23 June 2011

The Land of the Bean and the Cod ... and Fannie Farmer

Boston Brown Bread

Fannie Merritt Farmer's preface to The Boston Cooking School Cook Book
courtesy of Michigan State University's website

'Back in the day' is one of my favorite expressions when talking about old times, favorite memories from childhood, or past practices, rules, and traditions that are pretty much written in the stone slabs of New England granite. Living here in the heart of New England, there are a few dinners that have stood the test of time ... they're cheap, can be made ahead of serving time, keep well for a day or two or three, fill the belly with nutritious and locally produced foods and meats and fit the criteria for those things 'written in stone' -

Soon-to-be Boston Baked Beans

Take for example the Saturday night Boston Baked Bean Supper ... this meal has been around since the days of cheap molasses (remember the triangle trade?), rum, salt, and New England farmers' steady supply of corn, beans, rye, wheat flour, and pork. Back in the day, the accompaniment to a plate of baked beans was Boston brown bread ... a steamed bread pudding of rye flour, cornmeal, graham flour, and baking soda all mixed up with molasses and sour milk (with currants or blueberries added for some interest and sweetness). A slab of ham, a couple sausages, or some codfish ball croquettes made for a complete meal ... oh, wait. Topped off with a jug of cider, beer, or watered rum ... fresh milk for the small fry and there you had it ... Saturday night's supper. Well, guess what? It's still the same routine on Saturdays in many places in New England ... maybe without the rum. Supper comes out of a slow oven and warm bread comes off the stove ...

Yes ... supper. That's another thing. Here in New England, I have always called mid-day meal dinner and evening meal supper. What about you? For me, learning to use 'lunch'  and 'dinner' was just that ... a learning process. Ah, regional terminology ...it's always so interesting, but I am really getting off track.

Fannie Merritt Farmer was a woman of the 19th century Victorian era. She set about creating a cookbook that has become a cornerstone of modern cooking science. She became involved with The Boston Cooking School and in 1896, she was able to publish her comprehensive cookbook that gave recipes and scientific explanations for her cooking techniques, plus detailed information about the foodstuffs she used in the book. It has become a classic reference. She has been listed as one of the most influential of American women ever involved in the food industry and is this week's person of note for Mary's '50 Women' blogging share  over at her foodblog, One Perfect Bite...

I live here in New England. How appropriate is it for me to re-create Fannie's recipe for Boston Brown Bread?  Fannie Farmer was one of the first food scientists to 'make bank' on this traditional New England supper. I might as well make her brown bread and my mother-in-law's traditional recipe for Boston Baked Beans. Hell, I may even serve it up with a 'jug o' rum!

First, though, I have to get a steaming system set up for my kitchen, as I do not plan to make the fire and do the 'kettle on the hearth' routine. I am using a deep stock pot with canning rings jury-rigged to create an elevated platform for my storage can mold.  I will grease the heck out of the storage can and fill it two-thirds of the way full with the Boston Brown Bread batter. It gets set into a water bath that is kept half-way up the side of the mold and is simmered/steamed for three hours or until the center of the loaf tests done with a cake tester.

This is the cast of characters ... all simple and basic, but put together they create a moist, dense, and sweet bread that is classic! It's perfect for slathering with butter or dragging through the sweet juices of a plate of baked beans.

Notice that you can't overfill the steaming mold ... That is how much this bread rises during the cooking process. This storage can is a huge experiment on my part. My mother-in-law always used Maxwell House coffee cans with foil and rubber bands for covering. I, however, have no coffee cans, so this covered canister is the best I could do. We'll see if the acrylic top can stand the test of two to three hours of steam heat. Stay tuned.

Cooking time on this bread is just over two hours ... I'll chalk it up to a tight fit on the steaming pot and even heating of a gas cooktop over a more temperamental wood-fired stove. The acrylic top to the mold 'bought the farm', but the bread came out of the mold beautifully.

Ten to twenty minutes of cooling time and then invert the mold over the rack...

The key was to really butter the pan up ... or in my case use cooking spray.

Fannie Farmer’s Boston Brown Bread
with modern directions for preparations

1 c. rye flour
1 c. coarse yellow cornmeal
1 c. graham flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 c. sour milk (or buttermilk)
¾ c. molasses
1 c. currants, sultanas, or dried blueberries (optional)


- 1 steaming mold – 2-quart capacity
- a deep stock pot with a tight cover
- a rack that fits into the bottom of the stockpot (or canning rings set in to make an elevated platform for the mold

Making the Dish:

1. Place the rack in the bottom of the stockpot and fill with water so that the steaming mold will have water halfway up its sides. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat so that the water remains at a simmer.

2. Meanwhile, whisk the dry ingredients together in a deep bowl

3. Add the currants or blueberries and stir to coat them well with flour.

4. Mix the milk and molasses in a bowl until the molasses is completely incorporated into the milk.

5. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add them all at once. Stir well to make a thick batter.

6. Butter very generously, the steaming mold all the way to the top and in the grooves (if you have a melon mold or an ornately designed mold) … butter the inside cover of the mold also.

7. Place the batter in the mold, being sure not to fill the mold more than ⅔ full. The bread needs room to rise.

8. Place the cover on the mold and clamp it down.

9. Lower the mold into place on the rack in the steaming hot water bath.

10. Set the timer for 2 hours, place the cover on the stockpot, and walk away.

11. Resist the urge to remove the cover after the initial checking of the water level up the sides of the mold. The water must be kept at that level, but you shouldn’t have to add water … unless your stockpot cover allows steam to escape.

12. Brown bread is done when a cake tester inserted in the center of the loaf comes clean.

13. After 2 hours of steaming, check the bread. If it is done, remove the mold from the water bath, turn off the stove, place the mold on a rack, remove the cover, and let the bread cool for twenty minutes. Then invert the bread mold on the rack and let the bread drop from the mold. If need be, run a sharp thin knife around the upper edges of the mold a bit to ‘break the seal’ on the bread and tap lightly.

14. Serve the bread warm with butter for spreading alongside baked beans. Enjoy!

Silent Bob and I tested that first slice ... with plenty of butter and a cuppa tea. Perfect! Atta girl, Fannie!
Tonight the beans will soak and tomorrow, our Baked Beans and Brown Bread supper will all come together! Stay tuned!

Oops! But it won't be Saturday night ... oh well.


  1. I enjoued learning more about Fanny Farmer and iconic woman that revolutionized modern cooking with standard measures. Your Boston Brown bread is a tribute to her as well as your area. Well done!

  2. I've been curious about brown bread for a while. I'm glad to have a recipe rather than to buy the stuff in the can (it creeps me out!)

  3. Sounds good! I love the pic!! LOL

  4. I've never had this before but it looks wonderful.

  5. How ingenious!! I love the sound of it!

  6. It's a good thing I don't have any extra storage canisters lying around or my roommate would end up quite annoyed at me for filling our apartment with steam for two hours :)

  7. Awesome! I've always wanted to make Boston Brown Bread, but never really had a good container to use...seems like all the cans I find are lined. Great idea to use the canister (r.i.p. acrylic lid), it looks absolutely perfect! Fun post =)

  8. My Mom was from New Hampshire, so I'm familiar with your Saturday tradition.I don't know how the meal moved from Back Bay to back woods, but I can assure you it did. I have really fond memories of beans and bread on Saturday night. I'm so glad you chose this recipe. As a matter of fact, if I can find the right sized can I'm going to make this one. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  9. Oh - a tasty reminder of days past in my New England home town. Thanks for sharing!

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