A few days later, I was rereading John Thorne's wonderful chapter on baked beans from Serious Pig for the umpteenth time, when I suddenly realized that I'd never done anything other than gloss over his brief section on Boston Brown Bread that appears roughly midway through the chapter. I'd read the beginning of the chapter, of course, and the last several pages of the chapter--"A Note On Maine Bean Types," "First Find Your Bean Pot," and "Bean Hole Beans" (Thorne is nothing if not thorough)--but, inexplicably, I'd always just skipped over the section on Boston Brown Bread. Not this time, though. This time I read the Boston Brown Bread section closely and I could hardly believe what I was reading. The combination is an unlikely one, and Thorne draws attention to this: "At first, theirs seems a strange alliance. Brown bread, a chocolate-colored, raisin-studded soda bread made of whole wheat, rye, and "injun" [corn meal] is just as soft, dense, and carbohydrate-heavy as baked beans themselves--and yet, somehow, the two manage to paly off, even enhance, each other's goodness." But what really caught me by surprise was that Boston Brown Bread is traditionally a steamed bread--and one that's most commonly steamed in a coffee can.
fig. a: clean, empty coffee can
Like everyone and their brother, I knew about Boston Baked Beans. Like a lot of people, I'd heard of Boston Brown Bread. But somehow I never got the message that Boston Brown Bread gets steamed on the stovetop (in a can!) while your pot of Boston Baked Beans bakes in the oven. Talk about "Yankee ingenuity."
I'd already decided that I needed to make Boston Brown Bread that very night--after all, my Down East Baked Beans were baking in the oven and they still had a good 3-4 hours to go--but when Michelle got home I asked her what she knew about Boston Brown Bread. "What do I know about Boston Brown Bread?," she asked. "I've been wanting to make it since I was a kid, that's what." Turns out that at roughly the same age that I was obsessing over Johnny Cake down south of the border, Michelle was north of the border, dreaming of Boston Brown Bread. When I told her I was thinking of making it that very night, she got pretty excited. I had no problem convincing her to run off to the health food store for rye flour while I went to the supermarket in search of molasses, buttermilk, and a 1-pound coffee can.
15 minutes later we reconvened and Michelle started to assemble the dough while I got to work on the coleslaw (the third part of Thorne's baked beans trinity).
Boston Brown Bread
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 cup cornmeal, preferably white flint
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp fancy molasses (not blackstrap)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup raisins or dried currants
butter for greasing a 1-pound coffee can
About 2 1/2 hours before your baked beans will be ready, bring a large kettle of water to a boil. In a mixing bowl, stir together the rye flour, cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, baking soda, and salt until well mixed. Pour in the molasses and buttermilk, and work into a smooth batter. Fold in the raisins or dried currants [raisins are traditional, but Thorne prefers currants]. Carefully butter the inside of your empty, clean 1-pound coffee can (a 14-oz can will do). Pour in the batter and cover the can with a doubled piece of aluminum foil. Press this down so that it stretches tightly across the top and reaches partially down the sides, and secure it in place with a sturdy rubber band.
Put a small wire rack (if available) on the bottom of a deep pot. Set the filled coffee can on the rack or simply set it on the bottom of the pot. Pour the boiling water around the can
fig. b: adding the boiling water to the pot
until it reaches a little more than halfway up the sides. Bring the water back up to a murmuring simmer, cover the pot, and gently steam the bread for 2 hours, or until a straw inserted in the middle of the bread comes out clean. Remove, set on a cake rack, and let cool until the beans are ready to serve, then unmould the bread and serve warm. Brown bread is traditionally cut with a string, but dental floss works well too.
fig. c: still life with Boston Brown Bread, a coffee can, and dental floss
Serve buttered, alongside--or, if you prefer, under--the baked beans.
Makes 1 loaf of delicious Boston Brown Bread.
Total time: about 2 1/2 hours.
John Thorne has never let us down. Fresh, hot Boston Brown Bread with butter + baked beans was a revelation. I'd always been partial to sourdough with my baked beans previously, but now it's going to be hard to go back. And Boston Brown Bread is much more than just a sidekick to your baked beans--it makes for an ideal loaf of morning bread too. Again, all you need to do is toast it and add butter, the bread does the rest.
With a cooking time of 2 hours, Boston Brown Bread can hardly be accused of being the quickest quick bread, but it's one of the easiest, most satisfying bread recipes you'll ever find, and it's hard for me to imagine a better recipe to get kids interested in cooking. Think about it: piping-hot homemade bread in only 2 1/2 hours. Plus, when was the last time you steamed a loaf of bread? In a coffee can, no less.