Know Your Ingredients
Make Mine Molasses
Revisiting a sweet holiday treat
In January 1919, a 14,000-ton tank of molasses burst and sent a 30-foot wall of ooze rampaging through downtown Boston. It crushed a firehouse, flung horses and wagons into the air, and molassesed 21 people to death.
Up to that time, molasses had been America's No. 1 sweetener. But within six years of the Boston disaster, sales of the sticky syrup were slower than molasses in January. (Sorry.)
But molasses' decline had less to do with bad publicity, and more to do with money. Before World War I, the price of refined sugar was so high that many ordinary people couldn't afford it. What they could afford was the by-product of sugar refining: a strong-tasting, sweet syrup called molasses (from the Latin mel, meaning honey).
That's why just about every nostalgic Christmas sweet calls for molasses—gingerbread, fruitcake, mincemeat, plum pudding, figgy pudding. Molasses lends them that smoky, spicy, old-fashioned flavor that you can't get with refined sugar.
Today's molasses is far milder than old-fashioned molasses. You can still buy "blackstrap" molasses—the strongly flavored, only slightly sweet syrup that's left after sugar cane juice has been refined three times—but it's mostly used in livestock feed nowadays.
A couple of things to look for on the molasses label: "Unsulphured" means no sulfur dioxide has been added as a preservative. "Full flavor" or "robust" probably means the molasses contains some "first molasses," or syrup that's left over after sugar cane juice has been refined once. "Fancy" or "original" molasses is the mild molasses that most modern palates prefer. It's simply raw cane juice with all of its sugar still intact.
That's the molasses you're most likely to use in your molasses cookies, gingersnaps, baked beans and shoo-fly pie.
If you want to get totally nostalgic this Christmas, boil your molasses with a little sugar, butter and a dab of soda or vinegar and indulge in that favorite youth pastime of centuries past: a taffy pull.
Gingerbread Cake with Lemon Sauce
Just about every nostalgic Christmas sweet calls for molasses—gingerbread, fruitcake, mincemeat, plum pudding, figgy pudding. Molasses lends them that smoky, spicy, old-fashioned flavor that you can't get with refined sugar.
1 egg, separated
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 pinch salt
For the lemon sauce:
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1) Preheat oven to 350°. Butter and flour an 8x8-inch pan and set aside.
2) In a medium bowl, beat egg white to stiff peaks and set aside.
3) In a large bowl, cream brown sugar and butter together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolk, then molasses and buttermilk.
4) Sift in the remaining ingredients and add to the large bowl, stirring to combine. Fold 1/3 of the beaten egg white into this batter, then fold in the rest of the egg white.
5) Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
6) While the gingerbread is baking, make the lemon sauce. Combine sugar and cornstarch in a small saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until syrup comes to a boil and thickens. Stir in butter, lemon juice and zest. Refrigerate to allow flavors to blend and sauce to thicken further.
7) When the gingerbread is done, allow to cool slightly, cut into squares and top with lemon sauce.