Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I Make Brown Bread

I suppose to many people this post will be completely boring, but it’s about something I found incredibly interesting: I made brown bread for the first time, as in “Steamed Boston Brown Bread.”

I think it fascinated me because it seems no one makes it anymore. No one eats it, no one serves it. (At least not around here. I’ll bet it’s still proudly served in households throughout New England.) Yet I’m pretty sure it used to be fairly common throughout America. And that would make it a “retro recipe,” or a “mom” or “grandma recipe.” And that means: Let’s not forget it. Let’s check it out. Let’s have it sometimes, because it inspires nostalgia and reverence.

When I was a kid, we used to have brown bread pretty often. I think Mom used to buy it at the grocery store, canned. She’s told me that her mom used to make it. And like a lot of moms and grandmas, grandma used to make it in a largish tin can.

It would seem to be very healthy and full of nutrients: My recipe calls for equal parts of whole wheat flour, rye flour, and corn meal—plus molasses (I used Brer Rabbit full flavor). The leavening is buttermilk (or sour milk, but you can’t really buy that) plus baking soda and salt. Pretty simple, actually.

Raisins are commonly added—I intended to put them in, but forgot at the last moment. Yes, I really was that excited!

For those of you who don’t know anything about brown bread, here’s its most remarkable trait: It is not baked; it is steamed.

In my brain, that seems silly: Wouldn’t steaming make bread soggy? Well, not if you wrap up the batter/dough so that no extra moisture can get in.

And so, if you want to make brown bread, you need some kind of steamer. I used a big enamel-ware canning pot that Sue’s mom gave us. The recipe I used said to use a 2-quart pudding mold (filled 2/3’s full), and I didn’t have one of those. Well, I do, but I wanted something fairly loaf-shaped. (All our tin cans had gone out in the recycling, so I didn’t have any around!)

Digging around in our bakeware cupboard under the counter, I found some disposable aluminum-foil-type loaf tins that each hold 1 quart, and I found they would fit in the pot nicely side-by-side. I wrapped each tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil, so no steam would get into the bread.

The instructions said to steam it for 3 1/2 hours, but they didn’t need to go that long (two 1-quart loaf tins would cook faster than one big mass in a single 2-quart mold). Even at 3 hours, it still seemed like a hell of a long time to cook anything on the stovetop (not counting the braising of sauerbraten, which is always worth doing). But at least it didn’t need much watching. The canning pot didn’t let out much water vapor at all, so the water never got close to needing replenishing.

The recipe is from my beloved copy of The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, ed. Dorothy B. Marsh (New York: Rinehart, 1949), pp. 446-47.

There was something magical about fishing those foil-wrapped tins out of the steamer, opening them, and finding nice little loaves of moist, spongy bread where before there had been a blob of quick-bread batter glop.

To celebrate, we followed the rest of the instructions in my 1940s cookbook, which suggested to serve the brown bread hot “with baked beans, codfish cakes, frankfurters, etc.” I didn’t have any codfish cakes lying about, but I did go to the store and found some actual frankfurters (as opposed to hot dogs)—plump, pudgy, flavorful franks with skins that kind of “snapped” when we bit into them. And yes, baked beans, too.

The next day, we made little sandwiches with the bread, now chilled, filled with cream cheese, and had them with red-grape-laced chicken salad (a delicious combo that my Aunt Ann served us for lunch a few years ago; she’d spiked the chicken salad with a hint of microplane-grated orange peel, too, and that was especially good).

My apologies: There are no pictures of our plates, because we consumed these meals before I even thought of taking any photos for the blog. (I do wonder about bloggers who seem to take pictures of every morsel they put into their mouths . . . !)

So although this wasn’t the most “colorful” of posts, I hope you’ll appreciate this humble culinary exploration of mine. Maybe it will inspire you to try making brown bread, too!


Jenice said...

When we lived in the east I use to buy it canned but made it once when coffee came in metal cans. Your column has inspired it to try again when daughter Ellen comes this summer. She has always loved it.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Jenice! I've heard of it being made in coffee cans. I've also seen people make it in an oven (but still in a steamer). I have to admit it was an excellent combo with beans and franks (although the meal was terribly brown). And Aunt Anna Mae's chilled brown bread/cream cheese finger sandwiches were excellent with a fruit-laced chicken salad!

It's funny how a food at one point seems to ubiquitous, so usual--but then it drops gradually out of sight. Then you suddenly realize, "I haven't had that in years!"

Thanks for your comment, Jenice, and I hope you're enjoying your springtime!