RANDOLPH - Maple season is in full swing all over the northeastern part of the United States and Randolph Academy Union Free School District is no exception. The faculty and support staff have been taking full advantage of the season for the last 10 years to educate their students about the production of maple syrup from sap and to let them experience the pride that comes from completing a project from beginning to end, due to their own physical labor.
"Many students learn best through hands-on experiences. That is why we value the sugar shack project. It is an essential part of the middle school science curriculum regarding the plant life cycle," said school Superintendent Lori DeCarlo. "Mr. Shields and our science teacher help students make the connection between the textbook concepts and the real-life maple syrup production. Students gain deeper understanding that is easily retained until the time they encounter the information again on the state assessments. Our middle school science students meet or exceed proficiency on the state assessment in science at nearly twice the rate of other similar schools across the state."
After many conversations between David Emley, a former science teacher with the district, and Tom Shields, the district's superintendent of buildings and grounds, their dream of having a maple syrup project became a reality.
Culinary teacher Kevin Abbott and students Amber and Shane proudly display some of the recipes they have made with the maple syrup produced on the grounds at the Randolph Academy. The Maple Baked French Toast dish was prepared by Susan Jackson, the school’s cosmetology teacher.
Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland
Tom Shields explains the process of taking sap to maple syrup to students visiting from Randolph Academy-Hamburg Campus.
Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland
Tyrece controls the finishing pan valve as syrup flows into the collection pan where it is filtered and cleaned.
Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland
"We are grateful to the Finger Lakes Service Learning Institute that provided grant funding 10 years ago to construct and equip our sugar shack," DeCarlo said. "As a part of our sustaining commitment, the students engage in community service projects. These projects include hosting a pancake breakfast for senior citizens from our community and field trips for school groups."
"The students learn how the sap flows in the trees and how our weather has to be right to make the sap run," said Luke Ganley, a science teacher at the Randolph campus. "We discuss how much water and how much sugar (2 percent) is in the sap and we talk about how the boiling point of sap is higher than the boiling point of water."
As Ganley added wood to the fire under the evaporator, Shields explained the boiling process to the students. He moved away from that discussion to explain the grading process. The students were asked for their help in deciding what grade the syrup sample falls under. He told them the grading system will change next year, as the current system is confusing to some people. This syrup was Grade A-medium amber.
"Syrup graded fancy is the lighter, more expensive syrup, but it is not as sweet. The dark or drum syrup is too sweet," Shields said. "I prefer medium-grade syrup."
"I didn't know anything about this before," said Brittany, one of Ganley's students.
"Being from Queens, I didn't even know this stuff existed," Sabrina said. "I was complaining the first time I did it (collected sap) saying 'Ahh, there's more! There's so many trees!' Now I think it's pretty cool. I enjoy doing it."
"I actually like this," Tyrese chimed in, the only student in the trio who had tasted maple syrup before attending the school. "It's amusing."
A mini-tour of the sugar bush is given after nine students from Randolph Academy-Hamburg campus arrive. Shields explains that the proper side of the tree to tap is the side that receives the most sunlight. When daytime temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through the tap. When temperatures fall below freezing, suction develops, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again on the next warm day.
He said that a tree should not have too many taps or be over-tapped, as "the tree needs sap like the human body needs blood."
"The sap tastes like cold water with a little sweetness. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup," he said. "When it stays warm both day and night the sap is no longer sweet. You hope to get three weeks or a month, but sometimes you only get two weeks."
James Vitale, the Hamburg location's science teacher, asked his students about some of the lessons they've studied in the classroom and it is obvious they have been paying attention in class.
While in the woods a discussion on tree identification took place. After the men told the youths how to identify some trees by their bark, a conversation transpired on how Shields selects the trees he cuts for the firewood to fuel the evaporator's fire. An extremely crooked tree was used as a prime example. The question arose as to how the tree became so twisted and a conversation ensued about trees growing wherever seeds fall. The group decided that the bent tree had another tree in close proximity and grew around it. Vitale asks his students what they think the trees compete for. Some of their answers are space, light and nutrients.
From this discussion came the question of the expanse of the underground root system. Shields told them "a good rule of thumb is the roots grow out as far as the branches above spread."
After the visiting class entered the sugar shack or the building that houses the equipment for boiling the sap into maple syrup, they were shown the equipment and given instruction on how it works. After each student was given a small sample of the finished product, Brian Fleischmann, information systems administrator, took over. Fleischmann's idea to install a 100-watt solar panel on the building's roof came about after Shields commented on its dark, dreary interior.
"Basically, it (solar energy) runs inside the charge controller, which maintains the battery. The battery goes to an inverter, taking it from DC to AC power. The inverter runs three lights, the fan to make the fire nice and hot and at times, a radio," said Fleischmann. "On a day like today we'll be running straight off the panel without the battery. This one (unit) runs at 19 percent efficiency meaning that 19 percent of the sunlight that hits it is getting used."
The cost for the set-up was approximately $200 for the solar panel and additional parts. Randolph Auto Supply donated the battery to the school.
"We're hoping down the road to add more panels to be able to run the pump to move sap from the tank on the back of the truck to the big holding tank that supplies the evaporator," added Fleischmann.
Every opportunity was taken to make this fun outing a learning experience with the teens having an opportunity to give their opinions. The kids had some impressive and valid reasons for their answers.
"I'd like to point out an aspect of the project that might go unnoticed - hard labor," added DeCarlo. "We want our students to experience challenging and physically demanding work. We could have tubing to collect sap from the trees in our sugar bush, but we don't, because we believe that carrying 5-gallon buckets full of sap and carrying wood for splitting is very valuable ... an experience that the video-gaming generation needs. The reward of a job well done after investing some muscle and sweat had great value for character development. We just prefer to remain 'old school' on this!"
The story does not end here. Much of the finished product is sold, and Kevin Abbott, teacher of the school's culinary program, takes over from here. His class uses the maple syrup in some of the recipes it makes. Some years, the class hosts a pancake breakfast for the senior citizens that take advantage of the water aerobics program that takes place in the New Directions' pool.
"We like to use fresh ingredients when we can," said Abbott. "When maple syrup is readily available we try to incorporate that into our recipes."
The Maple Bacon Cupcakes recipe was the winning recipe developed by one of his students for a competition of who could make the best cupcake.
"Mr. Abbott told me to try this (cupcake) and I thought it was going to be really gross. I loved it and actually ate two," said Amber, a student in the culinary program. "If you love maple and bacon, you will love these cupcakes,"
The Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette recipe was submitted by DeCarlo, who said, "It is wonderful on any salad, but very good on spinach salad with red onion, pear and blue cheese crumbles."
Tom Shields' wife, Lynn, submitted the Baked Maple Bacon recipe, and said, "There is no greasy splattering, the bacon is flat, crisp and perfectly cooked." The Maple Baked French Toast dish was prepared by Susan Jackson, the school's cosmetology teacher.
1 loaf French bread cut in 1" diagonal slices
2 C milk
1 1/2 C Half and Half
2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 C butter
1 1/2 C maple syrup
8 oz cream cheese cut into cubes
Butter a 9" x 13" baking dish. Arrange bread on the bottom. Place cream cheese cubes on top. In a large bowl, beat together eggs, milk, Half and Half, vanilla and cinnamon. Pour over bread and cream cheese. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine butter and maple syrup; heat until butter is melted. Pour over bread and egg mixture. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes.
Maple Nut Cream Cheese Spread
2/3 c. Maple syrup
2-8 oz. Cream Cheese
2/3 c. crushed walnuts
Whip all together. Spread on a fresh bagel or toast.
Bacon Maple Cupcakes
1 1/ 2 c. Sifted Flour
1 1/2 c. baking powder
1t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
Half and half
6 strips cooked chopped bacon
8 oz. cream cheese
2 c. sifted confectioner's sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place cupcake papers in tins.
Mix together flour, baking powder, 1t. Cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.
In a separate bowl, cream 1/2 c. butter, 1 c. sugar and 1/4 c. brown sugar.
Add vanilla and eggs. Mix until light and fluffy.
Next add 1/3 c. of the flour mixture, 1/8 c. of Maple syrup and 1/4 c. half and half.
Next add another 1/3 c. of the flour mixture, 1/8 c. Maple syrup, and 1/4 c. of half and half. Mix in-between additions briefly. Now add the remaining flour mixture just until combined. Fold in 5 of the 6 pieces of bacon. Fill 3/4 full in muffin cups. Bake 35-40 min. until toothpick comes out clean.
Cool completely prior to frosting
For frosting - mix cream cheese and 2T. butter on medium speed until smooth. Next add 2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar, 1/4 c. maple syrup and 1 t. cinnamon. Spread on cooled cupcakes and sprinkle with crumbled bacon.
Original recipe makes 1 3/4 cups
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Place vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper into a blender. Pulse to combine, then add the olive oil in a steady stream with the motor running.
Apple-Maple Stuffed Acorn Squash
1 acorn squash, halved, seeded
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tsp cinnamon ground
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tbs butter
1. Preheat oven at 350 degrees F.
2. Mix chopped apples with cinnamon. Fill acorn cavity with apple mixture. Drizzle with maple syrup. Top with dots of butter.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, covered, until tender.
Baked Maple Bacon
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a large, rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper. Lay up to a pound of bacon on the parchment lined sheet pan (18" x 13"), or for smaller amounts use a smaller cookie sheet and bake for less time.
Bake the bacon for about 20 minutes, or until it's started to shrink. Drizzle each piece of bacon with pure maple syrup (and freshly ground black pepper if desired) and continue to bake until it's crispy, an additional 5 to 15 minutes.
Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.