Emergency Pancake Syrup, a Simple Hack You'll Actually Use

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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I'd like to tell you I'm the sort of person who's tasted her way through every sugar shack in Vermont, that I know a guy who knows a guy across the border, that I skip past lesser grades in pursuit of the elusive "Canadian No. 3." I want to say those things because they're so much more romantic than the truth of my childhood in Kentucky, where Aunt Jemima was the norm.

To my picky, picky, much-put-upon palate, that sweet and simple supermarket syrup was bliss. Not so much because of its flavor, but because of the utter lack thereof—sticky, uncomplicated perfection that transformed my Eggos into a saccharine delight. While I've cultivated somewhat more discerning tastes through the years, I've never quite outgrown my nostalgia for the glorious neutrality of "Original Syrup" (as all such products are properly styled).

Which is why I've invested an obscene amount of time and sugar in perfecting the replacement you see here. Because, no, that isn't maple syrup in the photo above. It's a warm, made-from-scratch syrup of my own. Not brown sugar simple syrup. Not caramel. Not treacle, corn syrup, or molasses, just a quick combination of pantry staples assembled on the fly.

It's easy and cheap enough to make you think twice about ever settling for mass-market syrup again, and unbelievably handy in a pinch. Even if you're the sort of die-hard who smuggles maple syrup into your favorite diner, there are surely times you've found yourself between bottles of BLiS.

To make emergency pancake syrup, I start out by assembling what beekeepers would call a heavy syrup—one part water and two parts sugar by weight. A half ounce of that comes from brown sugar, adding a whisper of malty color and complexity without any domineering notes of caramel or molasses. There's plenty of salt for balance, and a little cream of tartar, too.

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It's simmered until it's incredibly thick, during which time the cream of tartar serves as a catalyst for acid hydrolysis, a process that breaks down a portion of the sugar (pure sucrose) into molecules of glucose and fructose. These highly soluble monosaccharides help the super-saturated syrup resist crystallization, keeping it silky-smooth. Without cream of tartar, the syrup would recrystallize in a matter of minutes.

The downside is that cream of tartar has an acidic flavor, sharp and bright in a way that seems totally weird. So, in the final stages of cooking, when the acid has done its job, I throw in a pinch of baking soda (an alkali). It foams up furiously in response, neutralizing the acidic flavor in a steamy burst of carbon dioxide.

Technically speaking, that should be that. I've made up a syrup that's deliciously rich and thick. Trouble is, it's so thick, all that carbon dioxide can't actually escape, clouding the amber syrup with a million tiny bubbles.

The problem may be strictly cosmetic, but it's easily cleared away with a splash of water.

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That loosens the syrup enough for the gas to escape, and then, a moment later, the extra water is cooked away. With its luscious consistency restored, I season the syrup with a touch of butter and a few drops of vanilla, giving it a subtle but rich aroma perfect for everything from pancakes to French toast.

After it cools to an edible temperature, the syrup's ready to be served...or bottled up!

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From there, you could slip a cinnamon stick or an empty vanilla pod into the jar, or even a bourbon barrel chip if you're feeling fancy. But for me, the syrup's charm lies within its childlike simplicity—a clean yet earthy sweetness that brings out the best in my favorite waffles, letting their inherent flavor shine.

Since the syrup isn't fully inverted (which would require an industrial setting), it may show some crystallization if refrigerated over a period of time, much like an old jar of honey forgotten on the shelf. In my experience, this is a very subtle thing, no more than a thin layer of sugar along the bottom of the glass. It's easily avoided because it sticks to the bottle, but, should any crystals happen to slip through, they'll be quickly warmed away.

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So, whether your heart belongs to maple or Mrs. Butterworth, don't let a lack of syrup derail the breakfast of your dreams! With this recipe in your repertoire, sweet salvation is at hand.