In my hand I hold a generous sized tin of pure maple syrup. It comes from Sheila, clinical secretary over at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital. Her professional title belies her warmth and significance to me. I remember so clearly calling her from my small room in Berkeley, feeling out to her sunny voice which carried from a different time zone. Her radiant kindness was a line that I held onto giving me reassurance and hopes for better medical care and in turn, a higher quality of life. The syrup is melted amber, inspissated store of carbohydrate turned sucrose. It takes approximately forty gallons of sugar maple sap, boil and toil to create one gallon of liquid gold. Tawny, bronzed and glassy with a touch of viscosity, sweet tinged with smoke, maple syrup is intimate kiss between sun and tree. It seems to be the quintessential by-product of New England generosity: a combination of simplicity, heartiness, hard work and charm. I set to work dreaming of ways to properly celebrate this food-of-the-tree, the giver and acknowledge the change in season as well. With a primal pull towards storing up energy for winter, I fall upon oil rich fruit-of-the-tree, the walnut.
There was a time when I snubbed pedestrian walnuts and peanuts in favor for the more exotic almond, cashew and pecan. It might have been that growing up, these nuts were always stockpiled within a pottery bowl on the coffee table posing as interior decoration as well as afternoon snack. For a short while, I was greatly impressed with how much the nut meat looked like a miniature brain insulated within its very own fitted traveling case. This interest quickly waned; I was repelled by the bitter acrid taste which filled my mouth. Fortunately a chance lunch with a college friend set me straight. E_ compiled a small plate which cradled a few slivers of apple with a scatter of walnuts encompassed by a puddle of golden honey. What I didn’t know then but years later realized, was that she had organized the tastes and elements of a traditional Passover charoset (symbolizing mortar, which represented the back breaking work of the Jewish slaves) upon her co-op dessert plate. I remember how newly delicious each taste was, one heightening the other, clear notes hung in space. Unbeknownst to me within this crowded public dining hall, we had just consumed a private sacrament. I reflect upon this some fifteen years later as I consider the invisible power within that afternoon. Foods are intimately linked to memory and story and harvest time makes visible the passage of time showing us the end-product of growth. It is a marker that allows us to examine where we have come from and where we are going. I draw upon the sweet story of friendship and experience and layer today onto the back of yesterday to compose a new beginning. This journey back East has been long in coming, a movement up a sometimes bumpy path. But there is nothing like a rich confection decorated with good company to make the passage undeniably sweet.
CANDIED WALNUT WEDGE adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
While flipping through Sunday Suppers at Lucques, I stopped fast in my tracks at Candied Walnut Wedge. The book raves that it tastes similar to the pried of chewy nut layer of a pecan pie. To my mind this is the perfect repository for NH’s finest tree syrup. A small note: this wedge did crumble a bit in parts. I suspect that the pieces of my coarsely chopped nut layer were too big. I also wonder if the maple syrup had as much adhesive properties as the corn syrup. For the most part, storage in the refridgerator helped the crumble. Also a further nod to New England and Passover- the wedge can be served with accompanying apple slices and dare I suggest a crumbly chunk of good sharp Cheddar or even Blue? May our hard times be made easier with Candied Walnut Wedge!
3 Tblsp. unsalted butter, plus more to butter pan
1 1/4 Cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 Cups walnut halves
1/2 vanilla bean
3 Tblsp brown sugar
3 Tblsp sugar
2 Tblsp dark rum
6 Tblsp maple syrup (Goin uses light corn syrup)
1 extra-large egg yolk
1 extra-large egg
DIRECTION: Preheat oven to 375. Butter then line a 9 inch springform pan with parchment. Place the pan upon a large sheet of aluminum foil and fold up and around the sides of the pan to prevent leaks. Place upon a cookie sheet. Toast the chopped nuts and walnut halves separately until browned. Place butter in a small pan with the scraped pulp and seed of the split pod. Add the opened pod to the pan as well and cook over medium heat until browned. Discard the pod. In a mixer beat the sugars, syrup and rum at medium for 4-5 minutes. Add the brown butter and mix another 2-3 minutes. Finally add the egg and yolk and a pinch of salt and continue to mix for another minute or so. Place the chopped walnuts in an even layer into the prepared pan. Arrange the walnut halves on top in concentric circles. Pour the sugar mixture over this and bake for about 40 minutes until the filling is set. Cool for about 30 minutes, remove from pan and then serve in wedges.