Week Forty-Four: Multi-Grain Breads
Having grown up in the South, it’s no wonder I was a stranger to Boston brown bread. In fact, until I made this recipe, I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly eaten it before. This is one of those situations where I’m not sure if that condition is a help or a hindrance. Having no prior knowledge of it, how am I to truly judge? How am I to know if this is too dark, too fluffy, too grainy? And yet, never having tasted it, my palate is unclouded by ghosts of Breads Past, and I may sample with a clear mind.
Fortunately, I have faith in my tasting abilities, and I believe I can objectively ascertain which are good breads, and which are not-so-good. This bread falls into the former category, despite the fact that this version of Boston brown bread is baked. Horrors, I know.
Traditionally, this bread is steamed, as Americans of the era this bread was created in didn’t have ovens, using fireplaces instead for all their cooking. This recipe comes from the Hi-Rise Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the chef apparently prefers his brown bread baked. Though that might cause a small scandal in some circles, it’s fine by me, as I have no preconceived notions of what this bread should be like.
All I know is that this bread is delicious. Composed largely of cornmeal, whole-wheat, and rye flours, it speaks to its origins in a time when white flour was a more precious thing. This combination of grains gives the loaf a very complex sweetness, which is heightened with the use of rich molasses as a sweetener. It may seem like a lot when measuring out ingredients, but the finished bread is perfectly sweetened, neither too much, nor to little.
Molasses is all well and good, but it can be a bit heavy for my tastes, so I’ve lightened it here by substituting part of it for honey or maple syrup, whatever happens to be in your pantry at the time. Or use both. I hesitate to mention pancake syrup (such as Mrs. Butterworth’s), as the lot of them tend to make my skin crawl a bit, and my inclination is to recommend avoidance; but if you’ve got nothing else, at least they have more flavor than plain corn syrup. There are worse things you could do.
Even though this bread is baked instead of steamed, it’s still made in the standard round tins. Recipes will generally direct you to use coffee cans, but I haven’t a clue where you find coffee in a can anymore. (It’s certainly not around my neighborhood.) Twenty-eight ounce tomato cans, however, are plentiful, and you can always use up a can of tomatoes. Beans also come in the same size can, but as I discovered to my chagrin, they often have a pop-top lid, which leaves a thin band of metal around the top edge. (This might not seem significant, but it’s just enough of a lip to keep your bread from sliding out after it’s baked. Ten points if you can guess how I know this.) You could certainly also use any size can, larger or smaller, to bake these breads; in that case, be sure to adjust the cooking time.
The resultant bread is rich, hearty, robust, and absolutely ideal to serve alongside all the soups and stews that I’ve started turning out of my Autumn kitchen. Yes, I was a stranger to Boston brown bread; but now that I know it, I have a feeling it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Boston Brown Bread
Adapted from Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer
Makes 2 round loaves
8 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
8 ounces (about 2 cups) rye flour
4 1/2 ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour
4 ounces (about 2/3 cup) cornmeal (see note 1 below)
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey, or maple syrup, or a mixture
2 cups milk
1 cup dried currants
1. Preheat the oven to 300º F. Butter the inside of two 28-ounce cans, or any other similar metal container about 5 inches high and 4 inches across.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the molasses, honey or syrup, and milk. Mix together by hand, adding additional milk by spoonfuls if the batter is crumbly and dry. Add currants, folding in quickly and gently.
3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans, or fill 3/4 full. Bake at 300º F for 1½ hours, rotating the cans halfway through the baking process to brown evenly. The loaves should be well domed, browned, and crusty when done. Remove from the cans while still warm, and transfer to a wire rack to cool thoroughly.
1. Stone-ground white cornmeal is suggested; I used regular yellow cornmeal seemingly with no adverse reactions.
2. Do not use an electric mixer to make this bread, as it will end up tough and too dry.