In fourth grade, I carried a royal blue plastic lunch box, the kind that latched in the middle and held a glass-lined thermos in its upper half. Every lunchtime, I'd peek into its dark interior to check the contents. Most days, my lunch, by Lamott's standard, was okay: bologna sandwich, dad's cookies, a tiny tupperware container of raisins. Occasionally, my mother swapped the raisins for a quartered pomegranate that stained my fingers and required the entire lunch period to eat. More often, she'd substitute bologna for a molasses sandwich. I loved molasses on toast or baked beans but left to sit all morning, the syrup oozed through the bread and formed a dark spongy mess. Imagine a black-ink stamp pad carefully folded into wax paper: my lunch. Surely not Okay, but I loved the taste nonetheless.
I've not subjected my own kids to molasses-soaked bread in their lunch box but I did serve blackstrap molasses drizzled on yogurt as their very first dessert. This combination remained a household favorite until we moved to South Africa and I failed to find molasses in its usual place on the grocery store shelf. After many inquiries and quizzical looks, I learned two things: in South Africa, molasses is stocked as ultra-healthfood (it's very high in minerals), right next to the textured soy protein; British treacle, over in the jam aisle, will do just fine in a pinch.
Now that we're back in Atlantic Canada, a region of deep molasses tradition, I feel compelled to explore the culinary range of this versatile syrup. Molasses, of course, is not local; Nova Scotians might say it's "from away." A by-product of sugar refinery, molasses hails from the south where sugar cane and sugar beet grow. Historically, molasses consumed in eastern North America originated in the West Indies. In the 1700s, its northbound journey comprised one leg of the infamous triangular trade in slaves, molasses, and fermented molasses -- rum. This route made fortunes for traders, merchants, and insurers.
Molasses continued to enrich Atlantic Canada during prohibition in the early 1900s. Rum replaced fish on many ocean-going vessels and made the journey from Canada to the dry states of America. Rum-running kept small fishing towns like ours from economic ruin. I can walk the streets of Lunenburg today and see how molasses shaped history: Rum-Runner's Inn, Rum Point, and the Ironworks Distillery, which still ferments molasses into dark rum.
My boys find this history, rife with smugglers, pirates, and gangsters, fascinating -- so many stories packed into an innocuous carton of molasses. After learning about rum-running, six-year-old Jon pulled me into our local liquor store shouting, "Come on, mom, I want to look at the rum!" I did not intend to teach my second-grader about alcohol, but about molasses, tradition, and cooking. It was time to get into the kitchen.
We began with an old favorite, ginger cookies. My go-to recipe (by Cooks Illustrated) contains five spices and a healthy dose of molasses. Rolled in granulated sugar and baked until just done, these cookies form a picture-perfect crackled top and taste of the Caribbean. Now, at this point in my column, I'd love to insert a heartwarming, cozy-mama tale about baking cookies with my kids. In truth, I undertook this endeavor two days before the new school year began, and mama was at her wit's end. The boys and I measured the flour together but after several rounds of sibling bickering, I nudged my brood outside and made the cookies myself. As in The Little Red Hen, the kids returned all smiles for the eating. Of course I said yes.
I waited for the boys to settle into school -- and mama to retrieve her equanimity -- before attempting our next recipe. This would be a savory dish, beef stew with dark ale and molasses, from Joy Crosby's wonderful Molasses Inspirations. The Crosby name is synonymous with molasses in this part of the world. The family first imported molasses to Nova Scotia in the late 1800s and continue to run the family business from New Brunswick. While molasses is still not, technically, a local product, I sourced fresh ingredients for our stew from the Lunenburg farmer's market: local beef, bacon, multi-colored carrots, onions, potatoes, and celery.
My kids are not stew fans -- too many foods touching each other. All three boys, however, chopped the vegetables with swash-buckling vengeance. Once bubbling on the stove, our stew smelled dark and delicious. Come dinnertime, predictably, no one would try it except Steve, my husband, who pronounced molasses stew the best he'd ever tasted. Much cajoling later, Thomas and Alex conceded. Yes, the beef and bacon were "good," and together with Jon they mopped up every drop of gravy with a slice of bread. The locally-grown and enthusiastically-chopped veggies remained untouched. I claimed moderate success.
"So, um, what's for dinner tomorrow?" Jon asked with some trepidation, realizing Mom was on a molasses kick.
"Molasses-glazed scallops," I replied.
Even Steve looked skeptical.
I needed a buffer, an intermediary recipe to secure molasses a place in our sweet books. The following Sunday, a rainy Cat-in-the-Hat day, Jon and I made Oatmeal and Flax Seed bread (also from Molasses Inspirations). Jon took to the task with gusto. He cheered on the yeast as it bloomed in the bowl, whipped in the molasses, donned Brad Pitt sunglasses for the kneading, and punched down the first rising with a hook usually aimed at his brothers. Soon the kitchen smelled of fresh bread and two loaves cooled on the rack.
Jon tasted the inaugural slice: "Mmmm.... Really good!" Thomas smeared his with butter and declared it the best bread ever. I jumped in and smothered my molasses bread with, yes, more molasses. That evening I made soup (leek for the adults; tomato for the kids) and a new family tradition was born: Sunday soup and homemade bread. Success.
And yet... the specter of molasses-glazed scallops loomed. I'd already bought the scallops from the market. I'd tweeted my vast (okay, modest) following that such a dish would indeed be served. The boys and I had watched live scallops smacking their saucer-like shells down on the wharf. I would follow through. Once again, Molasses Inspirations provided the recipe, a simple sesame, soy, and molasses marinade and a quick grill. I decided to go for gold and served the scallops with rice and kale chips (torn kale brushed with oil and baked to a crunch).
The molasses glaze worked brilliantly with the rich scallops -- but you have to like scallops to like this dish. One by one, the boys tried them and one by one, they pulled that familiar squinted-eye, twisted-mouth grimace. No, no, and no. At least they tried. Jon ate the kale chips, a small miracle, and Steve and I enjoyed a quarter-pound of scallops each. Shoot for gold, settle for bronze.
I'll continue to work through Molasses Inspirations. The title is apt, the recipes diverse and intriguing. I may throttle back on the glazed shellfish however, and try more plausible winners: molasses oatmeal raisin cookies, for instance, or gingerbread with pumpkin-molasses ice cream which is perfect, actually, because next month we're exploring the wide world of squash. A butternut-feta muffin in your lunch box is "Okay," isn't it?
See photos of our molasses creations on Pinterest
Beef Stew with Dark Ale and Molasses
From Molasses Inspirations by Joy Crosby, published by Formac.
10.5 ounces double-smoked bacon, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 lb chuck beef
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 large onions cut into wedges
2 tbsp mushrooms, quartered
4 large carrots, largely diced
2 stalks celery, largely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bottle dark beer
1 tsp mustard seeds
coarse salt and cracked black pepper to taste
4 tbsp molasses
3 cups beef stock
4 large potatoes, lightly parboiled and largely diced
Heat Dutch Oven or medium stock pot over high heat and add bacon. Render the fat and cook until bacon is crispy, about 7 minutes. Remove bacon, drain and reserve. Coat beef with flour, salt and pepper and brown in the bacon fat on all sides. Remove from the pot and reserve.
Using the same pot, reduce the heat to medium and add vegetable oil. Add onion, mushrooms, carrots, celery and garlic. Use a splash of beer to deglaze the pot, loosening all the brown bits sticking to the bottom. Saute vegetables for 4 minutes or until vegetables are brown and begin to soften. Add mustard seeds and salt and pepper. Return bacon and beef to the pot. Add remaining beer, molasses and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Place in oven at 350F for 75 minutes, then carefully add potatoes and cook for another 45 minutes. Serves 6.