How to Make Toffee With Maple Syrup, Snow and Your Kids
Do your kids love sweet treats?
Does your family like music, dancing, good food and great company?
Wherever you live, you can have a sugar shack adventure and bring the traditions of the sugaring off season to your table.
Sugaring off, which usually happens in March, is the time of year when sugar maple trees are tapped for their slightly sweet sap. This sap is then boiled down and transformed into maple syrup. This is the good stuff—none of that corn syrup and water!
And in maple country, it’s much more than that. In this article I’ll show you how to bring to life the best of the sugaring off season, whether you live in Quebec (where 75% of the world’s maple syrup is produced) or amid palm trees in southern California or anywhere in between!
Why Have a Sugar Shack Adventure?
A sugar shack adventure, commonly known as sugaring off, is a wonderful way to say goodbye to the last days of winter and watch as the world starts gearing up for spring. Sugaring off season is the perfect time to take a walk with your family through the forest and discover various natural processes in the world around us.
It’s also a great time to discuss the seasons with your kids and share with them all of the gifts that nature has to offer. Maple syrup is one of those gifts—a natural, pure and unprocessed substitute for sugar.
In sugar maple country, this is also a time to get together with friends and family to celebrate.
A party to celebrate and enjoy sugar? How cool is that?
Sugaring off is steeped in tradition.
A sugar shack, or cabane à sucre in French, is the place to visit during the month of March. Imagine being whisked through the snow-covered forest in a horse-drawn sled past hundreds of maple trees to a traditional wood cabin where sap is being simmered into syrup in large, flat metal pans over wood fires.
After seeing the maple syrup process in action, you follow friends and family into a large room full of long, wooden tables. You’re served steaming plates of omelets, baked beans, sausages and pancakes—with lots of maple syrup, of course—while you listen to lively folk music played on fiddle and accordion.
Enjoy listening to folk music from the sugar maple region while you read.
After the meal and dancing, it’s time to go back outside, where long, thin strips of hot maple toffee are being poured on snow.
Twirl some of the sticky sweetness onto a stick—that’s called tire d’érable!
If you don’t live in sugar maple country, bring the experience to you! Take your kids on a sugar shack adventure wherever you live.
Gather these supplies, and get ready for your family sugar shack adventure.
#1: Discover How Maple Syrup Gets From the Tree to Your Table
Start your sugar shack adventure by learning, along with your kids, how maple trees are traditionally tapped.
Before you learn how maple syrup is actually made, discuss the possibilities with your kids. Take a walk with your kids, preferably in a wooded area to simulate an authentic sugaring off scenario. If you live in a cold-weather climate, make sure you bundle up.
Lead the conversation and ask simple questions:
- How do you think maple syrup is made?
- How do you think they get syrup out of the tree?
- What would be the most fun about living in a place where you make sugar?
Add these if you live in a warm climate:
- How would you feel about living in a snowy place?
- What would be the best and worst things about it?
Once you come up with your own creative scenario, sit down with your kids and learn the real story.
The first settlers in North America learned to tap the maple trees according to Amerindian custom. Since then, some parts of the process have been modernized; but many things have remained the same.
Take five minutes to watch this video with your kids.
See how maple syrup is produced on a farm in Quebec.
First, the maple tree is tapped. That means a hole is drilled into the tree, a spout is inserted into the hole, and a bucket hung to collect the dripping sap.
Did you know it takes 10 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup?
When enough watery sap is collected, the next step is to boil it down. The sap is only slightly sweet. You have to remove the water to get down to the sugar. The sap is collected into large, shallow pans and boiled, often over a wood fire.
Seventy-five percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Quebec. Other syrup-producing U.S. states and Canadian provinces include Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Once you learn the tradition and the process, it’s time to try it with your kids.
#2: Do Your Own Tire
In the United States, it’s called sugar on snow. In English-speaking Canada, it’s called maple toffee or maple taffy and in French-speaking Canada, it’s called tire d’érable (teer-de-rah-ble).
I’m going to show you how to make this tasty treat in your own kitchen.
Note: If there’s no snow outside, make sure you have shaved or crushed ice in your freezer before you get started.
The first step will depend on whether you have maple toffee or maple syrup.
If you live in a maple syrup-producing area, you’ll likely have access to maple toffee. You can buy it at a local farm or even at some grocery stores.
If you don’t live in a syrup-producing region, you may still be able to find maple toffee in a specialty food store. But if not, don’t fear! You can use butter and any pure maple syrup (no substitutes, which are little more than corn syrup, water, artificial colors and flavors); it will just require an extra step.
Note: Younger kids will need help with this next step.
If you’re working with maple syrup, put two cups of it in a saucepan with one teaspoon of butter. Boil uncovered on medium-high heat until the syrup reaches 250-260° F. (Use a candy thermometer to check the temperature.) Do not stir. You are boiling down the syrup even more to get to the sugars.
If you’re working with maple toffee, put one cup of it in a microwave-safe container and heat on high for about 45 seconds, or until it becomes liquid.
Do you have snow outside? If so, while you finish heating the maple syrup or toffee, your kids should put on their boots! Give them a cookie sheet or two and a ladle to scoop snow. Have them pack clean, fresh snow on the cookie sheets, tapping it down firmly and smoothing the top.
If you don’t have snow, use a cookie sheet with shaved or crushed ice! Shaved ice is better, but you can also put crushed ice in a blender to chop it even more.
Another option if you have room in your freezer: put a layer of water into a deep cooking sheet or freezable baking dish and freeze. Make sure to have your “ice” ready before heating your maple syrup or toffee.
Hot maple toffee can cause burns, so always be careful. If you heated syrup and butter over the stove, pour directly from the pan. If you are using toffee, pour from the measuring cup you used to heat it.
Either you or your child—decide whether your child is capable of doing this step safely—can carefully pour a thin strip of toffee on top of the snow (or ice). This is a great test of fine motor skills for younger children.
After the strips of toffee are poured, wait a few seconds for them to cool. Then, use a popsicle stick, chopstick or spoon to roll it up. Now, it’s ready to eat!
Note: If your kids go a little crazy with the pouring, don’t worry. It might not roll up as beautifully, but it will still taste great.
#3: Have a Sugar Celebration
Sugaring off isn’t just about the maple syrup! It’s also about spending time with family and friends, and enjoying the many traditions that have grown around it. If you can’t visit an authentic sugar shack, set up the scene for your kids.
Start by playing some folk music. Here are some traditional choices:
La Belle Province Québec: French-Canadian Folk Songs (Alexander Zelkin and Denise Bérard)
French Canadian, Irish and Scottish Fiddle Music (Jean Carignan)
Check out the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra – a lively Canadian Barn Dance.
Hungry for more? Prepare a traditional sugar shack meal as a family. Typical fare includes pancakes, baked beans, sausages and omelets, all served with a side of maple syrup. Come up with a menu, divide the responsibilities and cook together.
Once your meal is prepared and your fiddle music is ready to play, sit down, share stories and talk about your favorite parts of the experience. Enjoy your family sugar shack celebration.
Some Final Thoughts…
The sugaring off season is a time to get outside and observe how the forest starts to wake up to spring after a long, cold winter. Remember, this is something you can do even if there’s no snow on the ground. This is a time to be with family and friends and celebrate nature’s gifts. Traditions that everyone can enjoy have evolved around the work of producing maple syrup.
All over the world, people celebrate the changing of the seasons. And now you can celebrate and enjoy them too!
How do you celebrate the coming of spring where you live?
What do you think? Did you enjoy your sugar shack adventure, celebrating the sugaring off season, Canadian style? Share your experience and photos of your kids enjoying their tire d’érable below!
Amanda Shaw is mom to three spirited children and doubles as director of content marketing at WebrunnerMG. On any given day, she dons a tutu or a hard hat. Other posts by Amanda Shaw »