Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blackstrap Baking

A beautiful bottle of blackstrap molasses has sat on my shelf for some time, calling to me in a quiet little voice every time I pass the pantry door. I opened it last weekend to sweeten an apple and pear pie; a mere two tablespoons added a delightfully subtle flavor and brought out the nutmeg quite nicely.

Despite the pie's success (my husband downed three slices in a single sitting), my craving for molasses was hardly allayed. So this afternoon, finding myself at the proverbial loose end, I decided to find a cookie recipe sweetened only with molasses. A quick search of Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project provided this gem from The New England Economical Housekeeper by Esther Allen Howland, published in 1845.

In case you are having trouble reading the image, here's the recipe:

61. Gingerbread, No. 8.

* Take a tea-cupful of molasses, a tea-spoonful of saleratus, dissolved in half a cup of boiling water, a tea spoonful of ginger, and flour to make it hard enough to roll. Bake it five minutes.

I substituted baking soda for the saleratus of course, but otherwise followed the directions exactly. The mix of boiling water, soda, and molasses fizzed up in a most alarming way at first, but it calmed down once I began stirring in the flour. I must admit I have no idea how much flour I ended up mixing in. Probably somewhere between three and four cups, but part of the fun was just adding more until it seemed about right. I had to knead the last bit of flour in at the very end, after the dough became too thick to stir effectively.

I rolled it fairly thin, with lots of flour to keep it from sticking to my pastry board. My cookie cutters were less than 19th-century (a duck, a cowboy, and a giraffe) and of course I baked them in a modern oven. I set it to about 350 degrees. They baked through after about 7-10 minutes -- perhaps the oven should have been quicker -- and stayed nicely soft while cooling. I wonder if they will get hard once they've been in the tin for a day or so. We shall see . . . if they last that long.

Did I mention they are quite tasty? Not very sweet, but nicely spiced and chewy.

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