The sap is running! π day.

After waxing nostalgic about making maple syrup, I decided to stop dreaming and start cooking. I read about tapping Norway Maples. (An invasive species in these parts, they were heavily planted as street trees – when I asked the city for a street tree, I could have anything I wanted as long as it was a Norway Maple.)

Depending on the author, you either can’t tap them or they make great syrup, a bit more caramel in flavor than sugar maples. I decided there was a way to settle the matter. I went to Farm and Fleet and bought a spile, then to Fleet Farm (yes, the partners split and one had to find a new name for his stores) for a stainless steel bucket to collect the sap. My tree is 26 years old (well, 26 years in the ground here – not sure when it was born) and just big enough to tap.

If you look just below the handle, you’ll see a drop of sap falling. The plastic is to try to keep debris out of the bucket.

It was on the way to 50 degrees Sunday, so I made the shopping trip and tapped the tree Monday morning. Sap began to run before I could get the bucket under the spile.

Sap on its way to becoming syrup.
I love the predictability of the weather here. 60 degrees Saturday, tornados Sunday, 5 inches of snow Monday; and a huge sapsicle later in the week.

When the sap is running, I collect 2 liters every day or two. Boiled down, that nets about 50 ml of syrup. It doesn’t look like maple syrup and it doesn’t taste like maple syrup. It is sweet but probably more like corn syrup than sugar maple syrup. It will sweeten a chocolate ancho pecan pie. If you’ve ever eaten Mole Poblano, you know that chocolate and chiles belong together. You may not know that they belong together in dessert. It was this pie that brought me back to Eldorado Grill (okay, that and the huge selection of tequilas) and for this pie that I bought their cookbook.

Sugar maple left, Norway maple right

Pi [π] Day

Chocolate ancho pecan pie

(from Eldorado Grill, with minor alterations by half-fast cycling club). The recipe is for two pies. I have halved it successfully, using 4 eggs rather than 3.5 eggs – you try cutting an egg in half).

  1. Make pie crust (It is a single crust pie. The recipe is for two crusts and two pies.)
  2. Make ancho puree
  3. Make pie

If you choose to use a store-bought crust, I won’t tell – but you’re depriving yourself of the most fun part of baking pies.

  1. Crust
    2 cups flour (pastry flour if you can get it)
    2 sticks (½ lb) salted butter, cold
    8-10 Tablespoons ice water (may need slight adjustment depending on weather and your flour)
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 Tablespoon sugar (may be omitted)

    Mix flour, salt, and sugar. Cut butter into small pieces. (I cut the stick lengthwise in thirds, rotate it 90 degrees and repeat, so it is now lengthwise in ninths. Then I cut widthwise so I have a lot of pea-sized cubes.)

Add butter to flour and cut in with a pastry cutter until it resembles coarse meal. Add half the ice water and toss lightly with a fork. Add the other half and toss again. Mix lightly with your hands until nearly uniform. (You can squish remaining large lumps of butter more easily this way.) It will look marbleized, with a few small lumps of butter remaining.

Form into 2 rough balls. Place each on a sheet of plastic wrap. It will not hold together completely. If it is not close to holding together, you need more water. If it is a sticky mess, add some flour. Wrap it in the plastic wrap and knead lightly through the wrap to get it a bit more uniform, until it just holds together as you flatten it into a disk.)

Refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably overnight. If you refrigerate overnight, let it warm a few minutes before rolling (or it will crack).

2. Puree
5 ancho chiles, seeded and stemmed
1 cup hot water

Soak the chiles until soft, about an hour.

Puree in blender until smooth. Add a little water if needed. It should be pourable but not thin. (This will be more puree than you need, but I’m sure you can find other uses for it. If you try to make a half batch, your blender may not actually blend it.)

3. Pie
¼ pound (1 stick) butter
7 eggs
1 cup sugar
¼ cup ancho puree
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract (Use the real thing, not vanillin)
1 cup corn syrup (or other syrup -dark corn syrup, maple syrup, agave, sorghum, mixtures…)
4 cups pecan pieces
½ pound semi-sweet chocolate chips (or mix ½ and ½ with dark chips)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out crusts and trim. Lay into pie pans. Crimp a generous edge, as it will shrink when parbaking, and you want the edge high enough so filling doesn’t leak out. Line crust with a sheet of parchment paper and fill with weights (raw beans or rice, or pie weights – I find beans work best). Parbake 10 minutes. Remove parchment and weights. [You should have some extra crust trimmings. Roll them out, sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, and bake lightly in another pie pan – about 12-15 minutes. When cooled, you’ll have a snack while waiting for the pie. This was always my kids’ favorite part.]

Melt butter and set aside.

Beat eggs and add sugar, ancho puree, vanilla, and syrup. It works best if you continue whisking while you add ingredients one by one.

Add the melted butter to the egg mixture. Add pecans and chocolate chips. Pour into two pie shells.

Bake 35-40 minutes until the center is just set and the crust is golden brown. [Original recipe says to toast the pecans first and bake for 50 minutes @375. I found the pecans burned well before that and the crust burned before 50 minutes.] I generally cover the crust edges to keep from burning – if you don’t have a pie crust guard, cut a ring from aluminum foil so the inner edge is a bit smaller than the pie diameter and the outer edge a bit larger. If the crust is not browning, take it off for the last few minutes. Or you can start without the guard and place it later if the crust is browning too quickly.

Cool to room temperature on a rack. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Photo from the cookbook. They serve it with a tequila creme anglais and ice cream.
Fresh from the oven, still sizzling, with sunlight streaming in the window. (That’s the cause of the lighter area.)

As a public service and sacrifice, I baked (and ate) this pie before Pi Day so I could post this as soon as the day began.

Set the controls for the heart of the sun

sunI try to go on a January 1 ride every year. Sometimes it is just to a nearby coffee shop. This has been a warm December (after a cold November) so I thought about a longer ride. Just before Christmas it seemed like a great idea to tour the solar system for the New Year.

In 2009 the University of Wisconsin Space Place created a scale model of the solar system that one can tour by bicycle. They commissioned graphic artist Tsela Barr to design a sign for each planet and placed them to scale. Thus, Mercury is only a few feet from the sun and Pluto is 23 miles away via the Military Ridge State Trail. What better way to welcome the new year than to ride to Pluto and back?

The trail starts at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, which was conceived in 1938 Monona Terraceby Frank Lloyd Wright as a civic center on the lake. The idea was fought over for years, dying and being resurrected through the decades. In the 1970s, Madison was served by Mayor Paul Soglin, who decided to put an end to the fighting with a new proposal. He suggested taking the existing Capitol Theatre (a 1928 movie palace) and combining it with a former department store (Yost-Kessenich) and a few other storefronts to create a civic center away from the lake and closer to the state capitol. It worked and, in 1980 the Madison Civic Center was born.

Soglin took a hiatus in civilian life and returned to the mayor’s office in 1989. He decided the time was ripe and spearheaded the effort to build the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the lake. It was repurposed as a convention center (since the city already had a civic center) and opened in 1997.

Meanwhile, the civic center was showing its age; the result of compromises and the fact that the Capitol Theatre was designed as a silent movie house. Along came a couple of wealthy philanthropists. Jerry Frautschi had made a fortune in the printing business (Democrat Printing Company, which became Webcrafters) and bankrolled his wife’s plan for a company that would make historically accurate dolls with a complex backstory supplied by a series of books. The Pleasant Company was born. When Pleasant Rowland sold the company to Mattel, the family had a few million dollars to spare and bequeathed the Overture Center to the city, a massive renovation of the civic center with a new, larger, and acoustically superior theatre where the department store had been. In 1997 the Frautschis pledged $50 million. Eventually that grew to over $200 million. Overture Hall opened in 2004 during Soglin’s second hiatus away from the mayor’s office.

In 2000, local singer/songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote the song “Madison, Wisconsin”, with a chorus including:

“So how’s old Madison Wisconsin
Is that Paul Soglin still the mayor,
And is Rennebohm’s expanding,
The Club deWash still there?”

While the Club deWash burned down (under suspicious circumstances, but that would be another post) and Rennebohm’s was swallowed by Walgreen’s, Paul Soglin returned to the mayor’s office in 2011 and is still there today. While their songbook says the song is from 2000, I could have sworn they sang it when I heard them in San Francisco back around 1990.

Enough back story! Let’s ride!

New Year Ride

We rang out the old year in the usual fashion, with a potluck at the home of old friends Vic and Shel, followed by the (last) annual New Year’s Eve concert by Lou and Peter pieBerryman. Potlucks call for pies, so we made Chocolate Ancho Pecan Pies, from an Eldorado Grill recipe.

We had a surprising white Christmas when it snowed overnight on Christmas Eve. (Living on a narrow strip of land between two lakes, we often sing that old Irving Berlin favorite “I’m dreaming of a wide isthmus”.)



Back to rain and sleet and the snow was gone. New Year’s Eve started with rain, changed to sleet, and then to snow. This made for great riding today. I put the studded tires on my winter bike and abandoned the thought of riding the Bruce Gordon. Side roads and bike paths were solid ice. Without the studded tires I’d have spent much of the day picking myself up off the ground. With studs, it was like riding on clear pavement, except much prettier.

To get to the sun I first had to ride over the river and through the woods.River

As Lou and Peter told us:

“Up in Wisconsin, up in Wisconsinice fishing 2
The weather isn’t very nice.
Up in Wisconsin, up in Wisconsin
They gotta fish right through the ice.”





I rode to the sun and then started on my way out through the solar system in a winter wonderland. The heavy, wet snow on top of ice stuck to the trees. I had to photograph the planet signs from the leeward sides, as the windward sides were invisible under the snow.



A sticky disc brake piston made it harder and harder to reach escape velocity as I passed the larger planets. Finally, at Saturn, I used the gravitational force for the slingshot effect to launch me back toward Earth, after a brief vist to Titan.





Cafe Domestique called to me, and an espresso and baklava were in order before returning home. Happy birthday to my baby sister, who has entered the decade in which Officially Old begins – she’s not That yet. Since she was born on January 1, too late for a 1958 tax deduction, our father called her “Pokey” as a child.