The first I ever heard of molasses was this joke which I found hugely amusing at about age 13:
An entire community of moles decides to move tunnels across town. So they pack up all their mole-ish possessions, sling their little bundles over their shoulders (do moles even have shoulders??) and set off across town in single file. In front walks Daddy Mole, followed by Mamma Mole, Grandpa Mole, Grandma Mole, Big Brother Mole and finally, Baby Mole. After a while, Baby Mole jogs up to his brother and says "Brother Mole, I smell sugar!". Big Brother mole replies "No, Baby Mole, I’m sure you don’t" so Baby mole returns to the back. A while later, Baby mole jogs up to Grandma Mole and says "Grandma Mole, I smell sugar!". Grandma mole smiles kindly and says "No Baby Mole, you ain’t smelling sugar", and Baby Mole returns to the back of the line. Not ten minutes later he’s jogging up alongside Grandpa saying "Grandpa Mole, I smell sugar!". Grandpa Mole pats him on the head and says "No, Baby Mole, I don’t believe you do" and sends him back to his place in the line. But it’s not long before Baby Mole arrives, out of breath, at his mother’s side where he says (in an increasingly whiney voice!) "Mamma, I’m sure I smell sugar!". But Mamma Mole replies "Oh no, son, you dont", and he trots back to the end of the line. Finally he can’t take it any more and dashes all the way to the front of the line where his father is trailblazing. In exasperation he exclaims "Daddy Mole, I smell sugar! I’ve been smelling it ever since we started walking and it’s driving me crazy!". And Daddy Mole looks at him and says "Son, that ain’t sugar you’re smelling, it’s mole-asses!".
[Apologies to any sensitive readers who may have been offend… oh, who am I trying to kid!! Sensitive readers left a long time ago!! – Ed.]
Anyhow, molasses was not something I grew up with. As child in South Africa, my experience of sugary syrups was confined to honey and golden syrup (corn syrup/light treacle and my favourite addition to a peanut butter sandwich…). If you were really "larney" (classy), you might have had some maple syrup lurking in the pantry, but molasses was a speciality ingredient and not something we ever really had at home. Even here in the UK, the only molasses I have seen has been in speciality (read expensive!) shops so I was a bit concerned about how I expensive it was going to be to take part in SHF. That is, until I checked for ingredient substitutions for molasses and found out that its virtual twin in the UK is called black treacle – available from leading supermarkets – hurrah!
Now sugar cane is a splendid thing. It produces the whole gamut of sugars, from refined white, through brown, demerera, light muscovado and dark muscovado, plus fancies like cubes and cappuccino sugar sticks. It also produces syrups, ranging from the sweetly bland golden syrup through to the scary intensity of dark treacle a.k.a. molasses. (See this site for everything you always wanted to know about the different incarnations of sugar but were too afraid to ask…) On the very useful Recipes 4 Us website I learned all I needed to know about treacle, so for those who are interested, here goes:
- Treacle was originally the name of a medicinal mixture which was most likely used as an antidote against poisons, in particular venomous bites. The name is derived from Old French triacle, in turn from Latin theriaca meaning “antidote to poison”. This medicine originally had honey as its base, but at some point the honey was replaced with treacle. Fyi the name ‘molasses’ comes from the Portuguese word melaço which is derived from the Latin mel, meaning honey. (no moles involved then? [NO!! – Ed.]
- As the medicinal meaning died out in about the 17th century, the word ‘treacle’ took on its present day meaning, and was used chiefly as a cheap form of sweetener. By the late 1700s, refined sugar became affordable to the masses in Britain and overtook treacle as a general sweetener. By the mid 1800s treacle was used more as an ingredient in recipes, giving certain added qualities (colour, taste, moisture etc) to dishes, as it is to this day.
- Treacle is a by product of sugar refining. During the refining process, raw sugar cane is first crushed then boiled in stages until it has thickened sufficiently to facilitate the growing of sugar crystals which will eventually become refined sugar. Light treacle (light molasses), is made from the syrup obtained during the first boiling of the sugar cane/beets. About 65% sucrose, it is the lightest in colour and the sweetest of all the treacles and is usually unsulphered. Black Treacle (dark molasses) is made from the syrup obtained from later boilings and is about 55% sucrose – in other words, noticeably less sweet.
- When producing white sugar, a refinery is looking to obtain 99.95% sucrose from the base raw sugar, which contains some 95-55% sucrose. The balance consists of chemical and physical impurities, which include invert sugars and colours. The colour is formed during extraction of the sugar juice from the crushed cane. It is these impurities that contain the natural raw flavour and aroma of molasses.
- The technical difference between “treacle” and “molasses” in that molasses is obtained from the drainings of raw sugar during the refining process and treacle is made from the syrup obtained from the sugar. (For more technical info, check out this piece on a beer brewing website, where molasses is used in the brewing process.)
They also include some hints for cooking with molasses/treacle:
- When measuring out treacle, lightly coat the measuring utensil with a bland vegetable oil so it slips off the spoon or out of the measuring cup more easily. Alternatively, dip the measuring utensil in hot water before measuring.
- Baked goods using Black Treacle tend to darken more quickly, so don’t be alarmed by their colour in the oven.
- In most recipes, do not substitute Black Treacle for Golden Syrup as the flavour will be too overpowering.
OK, so far so good. I had studied my ingredient carefully – the next step was to open the tin. I have to say that I respect a grocery-cupboard product where the label warns you to throw it out as soon as the expiry date is reached "as pressure may have built up in storage"!! Whoa, stand back, I think the treacle’s going to blow!! Fabulous. Anyway, I opened the tin and found that black treacle resembles nothing so much as crude oil – thick, opaque and viscuous – a sugar product with serious attitude. This is not something you’re going to drizzle onto your breakfast toast. Had a little experimental taste and realised immediately that this was the base flavouring for a sweet that I (and pretty much every other South African child) loved while growing up – Wilson’s Champion toffees!!! Remember the original flavour ones with the black wrapper that nobody could every decide what they were flavoured with? Well, wonder no more. Definitely molasses. And so, having taken my empirical research of the ingredient as far as I could go, it was ready, steady bake.
Scones have a long tradition and are believed to have originated in Scotland, closely related to the griddle-baked flatbread known as bannock (and a cousin to American-style biscuits). If you feel the need to know more about scones (pronounced either "skon" or "skoan" – both are correct, in an "I say tomato, you say tomata" kind of way), continue reading here. As for treacle scones, pretty much all web reference to them indicate that they are a very old Scottish confection, so the recipe below does not seem to have strayed too far from the roots of scones.
Black Treacle Scones (from All Recipes)
3 2/3 Cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup milk.
Preheat oven to 425F/220C and lightly grease a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, sift tgether the flourm baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Cut in the butter with a fork or pastry blender.
Combine milk and molasses in a small bowl. (Yes, this does look like mission impossible at first – you try mixing something with the consistency of water, with something with the consistency of crude oil. But unlike crude oil, the treacle dissolves ever so slowly in the milk, and with continuous stirring you get there in the end.)
Stir the milk mix into the flour mix until moistened throughout. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surfce and knead brifly. Roll dough out into a 1/2 inch thick round. Cut out circles with a medium biscuit cutter and place rounds on the prepared baking sheet so that they are barely touching. (At this point you could brush the tops with egg white to make them prettier, but mine went into the over at 23h30 and I was not going to muck about with egg whites at that stage!!)
Bake in a preheated oven for 10-12 minutes. Move to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly before serving. Makes 15.
They emerged 12 minutes later, looking like wholewheat scones as a result of all the spce and the molasses. But the proof of the pudding’s in the tasting as they say – so these were duly sampled. The recipe had suggested that they may be a bit heavy and to combat this, some of the milk could be replaced with an egg, but mine were made with all milk and I didn’t find them particularly heavy at all. They had a nice crumb without falling apart (as some insufficiently moist scones do). The taste was intriguing – rather like a scone-shaped spicy speculoos cookie. If anything, I would increase the amount of spices next time to give it a bit more spicy oomph! It certainly isn’t a sweet scone – the 1/2 teaspoon of salt came through surprisingly strongly in the final taste and the molasses lends colour and moisture rather than any hint of a sweet taste. Overall I would say these scones make an interesting change from the scones I normally make, rather than a radical departure. But I suspect that if you played around a bit with the amount of spice and treacle used, you could coax an extraordinary taste out of these.