Sweet as Molasses: Making a Molasses Cake

When thinking about a recipe to try for this year’s Great Rare Books Bake Off, I tried to find something that required minimal ingredients and was something that I had never tried before. A lot of the required ingredients for cakes that I kept finding required a large amount of eggs, flour, and sugar, until I stumbled across the Molasses Cake. This recipe from the 1900s comes is apart of our Cookbooks and Herbal collection on Diginole. This recipe is from a book called Home helps with illustrations: a practical and useful book of recipes.

Recipe is from
Home helps with illustrations: a practical and useful book of recipes, 1900

A Brief History of Molasses

Molasses is a sweet dark syrup, that is harvested from sugar cane. It has had a rich and dark history in cooking and baking. Molasses was long used as a sweetener for dishes, sweets, and was a primary ingredient for creating rum. As an ingredient for rum, it became a key moving part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, from the 1600s to the early 1800s. In early colonial America, ships carried molasses to New England, where it was turned into rum, and became an extremely profitable market for the early American colonies. The market for molasses became so big and profitable that that the British enacted the Molasses Act of 1733 on the colonies. Other important British legislation such as the Stamps or Sugar Act, were primary causes of what would lead to the American Revolution.

There was also the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which occurred in Boston, Massachusetts. A large storage tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst, and the resultant wave of molasses rushed through the streets of Boston’s north end neighborhood, killing 21 and injuring 150 people. As depicted in the picture, houses and buildings were completely swept away, roads gone, and even train and streetcar lines severely damage. It took weeks to clean up the flood.

Up until the 1880s, molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States, because it was much cheaper than refined sugar. Molasses used to be a primary sweetener, along with honey, until refined white sugar pushed it to the back of the shelf. After the end of World War I, refined sugar prices dropped drastically resulting in the migration of consumers from molasses to white sugar crystals. By 1919, U.S. per capita consumption of white sugar was twice what it was in 1880, with most Americans completely switching from molasses to refined white and brown sugar. Today, molasses is twice the cost of regular sugar and a common ingredient for your favorite holiday treats, such as gingerbread.

Baking the Recipe

I went about acquiring the ingredients for the cake. I stayed pretty true to the recipe outlined above. Instead of using “New Orleans” Molasses, I opted to use the molasses I found at Publix. I also had to do some research about what the ingredient listed as Cottolene was and what it was made out of. Cottolene was shortening that was made out of beef suet and cottonseed oil. The shortening dominated the vegetable cooking oil market until Crisco was created in the early 20th century. For this recipe, I opted to use Crisco Vegetable Shortening. The rest of the ingredients were all pantry staples I had readily available. While ginger is the only spice listed in the recipe, you could definitely add cinnamon or cloves!

I added the baking soda and water together and mixed it throughly to make a paste. I also melted the two tablespoons of shortening in the microwave, until it had the consistency of melted butter. The recipe does not say to mix the ingredients in gradually, but I did mix all of the wet ingredients together before adding the flour and the ginger to the mixture. I especially wanted to mix the hot boiled water in before I started adding in those dry ingredients.

After adding the flour and ginger, I hand-mixed the batter for about 5 minutes until a very liquid batter formed. I was very unsure if I should have added more flour, because the batter was just so thin. I decided to not add any more ingredients though, and took my chances in the oven. I consulted some modern-day recipes to see what temperature to cook the cake at, and landed at 375 for 30 minutes.

I was absolutely shocked to see that the cake cooked so well. I was convinced that the middle would be uncooked and the bottom undercooked (or as Mary Berry would say “a soggy bottom”). But it was somehow perfectly baked. I was surprised about just how dense the cake baked. After cooling for an hour, I plated the cake and sprinkled some powdered sugar on top. When served, I opted to serve the cake warmed up with a side of whipped cream (cup of coffee optional but it tasted great with it).

The cake is definitely a hit. It is definitely very sweet due to the molasses, but it has a deep flavor, and tastes very similar to gingerbread. I think this cake is a perfect autumnal/winter recipe, and it goes perfect with a hot cup of tea or coffee.

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