Molasses and The Canadian Food Experience Project

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I’m one of the bloggers participating in The Canadian Food Experience Project, a national program that’s helping to identify (or at least add clarity to) a Canadian food identity.

It’s a fun program that has been making me stop and think about what makes some food distinctly Canadian.

This month’s task was to write about a regional Canadian food…

Well, if you grew up on the East Coast, chances are you had molasses in your cupboard. For generations it was the principal sweetener in households along the Eastern Seaboard, thanks to the north-south trading with the Caribbean.

Sailing ship

Back in the 1870’s Lorenzo Crosby started an import/export business in Yarmouth Nova Scotia. (In the late 1890’s he moved the business to Saint John, New Brunswick.) He transported Maritime fish and lumber to the West Indies and the ships returned loaded to the gunwales with puncheons of fancy molasses.

It was used to make rum but it also made its way into what is now traditional East Coast cooking: baked beans, gingerbread, all sorts of molasses cookies, Maritime brown bread and molasses pull taffy.

From the East Coast molasses, and family recipes that called for the sweetener, travelled west in the packs of settlers and took root in regional cooking across the country.

Grandma Molasses wagon

I like to call molasses edible nostalgia since any mention of it sends our memories racing back to our grandmothers’ kitchens.

According to my grandfather, molasses was pretty much its own food group and made its way to the table for every meal. If it wasn’t baked or cooked into something it was drizzled over fresh bread as an after dinner treat. (Whether the molasses goes on before or after the butter is a matter of preference, and much debate.)

I grew up with the smell of molasses cookies wafting through the house and Sunday dessert was often gingerbread cake with fresh berries on the side or a brown sugar sauce. Molasses baked beans with brown bread was a Saturday night staple and gingerbread cookies hung on our Christmas tree.

This is the comfort food of my childhood and forms the foundation of my Canadian food identity.

I love molasses any time of the year but now that we’re in the thick of the summer growing season I enjoy it with fresh fruit. Baked into a gingerbread is a delicious way to make the most of local berries and rhubarb, peaches and more.

Try one of these gingerbread recipes and let me know if molasses is part of your Canadian food identity.

Peach gingerbread:

Peach gingerbread recipe

Blackberry gingerbread:

Blackberry gingerbread recipe

Old fashioned gingerbread:

Gingerbread with toffee coffee sauce

Soaked ginger cake:

Soaked ginger cake - drenched in a warm buttery brown sugar sauce

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity.

27 thoughts on “Molasses and The Canadian Food Experience Project

  1. Laura says:

    Hey there. My family grew up with this stuff, and i definitely miss my molasses cookies that nanny use to make. Now that I take part in a Vegan diet, i rely on molasses to give me my iron boost. I was wondering if you’ve ever come across some healthy vegan molasses cookies in your ventures? Thanks! 🙂

    1. Hi Laura, We do have one vegan cookie recipe on the website and I’m sure will have more down the road. Here’s a start:

      1. Laura says:

        thank you so much. These look delicious. Ill replace tye white sugar with coconut palm sugar, as regular white granulated sugar is not totally vegan. Again, thank you!!!

  2. Jill Flanagan says:

    I visited New Brunswick about 10 years ago and had the most amazing molasses cookies. They were big and soft, almost cake-like. Have not found a recipe that comes close. Most recipes produce cookies that are more flat and crisp. Any ideas? Thank you!

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Jill, I think I have the recipe for you! They’re called Katie’s Fat Molasses Cookies. It’s a recipe that was sent to me by a reader…

  3. Ghita Gaudet says:

    Of coarse this is a food group.In our matime region.always will be as the good things in life are shared with our friends and family

  4. Carol Baker says:

    Can’t wait to try these delicious recipes. Thank You, for sharing!

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Thanks Carol, I hope that you enjoy them.

  5. Hey Bridget,
    I read half the post – then have had it open for over a week to finish it as the history is so fascinating. Thank you for sharing – so interesting. And, the tradition did travel across the country: I, too, grew up with the smell of molasses cookies wafting through the house – never liked the hard crusty ones, always loved the crinkly large soft chewy ones. My grandma has a recipe that is on my site: Big Soft Gingerbread. Not sweet at all, and needs the orange icing. BEST gingerbread cookie, ever!
    We also had gingerbread cake with applesauce and whipped cream a couple of times a month, at least. I still love it, but haven’t had it for years. Molasses baked beans with wieners was picnic fare in my neck of the woods. But we would never pour it on bread with or without butter. Just too bitter.

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Valerie, I can’t wait to try your molasses cookie recipe!

  6. After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I
    get 4 emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is an
    easy method you can remove me from that service?

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi there, I wish I could figure out how to disable that on the blog post. I did some digging around and can’t see a way to do it. I’m hoping that it doesn’t get annoying. Sorry.

  7. Deborah says:

    Love how you’ve included historical photos to create that “edible nostalgia”. Great term! Gingerbread cakes look yummy!!

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Thanks Deborah. I love how all food has a story. By the way, loved your mustard post (couldn’t find a spot to comment) and had no idea that so much mustard seed was grown in Canada.

  8. Redawna says:

    Though it was not a common item when I was growing up it definitely was when my kids grew up.

    For them it means weeks on end of smelling gingerbread cookies as I construct my yearly gingerbread house. I would always make sure the second batch of gingerbread was for everyone to eat. The aroma would drive everyone to the kitchen looking for cookies.

    Great post!

  9. bellini says:

    Molasses has always been a staple in our kitchen cupboard too. Mom would always make gingerbread cookies at Christmas and when my own daughter was a little girl we used to string popcorn and make cookies for the tree.

  10. paulette says:

    I grew up with molasses we were a family thirteen.
    Friday night supper was white and molasses beans.We also had as a dessert molasses and bread or as a snack and my mom did a lot baking with molasses.I also serve my kids with molasses and bread and I also do bake beans with Grandma Molasses..My son favorite cookies are ginger molasses cookies.There is nothing like Grandma Molasses molasses we always have in the house.. Nothing like toasts and molasses for breakfast…

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Paulette,
      I love you stories of growing up with molasses…they sound a lot like my molasses memories!

  11. Gayle Kee says:

    Bridget, Is there a recipe in the molasses ebook for molasses braised beef? Fred Shillington told me he had a sandwich at Riverside that was delicious, so I told him about the Cochran’s ad and he and I both looked at it, but couldn’t see a recipe like that. Any luck?

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Gayle, I wish I had a recipe for molasses braised beef. I did a search online and found a recipe for bourbon & molasses braised beef. Here’s a link to the recipe:

  12. Lorraine says:

    Hi there;
    I definitely feel that molasses is part of our Canadian food identity especially on the east coast. Like you, I grew up with molasses as a food staple. My mom made the best “Fat Archies”, soft, fat molasses cookies, oatmeal brown bread and we often had molasses taffies that we pulled with buttered hands after coasting all day. My grandfather loved molasses on his mashed potatoes and liked it on his “porridge”/oatmeal as well. There is nothing better than bread hot out of the oven with butter and molasses. We often used it on our pancakes as well. I love the old-fashioned feel of any recipe that calls for it. As a young cook, I would add it to my chili recipes to cut the acidity of the tomatoes and sweeten and deepen the color of the chili. I thought it was “my” secret ingredient. Thanks for the blog; I really enjoyed the historical perspective. Lorraine from Cape Breton

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Lorraine,
      Such great memories! I’m with you when it comes to recipes that call for molasses. There is something extra appealing about the old fashioned feel of them.

  13. Heather Leary says:

    The first thing I thought of as a Canadian dish was Homemade Brown Beans with homemade Brown bread,& some times weiners.A saturday night supper dish.(Flavored with Grandma Molasses Molasses of course.)
    My GrandMother made huge Molasses & sugar cookies, stored in huge crocks in her pantry. On special ocssions we had gingerbread topped off with whipped cream. I’m just drooling thinking about it.
    I don’t remember having gingerbread with fruit, I will try this soon.

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Heather,
      I love reading your memories. They sound a lot like mine! Your grandmother’s huge molasses cookies intrigued me. Any chance you have her recipe?

  14. Carol says:

    Bridget…how do you stay slim!!!!!?

    1. Bridget Oland says:

      Hi Carol, Kids and a dog keep me running…

  15. Nora says:

    they all look delicious. Must try them.

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