Rainy Day Cooking: Boston Brown Bread

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Boston brown bread ingredients

So you thought you could put away the sweaters and pull out the tank tops, did you? Well, no whining. Remember all that basking you did in January? We need this rain, and it’s also the last wintery chance to hunker down inside with a fat book and something really good burbling away on the stovetop. Something belly-filling and sturdy, like lentil, black bean, or split-pea soup, all started with a little pancetta or a chunk of ham hock.

Or, for oomph without the oink, a spoonful of Spanish pimenton (smoked paprika) and a handful of Tierra Vegetables’ dried smoked onions–what they’ve dubbed “vegan bacon” for their savory, smoky punch. (Look for them at their farm stand in Santa Rosa or at their booth at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market on Saturday.)

Once you’ve got your soup, of course, you need bread. Now, the Bay Area is just lousy with fabulous bread. All by itself, the counter of Acme Bread can bring tourists to tears, or at least pitch them into a levain-noshing frenzy. But for the sweetest, most warming, baby-it’s-cold-outside experience, you have to make your own. Now, in a future post, I’m going to tell you about baking locavore bread, using a levain starter made from Eatwell Farm’s locally-grown wheat, with all the ingredients, even the salt, easily sourced from not too far away. But my starter is still a baby, only a few dozen hours old, its yeasty colonies not tough enough to lift even a little tiny pancake yet.

Until then, what you want is something distinctly non-local, as East Coast as a Red Sox cap or a lobster roll spilling from a toasted Pepperidge Farm bun. Yes, I’m talking about Boston brown bread. Hardly any of my San Francisco pals know from this old-fashioned treat; they’re too busy chomping asparagus foccacia or folding injera around their spicy doro waat. By comparison, Boston brown bread is homely, a little dumpy, even. Like any recipe that uses an empty coffee can instead of a baking pan, it has an undeniable whiff of 1950s Fannie Farmer to it.

But you know what? It’s good. In fact, it’s really, really good, and good for you, too, packed with whole grains and rich in iron and fiber. Because it’s steamed, not baked, it comes out completely moist without any added fat. A good thing, too, since the best way to eat it is slathered in cream cheese. Think of the best bran muffin you’ve ever had, then think of Amy Adams curled up in your lap, laughing at your jokes and feeding it to you bite by bite.

And did I mention that it’s completely easy? Seven ingredients, one bowl, one spoon, and a couple of coffee cans. Actually, the hardest part may be getting the coffee cans, now that nothing but Peets/Blue Bottle/Four Barrel/Ritual Roasters will pass our lips. Then again, haven’t you heard that Cafe Bustelo is the new PBR?

Admit it: you liked it back in your five-roommates-in-a-drafty-Victorian days, brewed up strong and cheap so you could make it onto the 33-Stanyan at any hour, day or night.

So drink up, then grease up. And remember to top each filled can with a little shower cap of foil or waxed paper, so it can rise without getting wet from the steam drips inside the pot.

Boston Brown Bread
Well wrapped, this stays tasty and moist for several days. It also freezes very well.

Makes: 2 loaves

Ingredients:
1 cup corn meal
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rye flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup molasses
1 cup raisins

Preparation:
1. Generously grease 2 clean 12-oz coffee cans. Fill a deep pot (big enough to accommodate both cans) approximately 1/3 full with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.

2. While water is heating, stir dry ingredients together. Add buttermilk, molasses, and raisins. Stir gently until you have a thick, smooth brown batter.

3. Divide batter between prepared coffee cans. Top each can with a sheet of buttered aluminum foil or waxed paper, and tie down firmly with string or a rubber band. Put cans into pot of boiling water; water should come about half-way up cans.

4. Lower heat to a simmer, cover, and steam for 1 1/2 hours.

5. To test for doneness, remove 1 can from pot, remove foil, and stick a toothpick into the middle. Toothpick should come out nearly clean-if not, re-cover and steam for an additional 10 -15 minutes. When done, remove cans from water with tongs or two pot holders, remove foil, and let cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before unmolding.

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Category: baking and bakeries, recipes

About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.
  • Denise Lincoln

    Hi Stephanie — I had completely forgotten about Boston Brown Bread, which I am quite fond of. Thanks for the reminder! Do you think I could make it in my pudding pan instead of a coffee can (pudding as in steamed puddings)? it would be the wrong shape, but I can’t even imagine where I’d get a coffee can. Thanks.

  • http://piequeen.blogspot.com Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Sure, a pudding mold would work just fine. Is it the kind that latches over the top? Any cylindrical-type metal container that can be covered should be great–I think coffee cans replaced pudding molds at a time when coffee cans were the sort of thing everyone had at home.

  • Dick Russell

    Stephanie
    I have been trying to simply buy canned Boston Brown Bread with no luck in Marin County CA. S&W used to make it but I imagine that the next to last customer passed on. Can you advise a source? The local bakeries never heard of it.
    Thank you

  • Jeff

    Dick Russell, of all things, go to Amazon.com and search on “b m brown bread”
    Jeff

  • Johnny Putt

    B&M Brownbread is still made in Portland ME. No Saturday
    ‘dinner’ (New England for lunch) went by without a
    healthy serving of Boston Baked Beans and brown bread.
    Now that stuff has a shelf life of infinity and once
    out of the can its atomic bomb proof. As a kid I ate
    that stuff! I had to! It was Yankee Religion to have
    a slab of that gunk with your baked beans. Today 70
    years later and a hearty meat and potato man I look
    back to when I had to choke that gunk down and wonder
    how I survived.

  • Dave

    Made a slightly modified version of this recipe the other night and it was fantastic! I think the bread is even better the next day. I like the fact that it can bee cooked on a stovetop, freeing up the oven for other dishes (i.e. beans)…

    For my bread I left out the raisins and I added in a couple of things in after looking at Alton Brown’s recipe – 1/2 tsp of Allspice and 1 tsp of Vanilla Extract.

    I think next time I’ll make sure I try the raisins. I’m also wondering if some rolled oats would be nice in there…

  • http://theconstantviewer.blogspot.com Paul

    I grew up in NJ, been living in central IL since ’93. The winters can be frigid and gloomy, and suddenly after many years I thought of Boston brown bread–and I wanted some right away. I haven’t checked our local stores, but in NJ you could always find cans of it on supermarket shelves. And yes, you need cream cheese. It’s like fruitcake for people who don’t like fruitcake (which I do)–or, as you say, the ultimate fiber muffin. Thanks for reminding me of my South Jersey youth.

    I’m going to make some soon–and wash it down with Bustelo! Our Wally Mart carries it–my Cuban mother, stranded in NJ, used to buy it, make it double strong, drown it in sugar, café Cubano style. And while our little college town is lucky to have our own coffee guys–they outlasted a Starbucks, with their fresh-roasted goodness from all over–we like Indian Monsooned Malabar AA. But every once in a while we brew up the Bustelo. I have some in the cofeemaker right now, timed to go for tomorrow morning. Next stop, Boston. Thanks again.

  • Rose

    I don’t know what PBR means (maybe it’s a Bay Area term, and I’m just a lowly Angelino/a), but my Italian son-in-law got me hooked on coffee all over again by introducing me to Cafe Bustelo.

  • Rose

    Speaking of the weather: I moved back to SoCal after decades in rainy Oregon, and this week we’ve had at least three tornados in the beach area. Yikes!

  • http://piequeen.blogspot.com Stephanie Rosenbaum

    “PBR” is hipster lingo for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the cheap brew that’s come back into fashion for certain dive-bar denizens. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

  • lauri

    I use to make this all the time and it was delicious. After about 10 years, (today) I decided to make it again.

    I have no idea what happened, but at the 2 hour mark, I took the cans out of the water and it was mush! Not cooked at all, or at least the top. Any idea if this is fixable and what I should do?

  • Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Was your water boiling the whole time? My first thought would be that you didn’t have enough water in the pot (should come half-way up the cans), the pot wasn’t covered, or heat was too low and water didn’t get hot enough to steam-cook the bread. I think it should be fixable if you put the cans back into the pot, turn the heat up high to get the water boiling, then reduce heat just enough to keep the water at a steady simmer. Make sure the cans themselves are covered with foil (to prevent condensed water from dripping into the breads) and that the pot is covered to keep the steam & heat in. Good luck! It also may take longer than 2 hours to get the breads fully cooked.

  • nOnO

    NOT blackstrap molasses