Boston Molasses Disaster + Joe Frogger Cookies

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Hi! Welcome to my first post of 2019! I was away from this blog for the entirety of December, and instead spent that time working, and napping, and snacking in the light of my Christmas tree. It was a great December. And now we’re in the post-holiday January yuck, and I need something to brighten my days, so I’m back to blogging.

Last summer, Alex had to go to Boston for a work trip. Having never been to Boston before, I tagged along and explored the city’s oldest neighborhood, the North End. It had everything I could ever want: Graveyards dating back to the 1600’s, tiny Italian bakeries, historic homes, and narrow winding streets. But a less noticeable feature of the ward, a tiny plaque near the water, commemorates a tragedy in Boston’s history. On January 15, 1919 (100 years ago today), a tank of molasses exploded in Boston’s North End, sending what some witnesses described as a 25-foot wave of molasses flooding through the neighborhood. Twenty-one people were killed and several others were injured. The explosion, as well as flying debris, was responsible for some of the deaths. Others died trapped in the sticky substance, unable to breath. Some blocks were flooded with two to three feet of molasses and some of the dead were missing for days as rescuers combed the muck.

The failure of the tank, designed by a man named Arthur Jell who had little to no engineering or architectural design experience, was caused by poor construction, and weak rivets and steel. Pressure internally from increasing external temperatures may have also played a role. Finally, some say that the company that owned the tank, Purity Distilling Company, may have overfilled it, due to the expected ratification of the 18th amendment (the prohibition of alcohol), which took place the day after the explosion. Molasses has a long history in Massachusetts, not so much for its use in cookies and cakes, but in rum.

In all, the area immediately surrounding the tanker took at least two weeks to clean, but by that time, people had tracked molasses through the rest of the city, as well as into the suburbs. The class-action lawsuit that families of the victims brought against United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the company that had purchased Purity Distilling, helped shape modern laws on corporate regulation.

Today’s recipe, the classic Joe Frogger, combines molasses, rum, and a little Massachusetts (though not Boston), history. These spiced molasses cookies have their own interesting story, so be sure to stay tuned after the recipe to learn more about them.

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Joe Froggers
Adapted from this recipe from Taste of Home. Makes 24-30 cookies.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 large egg

3/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup hot water
2 tbsp rum
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger

White sugar, for rolling

Instructions: 

Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg.

Stir together molasses, hot water, vanilla extract, and rum.

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, ground cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger.

Add creamed mixture to dry ingredients, alternating with molasses mixture, beating after each addition. Cover and refrigerate for four hours, or until it’s easy to handle.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Fill a shallow bowl with 2/3 cup of sugar.

Scoop out enough dough for a 1 1/2-inch ball. Roll in your hands, and then drop into the bowl of sugar. Roll to coat, and set on parchment paper. Continue, leaving about 2 or 3 inches between each ball, until the cookie sheet is full. Taking a flat bottomed cup or bowl, press down on each ball slightly, until each is about a 1/4-inch thick disk.

Bake for 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet at six minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool for two minutes on pan, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Enjoy!

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While the focus of this post is the Boston Molasses Disaster, it’s hard to share a Joe Frogger recipe without discussing its own interesting history. Very rarely can you pinpoint a place of origin for a food, but most historians agree that this cookie was created in Black Joe’s Tavern in Marblehead, Massachusetts. “Black Joe” referred to a free African American Revolutionary War soldier (and some sources say hero) named Joseph Brown. Joseph Brown was born into slavery in 1750, the son of an African-American mother and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe. He was likely freed because of his service as a militiaman in Captain Francis Felton’s Company. Shortly after the War, Brown and his wife Lucretia, along with another couple, Joseph and Mary Seawood, purchased a Saltbox, a N.E. architectural style home, where they lived and worked. After Joseph Seawood’s death, Mary Seawood sold her half of the home to the Browns.

Brown’s wife, Lucretia, was born in Marblehead, the daughter of two former slaves. After marrying and establishing their home, the Brown’s opened the front part of the building they had purchased as a tavern. The tavern owned by the Browns was integrated, and was popular with sailors at the time, though women and children would have frequented as well. Lucretia Brown would have done the cooking for the tavern, and she is the one credited with creating the cookie now known as the Joe Frogger. Though Lucretia Brown’s original recipe is lost to history, the constant in any close-to-authentic Joe Frogger seems to be the addition of both rum and molasses. The cookie  was popular with the sailors because they were sturdy enough to survive long trips at sea better than the average confection, and better than many fresh foods, thanks to the addition of the rum. Likely the first recipe contained no eggs, but might have contained a curious addition of seawater.

There are several suggestions for why they are named Joe Froggers. Some say that the name “Frogger” comes from “flogger,” a name for a ship’s provisions. These particular “floggers” came from Joe’s Tavern. Another theory is that, as the cookie would have traditionally been made in a skillet, as opposed to baked, the cookie would take the shape of a frog when the batter hit the pan. Alternatively, some sources say the name comes from the fact that these cookies would have been much larger than what we think of today and would have been as big as the lily pads in Joseph Brown’s pond.

Both of the Browns are buried in Marblehead. Their former home and tavern, built in 1691, stayed in the Brown family until their adopted daughter, Lucy, sold it in 1867. Amazingly, it still stands today, though it is a private residence.

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Parker House Rolls

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Yesterday was the first day of winter, the longest day of the year. But I’m so ready, because that means today it will start getting a little lighter a little earlier, and 4:30pm will start to feel less like midnight. I am unexpectedly back in Indiana this week, because my poor mama fell and broke her wrist! And even though I didn’t plan on coming home for Christmas, it’s nice to be home around the holidays, even if it’s for an unfortunate reason. AND! With Christmas approaching, I’m obviously thinking a lot about food. For some people, the holiday means presents. For me, it means food.

Awhile back, Alex sent me an article that says the favorite Thanksgiving side dish of the Midwest is rolls and biscuits. Biscuits, maybe, but rolls?! Is this who we are? Judging from the amount of carbs I consumed as a child, it must be. I mean, I love bread. As a kid, I would ask my mom for a loaf of Italian bread from the store to eat in front of the TV: A LOAF of bread. Rolls, though? Idk. We always had crescent rolls at holiday dinners when I was growing up. They’re…OK. I remember biting into one once when I was little, thinking it would be buttery like a croissant. I was mistaken. So, anyway, long story short, I’m leery of rolls. I’ve been burned before.

I also realized that the only non-sweet rolls I’ve ever made were A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls for a Friendsgiving a few years back. We couldn’t stop eating them. This year, though, I wanted to try a much older recipe. This holiday season, I offer you a recipe for very traditional Parker House rolls.

Parker House rolls were created in the 1880’s at the Parker House Hotel in Boston. The original hotel no longer exists, but it is located where the Omni Parker House sits now. The Parker House was famous in its own right, hosting both the famous and the infamous: In the 1860’s, Charles Dickens lived at the Parker House, and recited A Christmas Carol (how timely!) there, for the first time in Boston, 150 years ago in 1867. Two years earlier, John Wilkes Booth stayed in the hotel eight days before he assassinated President Lincoln, while visiting his brother, an actor who was performing in a play in Boston. And, Parker House rolls are not the only enduring recipe to come out of the Hotel’s kitchen. The Parker House is also said to be where the Boston Cream Pie, the official state dessert of Massachusetts, was created.

A traditional Parker House roll is unique because of its fold. Usually oval in shape and then folded over, most origin stories credit the fold to when an angry baker threw the unfinished rolls into the oven. The rolls became a staple on tables all over the country after the recipe was featured in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, the first cookbook to include standardized measurement.

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Parker House Rolls
Makes about 2 dozen rolls. This recipe is a variation of Yossy Arefi’s recipe on Food52.

Ingredients:
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, very soft
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup warm water (about 120 degrees)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 egg
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (for greasing pan and brushing on top of the rolls)
Flaky sea salt, to taste

Instructions:

In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour, salt, and softened butter. Beat with a hand mixer or wooden spoon until it just begins to come together.

In a smaller bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water. Whisk briefly and allow to sit for about five minutes.

In a two-cup measuring cup, or small bowl, beat together the milk and egg.

To the flour mixture, add the milk and egg mixture and then the yeast mixture. Then, add 1/2 cup of flour to the mixture, incorporating the flour fully into the mixture, and repeat this 1/2 cup at a time until you reach 4 1/2 cups of flour total. Transfer the dough to a large, greased bowl. (The dough will be quite sticky!) Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Once it has risen, remove and uncover the dough and punch it down. Then divide the dough into four equal pieces.

On a well-floured surface, take 1/4 of the dough and roll out into a 18′ X 5″ rectangle. Take a butter knife and make a line lengthwise down the dough, not cutting all the way through. Fold the dough over on top of itself, at the crease. Make five cuts, creating six 3-inch rolls from the dough. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it inside two large rectangular pans, or cast iron skillets. Lay each individual roll into the dish. Continue with the other three sections of dough. Cover and allow to rise another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoon of butter, brush the top of the rolls with melted butter, and bake for about 30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.

Remove from oven, brush with more melted butter, sprinkle with sea salt, and serve warm.

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Consider this a solid for my Midwestern folks out there who love their rolls. And—you’re going to either hate or love me for pointing this out—these rolls are perfectly crafted to help you mop every bit of butter from your butter knife. (Butter mopping is an important thing to consider here in the Midwest.) Super soft, slightly sweet, and very light, with a slightly crisp exterior, Parker House rolls are a great addition to your holiday table. Or… like… any morning, smeared with butter and jam or honey. Plus, if you bring homemade rolls to any dinner, you look like a champion. You get bonus points if they’re still warm when you sit down to eat.

So, this is probably my last post of the year, unless I get to baking again and feel like there’s something I really need to share. If you don’t hear from me until next year, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all! I wish you lots of cookie eating and mulled wine drinking for the rest of the year. Catch you in 2018!