Rob Hausslein, a sugar maker from Landgrove, decided to kick his operation up a notch when a local chef asked him to make smoked maple syrup. Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind was launched when he figured he’d give it a try. He built a fire in his pig roaster, located next to his sugarhouse, and began to smoke syrup.
The pig roaster is a backyard rig: concrete block foundations stacked three high, with a grill and a hood. There, Hausslein roasts a few pigs a year, mostly for catering events. To smoke the maple syrup he fills a traditional evaporating tray with five gallons of syrup and places it on the grill, putting a piece of sheet metal between the flames and the bottom of the pan. “This keeps the syrup from boiling, and sends the smoke from the fire around the edges to season the syrup,” he explains.
Pop the top on one of the smoked syrup cans and the complexity of the sweet and smoky flavors are evident. It is easy to imagine possibilities in the kitchen for a creative cook, who with his product now gets two distinct flavors with which to play. “Barbecue sauce is the first thing that most people think of,” says Hausslein, who describes himself as an adventurous cook but who admits it’s his wife who does most of the cooking for the family. On the weekends, however, it’s his turn. He might serve up a grilled salmon, drizzled with smoked syrup, or he might make a pot roast braised with smoked syrup and harissa, a spicy red pepper blend from Tunisia, found in specialties stores. “Smoked sweet syrup acts as a counterpoint to hot peppers, so the two are an incredible combination.”
Purists may think that changing the flavor of maple syrup is sinful or at least unpatriotic, certainly unVermont. Hausslein maintains that smoked syrup is truly the most authentic flavor. Syrup has always been at least partially seasoned with smoke thanks to the smoke that has always seeped around the edges of the wood fired evaporators. “But as (some) syrup makers change over to oil-fired evaporators, the smoke no longer permeates the syrup,” he explains.
Syrup can pick up other flavors quite easily, suggesting a strategy for cooks that reaches beyond pancakes. “But the only way to get smoke into syrup is to smoke it,” says Hausslein definitively.
And a little goes a long way, when it comes to using smoked syrup in the kitchen. It’s not recommended on pancakes, but a fine, lacy drizzle on a side order of sausage and bacon can’t be beat. A cook might add a tablespoon or two in split pea soup to give it a smoky flavor without the ham bone – a nice vegetarian option – and that it would be a perfect ingredient to perk up a lentil soup.
Perhaps humans are naturally attracted to smoked flavoring, and that that desire may go back to our origins as hunter/gatherers, when early humans cooked over the open flame. “We’re genetically wired to expect a hint of smokiness in our food,” he says. “Smoke signals that the food is cooked and is safe to eat.”
Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind smoked and traditional syrup are available on-line, or at the Londonderry, Vermont farmer’s market on Saturday’s. Here’s my favorite salad dressing that is greatly enhanced by a touch of smoked maple syrup. Adapted from The Vermont Country Store Cookbook.
Smoked Maple Syrup Vinaigrette
Makes 1/2 cup
Especially delicious served over The Corn and Cucumber Salad with cherry tomatoes and cilantro. Found on page 35 of The Vermont Country Store Cookbook.
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced ( 3 tablespoons)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large garlic clove, pressed and finely chopped
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon smoked syrup
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped fine
In a mason jar, combine all the ingredients and shake vigorously.