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Celebrate the first day of spring with some maple syrup candy

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Today, on the first day of spring, it appears that winter may finally be running out of steam here in southeastern Michigan. Sunshine, rain and warmer weather have combined to beat winter back, even if for the short term. Robins can be seen propecting for patches of bare earth for the years' first worms, and daily temperature fluctuations are causing maple trees to send up sap. This ebb and flow is often tapped by people who collect tree sap to make maple syrup. It's a labor-intensive endeavor deemed totally worth it by those who love real maple syrup on pancakes, waffles or ice cream.

In cold climates, many species of trees including red, black, sugar and silver maples store starch in their root systems as sugars. When spring temperatures rise above freezing during the day, these trees send up xylem sap during the day (My middle school science teacher told us to memorize this by remembering that xylem goes up, and phloem flows down). When nighttime temperatures drop, the sap then flows back to the roots and lower trunk sections. Tree tappers bore small holes in the trunks of these trees and insert a hollow tube called a tap that allows sap to flow freely through a tube and into a bucket or jug for collection. Weather and tree conditions determine how much sap can be collected and how long it flows for. A maple tree might produce a gallon or twenty gallons per season - you never know how much you might get until you set some taps.

Once collected, the sap can be boiled or cooked until it's reduced down to the end result - maple syrup. The low sugar content of the sap means approximately 40 gallons go into a gallon of syrup. Individual people cooking syrup frequently use propane burners or open wood fires to heat the syrup, while commercial producers use a combination of technical processes to get the finished product.

Processes and methods aside, there are several uses for maple syrup. Aside from the usual applications for pancakes, waffles and desserts, maple syrup candies and taffy are two great ways to enjoy this natural treat.

Both of these recipes are very simple to make, requiring only heat and one or two ingredients. Maple syrup taffy is easy to make once there is fresh-fallen snow. Before you get too excited about this, remember that it's only mid-March and this is Michigan - we're probably due at least one more decent snowfall before winter is over. For maple candy, all you need is two cups of good syrup and chopped nuts, if you want to add those.

Check the list below for simple steps to make these maple syrup treats.

Enjoy and tight lines!

First Day of Spring 1
First Day of Spring 1 Rusty Shackleford

First Day of Spring 1

Once collected, maple sap can be boiled or cooked until it's reduced down to the end result - maple syrup.  The low sugar content of the sap means approximately 40 gallons go into a gallon of syrup.  Individual people cooking syrup frequently use propane burners or open wood fires to heat the syrup, while commercial producers use a combination of processes to get the finished product. Here, Mr. Andrew Cavasin checks sap jugs in the Ripplione Forest...

First Day of Spring 2
First Day of Spring 2 Rusty Shackleford

First Day of Spring 2

Processes and methods aside, there are several uses for maple syrup.  Very few things taste better than fresh maple syrup on pancakes, waffles and desserts.  However, maple syrup candies and taffy are two more great ways to enjoy this natural treat.

First Day of Spring 3
First Day of Spring 3 Rusty Shackleford

First Day of Spring 3

To make maple syrup taffy, put a half-cup maple syrup into a small saucepan, preferably one with a pouring lip. The darker flavor of a Grade B syrup lends itself to this recipe, but it's not necessary.  Bring the syrup to a boil over medium-high heat, and test it with a candy thermometer.  When the syrup temp hits 235°F (what candy-makers refer to as the "soft-ball stage") take it off the heat.

First Day of Spring 4
First Day of Spring 4 Rusty Shackleford

First Day of Spring 4

Immediately drizzle it over the packed snow in the pan. Let the syrup cool for just a minute or two, then pick it up with your fingers and enjoy!

It tastes just like maple syrup, but with a chewy texture that melts in your mouth.  It needs to be consumed right away, or the water from melting snow will dissolve it back into syrup.  This is a fun wintertime treat, and easy enough that you can teach your kids about candy making, if you're so inclined.  Be sure to use new, clean snow, to reduce any chances of contamination.  The hot syrup would probably kill any bacteria present in the snow on contact, but you shouldn't push your luck with yellow or dirty snow.

First Day of Spring 5
First Day of Spring 5 Rusty Shackleford

First Day of Spring 5

Pure maple candy is another treat you can make from fresh maple syrup and nuts.  Using a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring two cups of maple syrup to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Boil until syrup reaches 235 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Remove pan from heat and allow syrup to cool to 175 degrees F without stirring - this should take about 10 minutes.
Stir mixture rapidly with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes - until the color turns lighter and the mixture becomes thick and creamy. Stir in chopped almonds or walnuts, if desired.
Pour into small molds and set aside to cool. Once the candies are cool, unmold them. They will keep fresh in an airtight container for up to one month, but they probably won't last that long.

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