On January 15, 1919, the temperature in Boston reached a balmy 40 degrees. Fifty feet above the street, an enormous cast iron tank owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company burst, sending more than two million gallons of crude molasses — destined for the rum distillery — cascading onto the streets of the North End.
The sweet, sticky flood of molasses devastated the area; people tried to outrun it, but the Great Molasses Flood spilled down the streets at 35 miles per hour, demolishing buildings, upending vehicles, causing fatalities and injuries.
And, some say, on hot summer days, with the wind just so, you can still smell the faint scent of molasses wafting up through the cracks in the sidewalk.
(You can't, actually, but it's a nifty urban legend.)
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process. After raw cane juice is processed into raw sugar, the sugar is refined, and the syrup that remains after the sugar has been crystallized is called first molasses. It's then thinned with water and boiled down again, to extract more sugar. With each boiling, the syrup (molasses) becomes less sweet. After three or more boilings, it's called blackstrap molasses — almost no sweetness, but rich in iron, calcium and potassium. The darker the molasses, the stronger (less sweet) the taste.
Most often, molasses finds its way into baked goods: muffins and more muffins, cookies and more cookies, and scones and more scones. Look for it in the occasional savory dish, too, like filet mignon, barbecue sauce, and banana chips (though I might not serve these together!). Here in New England, molasses means Indian pudding, baked beans ... and, of course, gingerbread.
On my most recent visit to Eagle Trading Company, a used/rare/out-of-print cookbook store in Assonet, Massachusetts, I unearthed a lovely copy of Around America: A cookbook for young people, by Mildred O. Knopf (1969). I've adapted her child-friendly recipe for Indian Pudding, a New England tradition from colonial days, centuries before the Great Molasses Flood. Serves 6-8.
4 cups milk
1/2 cup yellow corn meal
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup maple syrup
3 Tbsp butter
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp flour
Soft butter or baking spray
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 275°F.
Pour milk into the top of a large double boiler. Fill the bottom of the double boiler half-full of hot water. Place the top onto the bottom and cover. Turn on the heat and let milk heat through until thoroughly hot, but do not boil. At this point, stir in cornmeal. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, stirring every now and then.
Remove top of double boiler to a kitchen counter or work surface. Beat in molasses and maple syrup. Break eggs into a small bowl, and beat thoroughly with a fork. Pour egg mixture into the pudding and stir vigorously. While mixture is still warm, add 3 Tbsp butter. In a small bowl or cup, combine cinnamon, ginger, salt and flour. Add to pudding mixture and stir well.
Prepare a two-quart baking ovenproof baking dish by smearing on some soft butter, or coating with baking spray (something like PAM that has flour in it). Add the pudding mixture, and bake for 2 hours. Remove from oven and let the pudding dish stand on a rack for 1/2 hour before serving. While the pudding is cooling, whip cream, sugar and vanilla until stiff. Serve pudding with the whipped cream, or with vanilla ice cream.
NOTE: Mrs. Knopf added that the pudding will have a delicious liquid (whey) in the bottom of the dish. "Some people are disturbed when they see this," she wrote, "but this is as it should be." I think she meant that the whey is as it should be!
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