Friday, November 19, 2010

ingredient: MOLASSES

You’ve probably dismissed molasses as a second-rate honey substitute or as something some people might pour over their waffles instead of maple syrup (it’s not, they don’t). And OK, if pressed, you’d admit you’re not really sure what molasses is. You think it’s used in baking, but you’ve never used it yourself. In any case, it looks a bit too much like tar to give it a second thought, and it’s always next to the condensed milk, which you’ve never bought either (maybe once to donate to City Harvest? Or was that evaporated milk? Is there a difference?) The phrase “slow as molasses” comes to mind, and you’re bored just looking at this product. I don’t blame you because, at least in the North East, the only brand you’ll find in most stores is endorsed by this woman:

Well let me tell you, molasses isn’t your grandmother’s sweetener. In fact, molasses was involved in one of the craziest incidents in US history. Imagine an eight foot high wave of molasses rushing at you, killing twenty-one people and untold horses. This actually happened in Boston’s North End neighborhood in 1919 when a shoddily constructed tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst and flooded the surrounding neighborhood. Buildings were leveled. A Professor of Mechanical Engineering at M.I.T did the math, and due to the height of the column of liquid, the wave of molasses must have been moving at a speed of at least thirty five miles an hour. It was a molasses tsunami!

I can’t believe that Hollywood hasn’t made a motion picture out of this event. Drowning in molasses is terrifying. Interested parties should read this book, which I think I’ll personally forgo since I’ve definitely poured too much honey in my mouth at once, and the idea of suffocating in sugar hits a little too close to home.

Now that you know that molasses is a badass killing machine, you may be inclined to buy it. So let me answer those first questions, namely what is it and what does one use it for? Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar making process. After sugar cane is stripped and boiled, the sucrose starts to crystallize. To get refined sugar, a.k.a white sugar, you let the sucrose crystallize until it has separated from a brown liquid. This brown liquid is molasses. I’d like to take this moment to point out that brown sugar is simply sugar that hasn’t been totally removed of its “impurities.” So while it contains nominally more trace elements than white sugar, brown sugar is not better for you. It is not like wheat versus white bread. Sorry.

These marketing people deserve a raise.

Molasses, on the other hand, is better for you than refined sugar. More specifically, blackstrap molasses is better for you. Blackstrap is the grade of molasses that has been boiled three times until most of the sugar has been taken out. Just a tablespoon of this viscous liquid provides almost twenty percent of your daily iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. In general I'm not a proponent of agave syrup or stivia extracts. Only sugar really tastes like sugar; who cares about my glycemic index. But since I don't use molasses instead of sugar, I use molasses when I want a brown-sugar burnt caramel flavor, I feel confident in touting its nutritional advantages.

What do you use molasses for? Well, mostly, we use molasses to make rum. And barbeque sauce. See? Molasses is improving your life on possibly a daily basis and you didn’t even know it. Molasses is also great in baked goods because it provides a deeper, more complex flavor than regular sugar. I use molasses in a slightly unorthodox way; I put it in my oatmeal. Living in a house where you only get plain oatmeal, you learn interesting ways to jazz things up. Putting molasses in my oatmeal is a good way to get some iron and it gives my oatmeal a caramel flavor that isn't artificial.

The aftermath. Terrifying.

Gingerbread Bundt Cake with Ginger Frosting
bundt adapted from Gingerbread

You want to hear something shocking? The key ingredient in gingerbread isn’t ginger. It’s molasses! I feel incredibly misled and rather sorry for this under-appreciated ingredient.

I found this out the other day when I opened a cookbook which is entirely devoted to gingerbread. (It should be entirely devoted to molasses.) I was in a festive spirit because the holiday windows had just debuted in New York, and this year Barney’s theme is a foodie Christmas. The holiday flavor profile is one of my favorites; cinnamon, nutmeg, candied fruits, peppermint. It’s all spicy and warm and cozy and I couldn’t help getting a head start on my holiday baking.

I’ll admit that I was intending to write a post on ginger. And not to put molasses in the corner, I increased the ginger flavor of this cake by adding a ginger frosting. (I’m also just inclined to frost things.) The true star, however, is still molasses. There’s a whopping cup of it in this cake, versus only two teaspoons of ginger—and I actually increased the amount of ginger from the original recipe.

The recipe below makes one 8 cup bundt cake. When I made it, I doubled the recipe and filled one 10 cup bundt pan and one gingerbread man cake pan because I can hardly ever resist something that kitschy, and it’s the holidays so all bets are off.

Gingerbread gingerbread men!
Serves 8

For cake:

2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1 cup hot water


¾ stick unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger (ideally grated with a microplane so its really just ginger mush with juice)
1 pinch salt
1 tbsp candied ginger, chopped (optional)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Butter and flour an 8 cup bundt pan (or a 9 inch square pan)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves.

In a large bowl, beat the butter until it is smooth. Add the brown sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the molasses and beat until smooth.

Mix in the vanilla extract and the egg.

Now alternate adding the flour and the hot water, mixing between each addition. NB: When you’re adding the water, be careful for back splash.

Pour the batter into the bundt pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Be careful not to over bake it, you want a moist cake.

While the cake cools, make the frosting.

In a food processor, cream the butter and cream cheese until smooth.

Add the powdered sugar, ginger, and salt. Pulse until combined into a smooth, spreadable frosting.
If you’re making a bundt cake, I think it’s nice to just ice the top. Then I chopped up a tbsp worth of candied ginger and threw it on top, to make it look nice.

A frosting halo for the holidays

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