Centuries after the arrival of Europeans on North American shores, maple syrup remains the best-known Native American contribution to American cuisine.

It has been lost to history who was the first to notice that sap from maple trees is faintly sweet. Removing the water that makes up about 98 percent of the sap has been the task of maple sugar makers since.

Letting vats of sap freeze and prying off the lids of ice over successive days was just one way to concentrate the sap. Boiling sap was the chief method of water extraction until the development of reverse osmosis devices, which push sap through a permeable membrane whose pores allow water but not sugar molecules to pass. The resulting liquid requires much less fuel to boil into syrup, sugar and maple cream.

Maple syrup is sold by grade and color, with most American syrup sold as Grade A or Grade B. The Grade A syrups, which tend to cost more, are lighter in color and have more delicate flavors, favored for pancakes and ice cream topping.

Grade B is darker, with a more robust maple flavor, and is sometimes preferred in cooking, when available.

Local pride: Quebec produces about three-quarters of all maple syrup. New York State's producers rank second in the United States, behind Vermont.

Branching out: Sugar maple trees are a variety named for their relatively sweet sap, but syrup can be made from the sap of red and black maples as well.

Here, from, maple syrup is used to flavor a rich but simple bread pudding. Use Grade B syrup if you can find it.

>Maple Bread Pudding

8 large eggs

1 quart whipping cream

1 cup sugar

1 cup maple syrup, plus more for drizzling

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 1-pound loaf brioche or egg bread, torn into bite-size pieces

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk eggs, cream, sugar, 1 cup maple syrup and vanilla in large bowl to blend. Add brioche; stir to coat. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour if possible, but at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Transfer bread mixture to prepared dish. Bake until puffed and golden and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly. Cut into pieces. Place 1 piece of pudding on each plate.

Serve warm as is, or top with more syrup, vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 12 or more.