If you lived in the Northeast — particularly upstate New York, Vermont or Ontario — you would know that early April is traditionally the time when the region’s prolific sugar maple trees are tapped to extract the sap that is turned into that wonderful elixir known as maple syrup. Although it is not native to Virginia, pure maple syrup can be bought at any area super market or specialty food store. It is more costly than “maple-flavored” syrups, but its rich taste is vastly superior to those imitators; and, as the recipes below demonstrate, it has more uses than just pouring atop pancakes and waffles.

VERMONT BAKED BEANS
Spring may be here, but there will still be some cool nights when you can serve this economical, protein-rich dish. Whereas “Boston” baked beans are made with the customary molasses, the Vermont version predictably incorporates maple syrup. If you cannot find salt pork in your market’s meat section, substitute slab bacon.

1 pound dry navy or great northern beans
1 pound salt pork
2 whole onions, peeled
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water

The day before serving, pick through the beans to remove any stones. Place them in a large bowl with water to cover, and refrigerate overnight. The next day, drain the beans and transfer them to a large saucepan. Add fresh water to cover, and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Drain again. Cut a thin slice from the salt pork and lay it in the bottom of a 2-quart casserole. Place the whole onions and half the beans on top. Add the remaining salt pork and remaining beans. Combine the remaining ingredients and pour this mixture over the beans. Add enough additional water to almost cover the beans, and bake, covered, in a 300-degree oven for 6 to 8 hours. If the beans appear to be drying out, add more water as needed. During the last hour of baking, uncover the casserole. Remove and discard the onions before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

MAPLE-WALNUT CREAM PIE
If you enjoy the silky-smooth texture of cream pies, you’ll appreciate this offbeat variation which capitalizes on the earthy flavor of maple syrup.

1 ½ cups whole milk
1 1/3 cups maple syrup
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 (9-inch) pastry shell, baked and cooled
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons sugar
½ cup toasted chopped walnuts, garnish

In a medium bowl, whisk together the first 3 ingredients. Place the flour and cornstarch in a medium saucepan, and whisk in 1 cup of the milk mixture until smooth. Add the remaining milk mixture, and place the saucepan over medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a full boil—about 8 minutes. Whisk in 1 ½ teaspoons of vanilla. Pour the mixture into the cooled pastry shell, cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours. Just before serving, whip the cream with the sugar and remaining vanilla and spread over pie. Sprinkle with the walnuts. Serves 6 to 8.

ALABAMA WHITE SAUCE
Kendra Bailey Morris is a well-known Richmond chef, cooking teacher and cookbook author who specializes in southern cooking. Her recent cookbook, “The Southern Slow Cooker: Big-Flavor, Low-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), contains more than 50 soul-satisfying recipes. It includes her special take on a traditional mayonnaise-based sauce that Alabamans like to serve with barbecue. Her version uses a distinctly un-southern ingredient — maple syrup — to provide a more complex and satisfying profile.

1 ¼ cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ teaspoon prepared horseradish
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Few dashes of hot sauce

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Makes about 1½ cups of sauce. Serve with your favorite barbecued meat, with fried fish or chicken, or as a dressing for coleslaw.

MAPLE BRAN MUFFINS
For decades, various forms of bran cereal have been lauded for their beneficial fiber content. To many people, eating All Bran out of a cereal bowl is not appealing, but when it is baked into a hearty muffin, the difference is appreciable.

1 2/3 cup buttermilk
2 2/3 cups All Bran
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup melted butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
¼ cup maple syrup
¾ cup raisins

In a medium bowl, combine the buttermilk and All Bran, and let sit for 10 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. (If you do not want to use buttermilk, place 1½ tablespoons of white vinegar in a 2-cup measure and add enough milk to measure 1 2/3 cups.) In a medium bowl, combine the next 4 ingredients. In a small bowl, combine the melted butter with the next 3 ingredients. Add to the flour mixture, stirring just until combined. Fold in the buttermilk-bran mixture and the raisins. Spoon batter about 2/3 full into 18 3-inch paper-lined or spray-coated muffin tins, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes, or until muffins are nicely browned. Makes 18 regular-size muffins or 1 dozen large muffins.

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