What do pickles, donuts, and a freezer full of snow have in common?
If you know, you've probably been to Vermont around this time of year. As Lisa wrote yesterday, it's maple sugaring season in New England, when sap flows from the trees and steam blows from the tops of those little shacks ("sugar houses") in many backyards. (Locals also call this time of year "mud season" because of the condition of the defrosting dirt roads, but that doesn't attract as many tourists for some reason.)
My family doesn't have a sugar house, but a few of my childhood friends did. I have happy memories of "helping" gather sap buckets, drinking paper cups full of piping hot syrup, and hitching rides on the little zipline used to transport firewood between the yard and the evaporator. (In retrospect, I bet our antics exasperated the adults, but it was fun! And we never had a mishap, other than that one time some kid fell into the sap storage tank while trying to snitch a taste. Don't worry, she was okay. But she sure felt silly.)
The height of maple bliss, as far as I'm concerned, is the caramelized concoction that occurs when you pour very hot syrup onto a bowl packed with snow (or crushed ice if you must, but it isn't quite as good). Vermonters call this "sugar on snow," and we love it so much that we theme entire parties around it. We pack garbage bags full of fresh, clean snow into our freezers in the depths of winter, dreaming of a sweet spring. We buy candy thermometers so we can boil a pot of syrup to just the right temperature to congeal on a bed of snow.
We eat it by the forkful, traditionally with sides of dill pickles, coffee and donuts. Why? Hmm, never really thought about that before. I guess it's because the pickles and coffee cut the sweetness, so you can go back for seconds. (And where there's coffee, there must be donuts, obviously. Homemade buttermilk ones, ideally.)
State pride aside for a moment, I realize there are maple trees beyond Vermont, so it's possible this tradition exists elsewhere. Has anyone else encountered sugar on snow, by that name or another?