As soon as it turns off a little chilly, molasses starts tasting even better than it did when the weather was warm. That thick, rich, somewhat bitter sweetness, a good deal like life itself in Maine, makes a cold island winter endurable. Despite its somewhat grim history, it is a comfort food, right along side meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do with it.

New Englanders used to go to the West Indies and fetch molasses, a product of the infamous sugar plantations, to make rum out of, but plenty was sold as a cheap sweetener, too, for use at home and sea. Molasses use was another marker of hard times. The rich afforded white sugar, the rest bought brown sugar and molasses. We get a taste for it, and even after we become prosperous, if we ever do, we still hanker for it. Maine has seen more than its fair share of hard times so little wonder you can still find the stray molasses doughnut in a local bakery (not the big chain donut makers) and the grocery stores here sell Crosby’s Molasses in gallon jugs.

My husband, Jamie, born of a pair of Cape Breton Islanders, grew up among molasses eaters. His after-school snack was bread-and-butter spread with molasses. He introduced me to Crosby’s, a Canadian-made brand. I grew up in a Grandma’s Molasses-using household, but what do you expect from a Southern New Englander?

Think of all the dishes that have molasses in them: brown bread, pumpkin pie, (well, mine does), Indian pudding, gingerbread, molasses cookies, gingersnaps, steamed gingerbread pudding, baked beans (but I hope not too much molasses). I can’t quite feature molasses to sweeten coffee, but some old timers did. I make popcorn balls for Halloween using an old recipe that calls for boiled molasses, brown sugar, and butter as the glue to keep the popcorn stuck together. There is an unbeatable richness to the flavor of those molasses popcorn balls.

That’s the thing about molasses: it has actual flavor. White sugar seems bland and ultra-sweet; there is a harsh quality to it. Brown sugar and molasses go down smoothly.

When I was growing up, our family’s favorite thing to make with molasses was my Grandmother Victoria Swanson Curtiss’s hot-water gingerbread. Even though my mother had made the switch, with alacrity and along with hundreds of other 1950s housewives, to packaged cake mixes, the gingerbread was always made from scratch. It qualified as something I could make for the 4-H fair one year when I was 11 and it won a blue ribbon.

This gingerbread has a charming crispy crust on the first day that changes into a rich and sticky top by the second. It is good with applesauce, whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or crème fraich, if you are that sort of person. Or even an orange sauce that you can make by melting orange marmalade, or adding orange zest and sugar to orange juice and cooking them together till it is a syrup.

The process is alarming. At the last you add hot boiling water to the batter, whereupon it looks like mud season in your mixing bowl. The gingerbread sorts itself out in the oven, though, and produces a very moist, lovely cake. Here is my gram’s recipe. The only change I made was to add more ginger — her recipe calls for one teaspoon, but I like ginger very much. You can, of course, do what you like.

Hot Water Gingerbread

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9×9 cake pan. Put the teakettle on to heat up a cup of water.

Cream together:

            1/2 (one half) cup sugar

            1/2 (one half) cup butter or shortening


            1 egg

            1 cup molasses

Sift together and add to above

            1/2 teaspoon cloves

            1 teaspoon cinnamon

            1 tablespoon ginger

            1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

            1/2 teaspoon salt

            2 1/2 cups flour

Add and stir till all is smooth

            1 cup of hot water.

Pour into the baking pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

Sandy Oliver cooks and writes on Islesboro.