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Sweet Texas: Old Dessert Recipes

by John Raven, Ph. B.

You might think of the pioneer days in Texas as being drab and uninteresting when it came time to eat. Most folks imagine that the pioneers sat around their campfires eating beef jerky and corn dodgers. Well, it was a little better than that. In fact, the pioneers had a full set of sweet teeth per person. The folks in Stephen F. Austin's colony between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers were producing sugar for the table as early as the 1830's. Most of their sugar production was for home consumption since exporting anything was rather difficult.

South Texas around Fort Bend County turned out to be prime country for raising sugar cane. The Imperial Sugar Company of Sugar Land, Texas, which distributes nationwide, is said to be the oldest continually operating business in Texas. Sugar cane is just a real big grass that contains sweet juice. The juice is pressed out of the cane and boiled down to get sugar.

The table sugar you get today is highly refined and bears little resemblance to pioneer-made sugar. Their sugar was rather brown, like today's brown sugar, and it came in cakes -- hard cakes. When you needed some sugar, you broke off a lump; you didn't dip it with a spoon.

Before Austin's pioneers were making sugar, Texas had a natural sweet product made by little six legged critters. Honey Bees. No one knows for sure how long honey bees have been around, but it has been a spell. The bees haul nectar from the flowers back to their house, which is called a hive, and it's processed into honey. Before there were beekeepers, folks obtained honey by watching the bees and following them to their hive which most of the time was in a hollow tree. They chopped down the tree, fought the bees and made off with the fruits of their labor. A good, smoky fire helped confuse the bees and cut down on their stinging accuracy.

Again, modern honey bears little likeness to the pioneer product. Greatgrandpa Smoot's honey probably contained bits of the comb, which is where bee's wax comes from, a few chips off the bee tree and maybe a tiny little bee leg or two. None the less, it was sweet and delicious. The kinds of flowers the bees are gathering nectar from can affect the flavor of the honey. Sweet clover and mesquite honey are favorites.

Another early source of sweet was sorghum Like sugar cane, this is another large grass that has sweet juice. Properly processed, it makes sorghum molasses. Sorghum molasses has a distinct taste that might not be for everyone, but its admirers say it can't be beat.

Black Strap molasses is a product of making cane sugar. It's a dark liquid that resembles sorghum, but has just a little different taste. Still a good flavorful sweet.

I'm going to give you a couple of old recipes for sweet things from early Texas. This first one dates from 1870 and is from Aunt Sadie Shelly who lived in Blanco County, Texas.

Aunt Sadie's Honey Cookies

Cream one cup sugar and one cup butter. Add one cup honey, two eggs, one teaspoon soda, a pinch of salt, and mix well. Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Roll to one-quarter to one-half inch thick. Cut into shapes and bake in hot oven (400 degrees F) about ten minutes or until golden brown.

Here's one from Grandmother Matthews 1850 cookbook:

Ginger Snaps

One cup of lard, one cup of molasses, one cup of sugar, one teaspoon of ginger, one teaspoon of soda dissolved in a little water. Boil the sugar, molasses and lard five minutes. Let it cool. Then add the other ingredients and flour to make a stiff batter. Bake in quick oven (400 degrees F). Store in dry, open place.

This recipe is handed down from the Gage family:

Old Time Molasses Cookies

Mix two cups of molasses with one cup of sugar and one-half cup of butter. Add one teaspoon soda, one tablespoon ginger, three eggs, and one-half cup cold water. Add flour and roll out. Do not roll too thin, bake in quick oven.

Pulled Molasses Candy

This Texas version of taffy, from Mrs. Joe Lela Duty Nash, 1868, would be great entertainment for the kids, but would require adult supervision so they don't get burned or get too much of it in their hair.

Boil 1 quart of molasses in a deep vessel to keep from boiling over. Boil steadily, stirring from the sides and bottom. When a little poured in a glass of cold water becomes brittle, it is done. Pour into a buttered dish.

Wash your hands real clean to be ready to pull the candy. As soon as the cooked molasses is cool enough to handle, roll it in a long roll. Butter your hands so the candy won't stick to them. Pull the candy into a long ropelike length. Then fold it back to half the length, roll it together and pull it again. This is called "pulling the candy". Do this until it changes to a light color but is still soft enough to handle. Pull to a long, ropelike length, cut in six inch lengths and twist. This candy looks like stick candy.

The above recipes came from "A Pinch of This, A Handful of That, Historic Recipes of Texas 1830-1900" by The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, District VIII. Available from amazon.com, this book contains several of my Grandmother Raven's recipes and nostrums.

Honey, nature's sweetener, can be substituted for sugar in nearly any recipe calling for sugar. Many think it contains healing properties. I knew several folks who swore it was a hangover cure.

A bit of honey on a slice of tart apple is just delicious. Honey can be used to take the tartness out of any fruit. Honey and cornbread go very well together. One of my favorites is fried pone with a little honey drizzled on top.

The German-Texans I come from had an expression for the kids that said "play pretty". That meant DON'T FIGHT.

So until next month, play pretty and be sweet.

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