Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Treacle Time

On January 15, 1919, 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded from a tank on Boston's harbor, cruising down the streets of the North End at 35 miles per hour, crushing everything in its path. By the end of the day, 21 people had died in the flood, an elevated railway had collapsed and dozens of buildings were filled with sweet treacle.

I only mention this because today I was thinking about the era before refined sugar, when molasses was the preferred sweetner for cakes and pies. My grandmother used to butter a slice of bread and then drizzle it with molasses, and as I age I find that I, too, have a penchant for the iron-rich syrup, which I keep on hand for gingerbread but sometimes spoon out of the jar. There are three types of molasses: unsulphured, which is made from the juice of ripe sugarcane, sulphured molasses, made from the juice of unripe, or green, sugarcane, and blackstrap molasses, the liquid that remains after nearly all the sugar has been boiled out, which has a strong, bitter flavor and is used primarily in animal feed. (I once made a cake with blackstrap molasses, which wasn't a good idea. The resulting moist cake, beautiful in appearance and nearly black in color, was acrid and most unpleasant to eat.)

Even in our sugar-obsessed culture, molasses has fallen out of favor. While artisanal honey is all the rage, there's not much clamor about molasses. The Southern Colony that eventually became the state of Georgia promised early settlers 24 pounds of molasses for every man, woman and child should they survive their first year America--imagine, molasses as a bargaining tool! And while once all sorts of sweets and cookies were once made with molasses, now it's the province almost exclusively of gingerbread, molasses cookies, and baked beans.

For those of you who are interested in a molasses recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift together the dry ingredients, then beat in the egg, sugar and molasses. Stir in the vegetable oil and the boiling water. Turn into a greased 8 inch square pan and bake for 30 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with whipped cream.

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