New England is one of the probably two places in the country (the other being the South) where molasses is still used in everyday cooking and baking, not just for the occasional batch of gingerbread or cut-out holiday cookie. These, of course, are very good, and gingerbread with whipped cream and a thin chocolate sauce is a favorite winter dessert of mine. But New Englanders eat molasses, to borrow a phrase from Dickens, all the year ‘round, in baked beans, Indian pudding, a portfolio of steamed puddings (including, of course, plum pudding), Boston Brown Bread, date nut bread, buckwheat pancakes, and loads of other traditional dishes.
It’s interesting that molasses has remained so popular despite its high price and the wide availability of a local sweetener, maple syrup (now expensive, but until recent decades quite cheap) and, of course, the ubiquitous white cane sugar (now cheap, but once expensive). Price is not the point, but rather, flavor. Sugar is just sweet; maple syrup is, well, maple-y and a tad delicate, requiring quite a lot to make an impression. Molasses is intense, robust, viscous like honey, and has an open-hearted affinity for spice. It works where other sweeteners don’t, and has great cross-over applicability in hearty, savory dishes such as stews and chilis, and as a color-enhancing glaze for meat and poultry. It is also a fine addition to cocktails and breads (including the famous Anadama).
Like brown sugar and maple syrup, molasses is available in grades of flavor or refinement. Generally available are two, a light and a dark (sometimes called robust or full-flavor); a third and the most intense and bitter-edged of all, blackstrap, is more difficult to find. If you are going to have only one on hand—although molasses keeps well without loss of flavor in your pantry—it should probably be the dark. A by-product of sugar-making—each grade is produced from stages of boiling, similar to the process by which grades of maple syrup are produced—molasses may be either sulphured or unsulphured, depending on the age of the sugarcane used in manufacture. For best quality and and flavor, look for unsulphured molasses.
Molasses has the added benefits of being a good source of calcium and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, and copper. It is high in iron (blackstrap being the highest), second only to beef liver, and does not lose any nutrient power in baking. Cookie? Calf’s liver? You choose. My choice is clear.
Soft Molasses-Spice Cookie-Jar Cookies
This is an adaptation of a recipe I cut out of a magazine 25 years ago or so; I long since transferred it to a card, and don't remember where it originally came from (it's not from the vintage Brer Rabbit cookbook shown in the picture). I have fooled around with it a bit, adding the vinegar and cardamom, increasing the ginger, and, I seem to recall, increasing the egg. Adjust the spice to your own taste; these are strongly spiced, according to mine. Be sure your spices are very fresh. These are excellent out of the oven, and are even better after a little aging in the freezer. Makes about 4 dozen.
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup dark molasses
2 tea cider vinegar
½ tea salt
2 large eggs
2 ½ tea baking soda
1 T ginger
1 ½ tea cloves
1 ½ tea cinnamon
½ tea cardamom
4 cups a-p flour
1/3 cup additional sugar for rolling
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter thoroughly, then add the sugar, beating til fluffy, followed by the molasses and vinegar and salt. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each. Mix the spices in on low. Sift the flour into the dough about a cup at a time, folding in at low speed and stopping when all has been incorporated.
Put the additional 1/3 cup sugar on a sheet of wax paper. With sugared hands, form the dough into balls of about 1 ½” in diameter, and roll them in the sugar. Place them about 2” apart on baking sheets, about 12 to a sheet, and bake for 13-14 minutes, until the cookies have spread into perfect rounds and the tops are nicely cracked. Do not overbake. While the first batch is baking, you can form the second batch, but do not roll them in sugar until you are ready to put them in the oven, or the sugar will melt and the cookies will not get their nicely cracked top.