Steamed Brown Bread in a Can
New England may be small in size, but as we all know, it lacks for nothing in significance. I love that I am always learning something new about our six states — through the beauty of the landscape, lessons from the landmarks, and stories from the many people that have called it home. We certainly have a lot to celebrate.
One of the easiest ways to connect past with present is in the kitchen. New England lays claim to dozens of delicious dishes and ingredients with far-flung fame and recognition. Tackling a “classic” recipe is a wonderful and tasty way to enjoy a regional tradition.
I spent a recent Saturday afternoon determined to produce a loaf of Boston Brown Bread. Before I began, the only thing I knew for sure about the bread was that it was made in a metal coffee can, which is quickly becoming a piece of history itself. Even with the benefit of a modernized recipe, courtesy of Yankee‘s current Best New England Recipes, I found myself crossing my fingers more than once that I would end up with something edible. Fortunately, I find that to be part of the fun.
Boston Brown Bread is an old recipe. Early Puritan settlers missed the wheat they were accustomed to in England, but finding it in short supply, they made do with bread made from a mixture of wheat, rye, and cornmeal. Later, during the mid to late nineteenth century, brown bread came back into culinary fashion as sweet, steamed bread using the same flour trio but adding in buttermilk, molasses and raisins.
The recipe has evolved over the decades to accommodate modern ingredients and kitchen tools. Some recipes still call for buttermilk while others (like Yankee‘s) call for sour cream. Some call for smaller individual molds, and others allow for the loaf to be baked instead of steamed.
I will admit I was a bit apprehensive as I surveyed my assembled ingredients, stockpot, and collection of tin cans on baking day, but I put my trust in tradition. Once the batter was ready, I poured it into a greased coffee can, covered the opening with aluminum foil, and secured it with a string. Meanwhile, I filled a large stockpot with two inches of boiling water. When the batter-filled coffee can was ready, I took the two smaller cans and placed them into the pot. The coffee can was then balanced on top of the smaller cans, which served to keep the larger can above the water level.
The stockpot lid was put in place, and then the steam from the water went to work on cooking the bread. I won’t lie. . .it was a little strange to glance over at a stockpot on my stove and think, “I am making bread in there,” but it was also exciting to think that I was making something my grandmother made, and most likely her mother before her.
I checked the water periodically, adding a bit more when necessary to keep it at two inches. Two and a half hours after it began steaming, I held my breath and lifted the aluminum foil, skewer poised to test for doneness, and saw that I did indeed have a very edible-looking loaf of brown bread.
Once it was unmolded from the can in one piece (phew!), and the sweet aroma of molasses and cornmeal filled my kitchen, I knew I had a success. After a generous slathering of butter, I also had the perfect afternoon snack.
The texture and flavor of the bread is similar to a lightly sweetened wholegrain muffin, and would also taste wonderful topped with cream cheese. Tradition dictates that Boston Brown Bread is expertly accompanied by a helping of Boston Baked Beans, another regional classic for another day.