By Betty Cook
Daddy used to talk about that “old sorry sorghum syrup,” on occasion when he would find sorghum on the table for his hot buttered biscuits instead of his favorite, ribbon cane syrup. That was back in the day when people grew their own cane and sometimes swapped buckets of syrup at time of syrup making. Daddy had a nice ribbon cane field. He grew sorghum too, but mostly for cow feed.
Actually, though ribbon cane had a sweeter, fuller taste for eating, sorghum syrup was plenty good for baking. Many people used it for pies, cakes, cookies, and lots of other treats.
In the southern states, there were several kinds of syrups which were grown and produced as sweeteners. Some of these were ribbon cane, sorghum, and molasses. Over the years, these terms were often used interchangeably, or just known by the generic “syrup.”
Ribbon cane is a striped variety of sugar cane, grown chiefly by small farmers in the southern states. It was a popular and very good crop in Upshur County. It grew well in “bottom lands,” commonly called “the bottom,” which was a wetter type of soil, being on a lower level. Ribbon cane was probably a descendant of a bamboo-like wild plant grown in New Guinea and was likely introduced to the southern states in Civil War times. The canes grow from about six to twelve feet tall, and its ribbons with dark maroon stalks reflect the name ribbon cane. Like other sugar cane, it is processed by stripping the cane of its leaves, extracting the juice and boiling it down.
In early days of this area, many small farms existed, growing various crops. Cotton was a main crop for many years. But cane was another important crop. Many of these small farms had their own syrup mills.
My grandfather, Otis Pool, had such a mill. The cane was put into the mill and the juice was extracted by means of a mule or horse, walking in a circle. The juice ran into a large vat where it was cooked down.
Sorghum syrup was made the same way as ribbon cane. But because of its different make-up, it processed to a different syrup. The sorghum cane is native to Africa. Sorghum is often grown for cattle feed, but in times past was used as a table food and in recipes. Sorghum processes to a darker, more sticky syrup, similar to molasses. Its flavor is much stronger than that of ribbon cane. One tablespoon of Sorghum syrup provides all of an average adult’s daily potassium needs and is also high in antioxidants, contains protein, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. It also makes your whole house smell amazing while baking.
Molasses is a thick, dark syrup and a by-product of the sugar-making process. Sugar cane or beets are crushed to extract the juice. Molasses can also be made from sorghum cane. The juice is boiled down to make sugar crystals. Molasses is the thick, brown syrup left over after the sugar crystals are removed. Molasses can be processed two or more times to make light or dark molasses. The last, darkest processing results in blackstrap molasses. Molasses is said to have more vitamins and other nutrients than regular syrup.
During World War II when sugar was rationed, many people used various types of syrups for sweeteners in baking. Following are some recipes made with different types of syrups.
This is a recipe our Mother used a lot during the war. Although it calls for a small amount of sugar, I think she used syrup, adding a bit more in place of the sugar. This recipe is from her Viko Aluminum Cookbook, 1939 edition.
½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
½ cup molasses (she used ribbon cane or Blackburn syrup).
2 ½ cups flour
1 ½ tsp. soda
1 tsp. ginger
½ tsp. salt
1 cup boiling water
Cream shortening in a mixing bowl; add sugar gradually. Add beaten eggs and beat well. Add molasses and beat thoroughly. Sift flour, soda, ginger, and salt together. Add alternately to creamed mixture. Pour into oiled baking pan. Bake in a moderate oven (325 to 350 degrees) for about 40 minutes,
This recipe was taken from “Cooking With the Horse and Buggy People II,” compiled by Henry and Amanda Mast, 2006. It apparently makes a very large batch of cookies.
3 cups margarine or shortening
2 ½ cups white sugar
2 ½ cups brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tsp. cinnamon
10 cups flour
8 tsp. soda
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
1 cup sorghum syrup or Brer Rabbit Molasses
3 egg whites, beaten, or 2 whole eggs
4 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 ½ cups Crisco
1 tsp. vanilla½ tsp. salt
Mix dough and chill. Shape into balls and roll in white sugar. Place on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Cool and frost.
Grandma’s Molasses Cookies
2 c. molasses
1 c. lard (shortening)
3 tsp. soda
2 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
6 cups flour
6 Tbsp. butter, lightly browned
3 Tbsp. hot water
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix and bake at 350 degrees until done. For icing, mix butter, hot water, vanilla. Thicken with powdered sugar. If too thick, add a little milk.
Molasses Sandwich Cookies
(Another big batch)
2 cups margarine softened
4 cups brown sugar
½ cup sour cream or yogurt
½ cup molasses (light or dark, as preferred)
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ginger
4 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. soda
2 tsp. baking powder
8 cups flour
5 Tbsp. Flour
1 ¼ cup milk
1 cup powdered sugar
¼ cup Crisco
Mix in order given, except for filling. Refrigerate overnight. Roll out on floured board. Cut with biscuit cutter into rounds. Bake at 350 degrees.
For filling: Cook flour and milk until thick. Cool. Combine sugar and Crisco. Cream well. Add to flour mixture and mix until creamy. Spread filling between cookies.
Sorghum Buttermilk Pie
This recipe was taken from an online article by The Runaway Spoon. The author gives her resource as Southern Cooking, by Mrs. S. R. Dull, first published in 1928.
Pastry for one 9-inch pie
1 cup sorghum syrup
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
½ tsp. baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fit the pastry into a pie plate.
Stir the sorghum, buttermilk, sugar, flour, and soda together in a large, high-sided saucepan. Crack eggs into measuring jug you used for the sorghum and milk and beat together.
Pour into the saucepan and stir thoroughly to combine. You might want to use a whisk to break up any lumps but stir with a heatproof spatula while cooking.
Place pan over medium high heat and cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. The filling will bubble up so needs to be stirred and watched carefully. When it reaches a boil, remove from heat and stir it down for a few minutes until some of the foaming subsides. Carefully pour into the prepared crust. Fill it right to the top. If you have more in the pan than will fit in the crust, let it settle a few minutes and then finish filling.Bake 40-45 minutes, until firm with just a little wobble. Just to be safe, put a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips.
Sorghum Crinkle Cookies
Golden Barrell, the Taste of Tradition
These cookies taste similar to molasses cookies. They have the typical spices that are in molasses cookies–cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. They’re soft and chewy and with a sprinkle of raw sugar on top, a bit crunchy.
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup Golden Barrel Raw Sugar
1/4 cup Golden Barrel Sorghum Syrup
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
raw sugar for topping
In a bowl attached to a stand mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream together the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in egg and sorghum. Mix until thoroughly combined.
In a separate bowl, combine all the dry ingredients-flour, baking soda, spices and salt, whisking together. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, beat until just combined. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate one hour or overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop two rounded tablespoons of dough for each cookie, spacing cookies 1-2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets. Roll tops of cookies with raw sugar.
Bake for 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool on pan for five minutes, then move to a wire rack to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container.
Sorghum Cake with Cinnamon Sauce
The Southern Lady Cooks
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sorghum or molasses
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup hot water
Cinnamon Sauce Ingredients:
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup water
Cream together the sugar and butter or margarine. Add egg and beat well. Mix in molasses. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
Pour into 9-inch sprayed pan. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 55-60 minutes.
Cool and serve.
Cinnamon Sauce Instructions:
Melt butter in saucepan on stove. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil. Simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Cool and pour over individual servings of cake.
The sauce put over this cake can be used over any kind of cake or gingerbread.
You can experiment with different syrups for any of these recipes. If you have trouble finding sorghum, ribbon cane, or any brand you want in the stores, there are multiple sources online for ordering just what you need. There are also many more interesting recipes to be found in cookbooks or online.
That old sorghum syrup has lived a long life and is an old/new and interesting sweetener for your cakes, cookies and pies.