and add 1/2 tsp baking soda.  Cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally and fork-testing beans for doneness.  Beans should still be firm but not hard when cooked.  Do not overcook or beans will become mushy and lose their shape.

Drain the beans in large colander, reserving the liquid.  Set liquid aside. Rinse the beans with cold water.  Place beans in 2-quart casserole or small roaster pan.  Add remaining ingredients and 3 cups of the reserved liquid.  Stir gently until well combined.

Ingredients for Maple Syrup Baked Beans
Ingredients for Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Bake, covered, in 300F oven for about 3 hours or until beans are fork-tender.  Check beans 2-3 times during baking and add more liquid if needed.

Baked Beans
Baked Beans

 

Maple Syrup Production – A Rite of Spring on PEI

 

Woodland Maple Syrup, PEI

Growing up in rural PEI, one of my favourite Spring-time memories was the tapping of maple trees, going to collect the sap every evening after supper, and watching the sap being boiled down on the stove for hours to make just a tiny bit of maple syrup.  It was a rite of Spring and heralded the beginning of warmer days after a long, cold Winter!

While not big industry on PEI, there are a few maple syrup producers who tap trees and make and sell maple syrup each Spring.  I recently visited the producers of Woodland Maple Syrup in Woodville Mills about 9 km from Cardigan in the Eastern end of PEI.  There, I met Richard MacPhee and Max Newby who were busy with their maple syrup production.  Having been operating for 15 years, they proved to be good sources of information on maple syrup production.

Woodland Sugar Shack, Woodville Mills, near Cardigan, PEI

This Spring, MacPhee and Newby had 450 taps running.  This process depends heavily on cold, frosty nights (about -5ºC) and warmer days (+5 ºC).  The alternating freezing and thawing causes the pressure in the tree to change and forces the sap to start running when the temperature rises during the day.   On PEI, there is a short window of opportunity to produce maple syrup, typically a 5-6 week period in March/April.

Trees must be at least 10” in diameter to be tapped and trees of that size are usually 40-50 years old.  Holes are drilled into the maple trees and spouts are inserted.  Buckets with covers to keep out bark, dirt, and rain are then hung on the spouts and are used to collect the dripping sap.

Maple Tree Tapped
Bucket Hung on Spout to Catch Dripping Sap from Maple Tree

Drilling holes into the tree and removing sap is not harmful to the maple trees and the same trees can be tapped year after year, provided new holes are drilled each time.  It is not uncommon to have up to 3 taps in large trees.  In fact, Max showed me one large old maple tree just outside the sugar shack that had three taps running and we examined the tree’s maple syrup producing history as we found various marks from previous years’ tappings.

 

Three Taps in Large Maple Tree

The sap is clear, has no color, and has the consistency of water.  I found it had little taste although it is 2% – 4% sugar and I could detect a slightly mild sweet taste but certainly nothing like the taste of the sweet maple syrup that is eventually produced from the sap.

Sap from Maple Tree

While some operations collect the sap through a network of pipelines strung between trees, at Woodland they tap individual trees using the spout and bucket method.  Once every two days, the sap is collected from each tapped tree and placed in a large tank on the front of a tractor and transported to another large holding tank just outside the sugar shack.  The sap is then piped into the evaporator inside the sugar shack where the boiling process takes place.

Large Tank of Sap Produces Just One 5-gallon Bucket of Maple Syrup

The sap is boiled in a large pan on a wood-fired evaporator until most of the water in it is boiled off and it boils down to a thick syrup.

Stoking the Wood-fired Evaporator

 

Boiling the Sap to Make Maple Syrup

 

This can take hours, not to mention patience and a close eye to make sure the sap does not boil too robustly and overflow the pan.

Evaporating the Water from the Sap to Make Maple Syrup

 

Keeping a Watchful Eye on the Boiling Sap to Ensure it Does Not Boil Over

Sap is continually added to the pan as the water evaporates so it is a continuous process.  The boiling process causes a chemical reaction to occur in the sap and transforms it into a flavourful syrup.

Pan of Maple Syrup

It takes between 50-60 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup.  The syrup is then filtered to remove any remaining impurities and, at Woodland, the last filtering is through felt which is a thick, dense fabric through which no impurities will pass.  The syrup is then ready for bottling.

There are different grades of maple syrup and grading is based on color.  The lighter the color, the higher the quality of syrup but the more subtle the taste.  The more amber, darker colored syrup has more flavour but, in grading terms, would be considered a lower grade syrup.  Light-colored syrup is traditionally used as a table syrup for pancakes, waffles, and French toast.  Darker colored syrup, on the other hand, is well suited for cooking and baking – e.g., ice creams and brulées as well as sauces and glazes for meats.

Woodland Maple Syrup, Woodville Mills, PEI

Woodland produces approximately 200 litres of maple syrup each year which they sell locally from their sugar shack and also sell to Island restaurants.  The syrup can also be purchased locally on PEI at Riverview Country Market on Riverside Drive in Charlottetown.

Maple syrup is a good source of manganese and riboflavin and contains antioxidants that boost immunity.

Maple syrup has multiple uses.  Perhaps the most commonly known is at the breakfast table on pancakes, waffles, and French toast.  However, it can also be widely used in many different cooking and baking recipes.  Over the next while, I will be posting some recipes using Island-produced maple syrup from Woodlands so be sure to come back and visit my website to see what is cooking and baking.

Waffles, Fresh Fruit, & PEI Maple Syrup – A Great Combo!

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Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

“Hot Cross Buns!  Hot Cross Buns!  One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny, Hot Cross Buns!  Remember that nursery rhyme?

I didn’t grow up with Hot Cross Buns being a tradition in our home at Easter.  In fact, before I made them this morning, I had never even tasted them.  I was aware of their existence but that was about the extent of my knowledge of Hot Cross Buns.  I decided this year was the time to try them.

I did some research to see what I could find out about these buns, their origin, and their connection to Easter.  Here is what I learned.

The buns are made of a rich, sweet yeast dough with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and sometimes cardamom.  A mixture of raisins, currants, and/or mixed fruit are also added to the dough.  The dough is twice-raised, meaning it is risen to twice its size, punched down, and formed into individual rolls and allowed to rise again before baking.  Each bun is highly glazed with an egg and milk wash and has a cross shape outlined with an icing glaze made of icing sugar and milk.

Traditionally, the buns have been eaten on Good Friday and, for Christians, the mark of the cross on the top of each bun symbolizes the crucifixion.  There are a mixture of pagan and Christian stories and legends as well as superstitions surrounding Hot Cross Buns.   One school of thought suggests that Hot Cross Buns have their origin sometime around 1361 when an English monk was said to have made the spiced buns for distribution to the poor who were visiting a monastery in Hertfordshire in Southern England on Good Friday.  Another theory suggests that the buns were eaten by the Saxons to pay homage to Eostre (whose name means Easter), the goddess of Spring with the four marks of the cross in this theory symbolizing the four quarters of the moon.

My research also revealed some interesting superstitions surrounding Hot Cross Buns:

– The English believed that bread baked on Good Friday would protect their homes from fire and bad luck for the next year

– Sailors were reported to have taken Hot Cross Buns on voyages to guard them against shipwrecks

– Some believed the buns had medicinal properties

– Others believed that, if prepared on Good Friday, the buns would never get mouldy.

There is even a story associated with the Protestant Revolution that indicates English Protestants tried to ban the sale of the buns as they were seen to be a sign of Catholicism because they were baked from dough made for communion wafers; however, the story goes that the buns were so popular and were still being made despite threats of punishment that, in the late 1500s, the Queen is supposed to have decreed by law that the buns could be sold but only at Christmas, Easter, and at funerals.  So, lots of myths and folklore about Hot Cross Buns.  How much is fact and how much is fiction is anyone’s guess.

I went on the hunt for a Hot Cross Bun recipe.  I’m a fairly experienced bread maker so I’d consider myself a reasonably good judge of whether a recipe will work or not.  This helps tremendously when determining if a recipe is accurate and reliable or not.  For example, I found one recipe that called for 2 tablespoons of cinnamon for 3 ½ cups of flour – right away, I questioned the credibility of the recipe since that’s a lot of cinnamon for a small amount of flour and it would have been way too spicy for my liking.  I found several other recipes that called for 1 teaspoon of cinnamon for approximately the same amount of flour which is much more reasonable.  For ‘seasoned’ cooks and bakers, they can usually quickly detect if a recipe is “on the mark” or not.  For novice cooks, however, it’s not as easy and they can fall for trying recipes that are not reliable.  This causes frustration when their efforts do not turn out a positive result.  My advice is to, first, read through a recipe for the ingredients and to determine if the directions are well laid out and easy to understand and follow.  Then, find a few other recipes for the same food.  Compare how much flour, yeast, milk, spices, etc., each takes.  If you find recipes that really seem way off compared to the others or the directions are not sufficiently clear, don’t waste your time and ingredients on them.  Second, check with friends about which recipe sources they trust and try those.

So, as I indicated above, after researching several recipes, I opted to use the one provided by Joy of Baking and I was not disappointed.  Here is the hot link to the Joy of Baking’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns.  The great thing about Hot Cross Buns is that they do not take a lot of ingredients or ones that would be difficult to find.   It’s very important to make sure that the temperature of the water is accurate for the yeast to raise and, for this, I highly recommend using a food thermometer.  You will need a good, heavy-duty stand mixer with the dough hook to knead the dough to ensure that it is smooth and elastic.  While not difficult to make, Hot Cross Buns do require a significant amount of time, first to allot about 10-15 minutes for the yeast to rise and become foamy, then time to mix the ingredients and knead the dough, third to allot a couple of hours for the dough to raise the first time, then another hour or so for the buns to raise, and lastly about 15-18 minutes for the buns to bake.  This is a factor when considering any recipe as it is important to be able to set aside the necessary time for the entire process.

Mixing Dough for Hot Cross Buns

 

Hot Cross Buns Dough

 

Hot Cross Buns

I served the Hot Cross Buns warm with butter and raspberry jam.  They received the thumbs-up and delicious rating.  They made a great Easter Sunday morning breakfast treat.  Happy Easter, everyone!

 

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