Butterscotch Box Elder Pudding is a fun way I’ve been using box elder syrup, a cousin to maple syrup.
I live in maple country—there’s two commercial operations that will pull 1000 gallons a day from the trees on the property next door. Maples aren’t the only trees that make sap though.
I grew up in West Central Minnesota, which rides the line a bit from being open prairie to one giant cornfield. On our family farm, we’ve always had a little grove of trees, many of which my great-grandfather planted.
I don’t think he planted box elders, but we sure have a lot of them. Growing up I knew box elder as a sort of trash tree, relatively short-lived, and prone to breaking. Worst of all were the box elder bugs that used to invade my tree house. Over the course of my life I’ve told plenty of people that box elders, well, suck.
What I didn’t know, is that box elders are also technically a maple (genus Acer) and, after I getting my first jar of box elder syrup from my friend Matt Mosher over at Matt’s Mushrooms and More, I have to tell you, I’m happily eating my words, and they taste a bit like butterscotch, with a tiny hint of interesting, woody funk.
Matt is the only person I know that sells box elder sap to the public (get in touch on Facebook if you’re in Minnesota, as he sells a number of things, including regular maple syrup and mushrooms) and when I heard he was selling it, I had to try some for myself. Matt also sells lots of other wild harvested products, including wild mushrooms, at the Big Lake Farmers Market.
Box elders don’t have as much sugar content as maple, and Matt says it will take about 60-80 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup, compared to maple’s typical 40 gallons. I stand here as a witness to tell you though, box elder syrup is delicious. It may not be maple, but I’m not here to say that one is better than the other. What I do think is good to consider, is that if you don’t have any maples on your property to tap, tapping box elders might be right for you.
Cooking with box elder syrup
The flavor is different from maple syrup, it’s more of a butterscotch-y, slightly woody quality to it. It’s excellent. Obviously, you could use it anywhere you’d use maple syrup, but, most of the people I’ve talked to say they prefer to use it as a sweetener in dishes since the flavor isn’t as assertive as maple. I also know some people that don’t care for the flavor of maple syrup (don’t ask me why, but it’s a thing) and for those people, box elder syrup might be a good thing to try-the only problem is finding some.
Since box elder syrup (at least Matt’s) had a noticeable butterscotch flavor, I used it to make a simple custard/pudding/pastry cream. Cooking with syrup isn’t as simple as substituting it 1:1 for sugar though, luckily I have a few tricks up my sleeve for cooking with maple.
The biggest thing to take into account from my experience is that syrups contain much more water than regular sugar, so I typically cook and reduce them for a bit before plugging them into recipes. Here the syrup is reduced to a caramel, deglazed with whiskey, and mixed with half and half and eggs for a simple stovetop pudding.
- This is a thick pudding, that could double as filling for eclairs, pie filling or pastry cream. If you want it more stiff to use as a pie filling, add an additional egg yolk. If, after the pudding chills you find you want it looser, thin it with a splash of milk or cream.
- When correctly made, there should be no curdled egg in the bottom of your pan, if there is, you can buzz it in a food processor, or just deal.
- I have the finished pudding pictured chilled here, as that’s how I usually have mine, but you could certainly serve it warm fresh from the pan, too, and it will be more supple. You can also allow the pudding to come to room temperature before you serve it, or gently heat it for 5 minutes in a 250 F oven if the pudding is in glass jars to soften it before serving.
Butterscotch Box Elder Pudding
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons box elder syrup
- 2 cups half and half
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons whiskey
- 2 large egg yolks save the whites for another purpose
- 3.5 tablespoons cornstarch
- In a 2 qt saucepot, heat the butter until browned and nutty smelling (be careful not to burn it). Carefully add the whiskey to the pot (it will sputter and sizzle) then add the box elder syrup and salt.
- Cook the syrup on high for a few minutes until thick, foamy, and you can almost see the bottom of the pan for a split second if you draw a spoon through the bottom. It should resemble thick caramel.
- Add the half and half to the pot (reserving a splash to hydrate the cornstarch) return the pan to the heat and cook on medium, whisking occasionally, until the caramel is melted and incorporated into the half and half. Remove the pot from the heat to cool (leaving it in the snow for a couple minutes works well if it’s sap season).
- Meanwhile, gently whisk the egg yolks with the cornstarch and the splash of half in a 1-2 qt size metal mixing bowl until and even paste forms.
- When the half and half mixture has cooled to the temperature of a warm bath, ladle 1/3 of it into the egg-cornstarch mix, then whisk until dissolved, minding the bottom and sides of the bowl where the eggs like to stick.
- Pour the egg mixture back into the pot with the half and half, then return to the stove and cook on medium heat until it just starts to thicken, whisking constantly (watch it carefully, it should seize at about 165-170 F).
- When the mixture visibly thickens, take it off the heat and whisk it well for a minute or two, then pour into a container, press cling film onto the surface of the pudding, and refrigerate until needed.
- After the pudding has chilled, taste it and judge the consistency. If you'd like it a little more loose, thin it by whisking with a splash of milk or water in a pinch.
- To serve, spoon or pipe the custard into ramekins or other small dishes, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top. Fill the top with whipped cream flavored with a dash of box elder syrup, and top with a dusting of crushed cookies. Pictured are amaretti made from hickory nuts.