Molasses. Mmmmmmolasses. It was a bit of a sticky situation when Derrick announced that this month’s Sugar High Friday would feature molasses. Sticky for me, that is, since I tend to think of molasses as a winter ingredient. In fact, I use molasses pretty much exclusively for triple-gingersnaps at holiday time. Clearly I was in for a challenge. But as I began to explore the idea of molasses, visions of darkly sumptuous sweets began to dance in my head. Should I make a Treacle Tart? A Yeasted Molasses Spice Bread? A War Cake? At a certain point in my ruminations, I decided that I wasn’t going to use ginger or other spices, mainly because I wanted the molasses to be the star this time. Molasses is so often in a supporting role, using its considerable talent as a dark flavor enhancer.
I finally settled on a dark, toothsome bar cookie with a pure molasses flavor. The inspiration for it came from the childhood memory of a chocolate chip date cake that my mother’s cousin used to make whenever her ramshackle Connecticut house was full of kids. I never had a recipe for it; I don’t remember if it had nuts or not, and I doubt that it had molasses in it -- although it probably contained brown sugar, molasses' soft and sandy cousin. I just remember that it was the first time I tasted dates and thought they were good – probably because they were combined with chocolate.
So I added luscious medjool dates to my concoction. These served to underscore the sweet dark chewiness created by all that molasses. Crunch came into play when I decided to toss in toasted pecans. And rounds of dark chocolate provided…well, they provided chocolate. I was lucky enough to have flat disks of excellent bittersweet chocolate from my trip to Jacques Torres' shop a few weeks ago. This disk shape is a great thing, because once baked into a cookie, cake or bar, they give you these tectonic layers, a sort of series of geological striations of chocolate running through your confection. But if such a shape is not available to you, chunks or chips will work admirably, I'm sure.
None of these chunky or chewy ingredients interfered with the deep taste of molasses, which is what I was after. A fair amount of salt gave a buttery counterpoint to the sweetness, and instead of the vanilla I would normally use in similar bar cookies, I chose to add a couple of spoonfuls of dark rum. Since both rum and molasses are derived from sugar cane, I thought the caramel flavors would serve to heighten each other. Which they did -- and do, since we still have some. We've been savoring them slowly and sharing them grudgingly.
And that’s the story of how this sweet unassuming bar came into being. Although it bears only a mild similarity to that childhood cake of Connecticut summers, I think I actually like it better; it may even have the potential to be a memory-maker in its own right. These bars are similar to that church-supper favorite, the Congo Bar -- although mine are something of an extreme version. They make a nice change from brownies, yet still provide the choco-crunchy-chewiness you crave. It has been my experience that bar cookies are greeted with pleasure at any time of year. I wager that these will run true to form, and create even more happiness if paired with a dish of fresh seasonal fruit, scoops of sorbet or ice-cream.
Extreme Congo Bars, aka Chewy Molasses Bars With Dates, Pecans and Chocolate
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 cup sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (4 oz.) coarsely chopped toasted pecans
1 cup (8 oz.) pitted medjool dates, chopped
1 cup (6 oz.) bittersweet chocolate chunks, chips or disks (Jacques Torres’ dark chocolate disks work well here.)
Mix butter, sugar, and molasses together; add egg and rum, beating lightly until combined. Toss pecans, dates and chocolate with 2 tablespoons of the flour. Sift the rest of the flour with the salt and baking soda, and add to the wet ingredients. Stir in pecans, chocolate and dates. Mix well. Spread batter evenly in a buttered, parchment-lined 9-inch square pan. Bake at 350° for about 35 minutes (check starting at 25 minutes). Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Turn out onto a rack, then cut into bars when cool.