Growing up, everyone we knew was of Italian descent. Our town was full of Italian immigrant families and our Roman Catholic church was full of Italian families (with a sprinkling of Polish and Irish immigrants) following many of the same traditions they had in Italy. No one was boastful about being Italian, it was simply all we knew. When you asked someone where they were from, the answer was never “Italy”—that was a given! The question was asking which region of Italy the person was from, and the answer would almost always be Sicily, Naples (Campania), Abruzzo or, the case of my grandfather, Le Marche. Italian family life was what we knew and lived every day. Italian food is almost the only thing we ate.
In the case of our immediate family, we were a mixture of Marchigiani, Neapolitani and Siciliani. My Uncle Nelson was married to an Irish woman (Aunt Ann) and everyone knew it and would mention it on occasion. When my cousin Mia married Paul, who was of English descent, my Aunt Mary was a little disappointed. My mom and dad each spoke the dialects from their family’s region but they couldn’t communicate with each other in those dialects. The one Chinese restaurant in our town was owned by Italians and had Italian, American and Chinese sections on the menu.
My mom was a wonderful cook and mostly made food from Le Marche, which she learned from my paternal grandmother Maria. Though Maria was from Naples, her husband Giuseppe was from Le Marche, so relying on Marchigiani immigrant neighbors and friends, she learned how to cook the food Giuseppe knew. My mother, whose family came from Sicily, in turn switched to cooking the food of Le Marche for my father, learning from her mother-in-law. I remember only two exceptions to the dishes from Italy that my mother made. These all-American exceptions to our otherwise-Italian food were (1) meatloaf and (2) molasses crumb cake. The meatloaf was absolutely terrible, but the molasses crumb cake was always a huge hit at parties, picnics and holiday gatherings.
This six-ingredient “tray-baked” cake is of Pennsylvania Dutch origin; versions can be found all over the internet. How my mom came across it is complete mystery. She wrote down the recipe for me at one point but I never made it until recently, when the happy memories with this delicious cake came flooding back to me.
Make sure to use light or original molasses rather than dark, full flavor, robust or bootstrap. My mother used Brer Rabbit Light Molasses and margarine. I used Grandma’s Original Molasses (I looked everywhere in LA for Brer Rabbit but no luck) and butter.
This is a great cake to have for dessert or with coffee in the morning. I hope Josie’s famous Molasses Crumb Cake makes happy memories in your family as it did in our Italian-American one!Print
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 lb unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into cubes
- 2 cups boiling water
- 1 cup light molasses
- 1 tbsp baking soda (NOT baking powder)
- Preheat oven to 350℉.
- Butter a 9″x13″ baking pan. Use a small pat of butter in a paper towel and rub on all surfaces including the corners.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and sugar. Add the butter and rub together into the dry ingredients with your fingers or a pastry blender. Alternatively, use the paddle attachment with a stand mixer. Be sure to leave the butter in pea sized pieces.
- Reserve 1 cup of the flour, sugar and butter mixture for the crumb topping.
- In another bowl, add the boiling water. Then add the baking soda and molasses and stir until fizzy.
- Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ones and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the batter unevenly with the reserved crumbs. The cake will pop up through the open spaces to create a nice-looking cake.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes until a toothpick come out clean.
- Let cool on a baking rack and serve right from the pan.
P.S. If you’re wondering how this recipe works with just baking soda, the acid in the molasses reacts with the base of the baking soda to create CO₂ to make the cake rise.