This recipe is based on one my 94-year-old aunt sent to her 90-year-old brother when he lost his mother's bean "rule," but since my Yankee palate has been hopelessly contaminated by a number of years in Italy, I've added some unorthodox garlic and increased the number of bay leaves. Aunt Doris's instructions ended: "You said you lost your recipe, so I put it on a card. This time, tack it up inside cupboard door." And that's where I keep it.
2 cups dried beans (Maine cooks use Jacob's cattle, yellow-eye, or soldier beans, but you can use navy beans, kidney beans, even Italian cannelini in this recipe)
1/4 pound lean salt pork or Italian pancetta
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Pick over the beans, place them in a bowl, and cover with tepid water. Set aside to soak overnight.
2. When ready to cook, heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Drain the beans, discarding the soaking water. Cut the salt meat into 4 chunks. Place about a third of the beans in the bottom of a 6-cup bean pot or similar earthenware dish with a lid. On top of the beans put a chunk of meat, a garlic clove, and a bay leaf. Add another third of the beans, another chunk of meat, and another garlic clove and bay leaf. Top with the remaining soaked beans and the last two chunks of meat. Pour the molasses over the top.
3. Bring a kettle of water to boil. Place the mustard, ginger, salt, and pepper in a measuring cup and add 2-1/2 cups boiling water. Stir well, then pour over the beans. Top off with more boiling water if necessary. The beans should be just covered with water but never floating in it.
4. Cover the pot and bake the beans for about 4-1/2 to 5 hours, uncovering the pot for the last hour. Do not stir the beans, but check the water level from time to time and top up when necessary -- but only with boiling water. When done, the beans should be very tender but still holding their shape. Serve immediately, reserving any leftovers for another meal -- Sunday breakfast is ideal.