The other day, looking for inspiration, I thumbed through my old copy of Alicia Bay Laurel's 1971 Living on the Earth, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Her book is a guide to off-the-grid sustainable living and has been a frequent source of inspiration throughout my life. When I came across her recipe for Boston Brown Bread, it triggered childhood taste memories that had long been forgotten.
My mother didn't really cook or bake, a victim of the proliferation of convenience foods that changed the ways we fed ourselves in the 1950s and 60s. Our freezer compartment was always stocked with Swanson's TV dinners. I didn't care for much of what she served me, but one dish I really loved was Boston Brown Bread with a schmear of cream cheese. It was more like a cake than a bread, soft and moist, uncrusted... and it came out of a can. The only skill required to enjoy Boston Brown Bread was the ability to use a can opener.
Boston Brown Bread is a New England classic – a mixture of cornmeal, rye and whole wheat, sweetened with molasses, moistened with buttermilk and steamed in a metal container. It arose out of necessity. Early colonists had difficulty transplanting their European bread-baking traditions into the New World. The old wheat varieties grew poorly in the new environment. Yield was low and crop failure was frequent. Wheat flour, when available, was expensive. Rye and corn were easier to grow and their flours were comparatively inexpensive, so the early colonists combined them with the more expensive wheat flour for their bread baking.
In colonial times, ovens were not commonplace and much of the cooking was done over an open fire in the hearth. This made traditional bread baking impractical, so the early colonists would "bake" their bread by steaming it in a metal pudding mold inside a pot over an open fire. This resulted in a moist bread gently cooked at water's boiling point of 212 degrees F.
This bread-making tradition persisted after wheat flour became more affordable and homes had ovens. A recipe for Boston Brown Bread appeared in the 1898 edition of Fannie Farmer's Boston School of Cooking cookbook. Maine-based cannery B & M, known for its brick-oven Boston Baked Beans, started selling a canned and pre-steamed version of Boston Brown Bread back in the 1920s.
For breakfast, Boston Brown Bread is eaten with butter, cream cheese or jam. On Saturday nights, it's a common New England tradition to top slices of Boston Brown Bread with baked beans and hot dogs.
It's easy and fun to make your own Boston Brown Bread. The only special "equipment" required are an empty 28-ounce can, aluminum foil and some kitchen string. I use a tomato can. Be sure to look for cans that are BPA-free. It will say so on the label. BPA is a controversial chemical used in some can linings. Exposure to BPA is a concern because it has a similar chemical structure to the hormone estrogen and can negatively affect many bodily functions. BPA has a melting point of 316° F and heating the can could result in BPA leaching into the bread.
Making Boston Brown Bread is a simple process. You grease the inside of the can, hand mix a simple batter, partially fill the can, cover the can with foil and secure with a piece of string. The covered can goes into an oven-proof pot and boiling water is added until it reaches halfway up the cans. The pot is covered and placed in a 325-degree F oven to steam for a couple of hours.
Boston Brown Bread
Makes one loaf
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup rye flour
½ cup fine cornmeal
½ t. ground allspice
½ t. kosher salt
½ t baking soda
½ t baking powder
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup molasses
½ cup raisins
1 T. unsalted butter for greasing the can
1 28-oz BPA-free can
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
With the butter, grease the inside of the can. Place a round piece of baking parchment in the bottom of each can.
Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.
Whisk in the buttermilk and molasses until smooth.
Fold in the raisins.
Pour the batter into the can, filling no more than full to allow for expansion.
Cover the can with a piece of buttered foil and tie securely with a piece of string.
Place the can upright in a deep baking pan or Dutch oven and fill with boiling water until water level reaches halfway up the can.
Place the pot in the pre-heated oven and steam for 2 hours. Check water level periodically and replenish with additional boiling water as needed.
Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick or skewer into the center of the loaf. It should come out clean or with minimal crumb when done. If not, re-cover the can and continue to cook, retesting every 15 minutes.
Remove the string and foil and allow to cool for 30 minutes before unmolding. Run a knife along the inside of the can to loosen, then turn the can upside down and tap on the countertop to remove the loaf.
Boston Brown Bread can be plastic-wrapped and kept at room temperature up to three days, or can be refrigerated for up to five days or frozen for up to three months.