Week Seven: American Breads
America has a far different history of bread than does Italy, or France, or any other “old world” country. Why, you ask? Well, you have to look at agriculture to answer that. There is a long, rich history of wheat growing and baking in Europe, even going back to Ancient Roman times. Over centuries, people developed and perfected recipes for that wheat, and also for rye, barley, oat, and any other grain available to them. When those people came to America, bringing their beloved recipes with them, they were befuddled by the grain they found growing most plentifully: corn.
Unlike wheat flour, corn flour produces no gluten, which is basically the most important part of a good wheat bread. So essentially, bakers had to scrap everything they knew about making bread, and start over. Corn flour, though it won’t ever produce a baguette, does work very well in making quick breads; that is to say, breads where gluten formation is undesirable. Early European-American cooks learned quickly how to stir together cornbread, johnnycakes, hoe cakes, and any number of corn-based breads. For quite a long time, wheat was imported across the Atlantic at great cost, and was treasured highly. Corn was looked down upon as a food for the poor, or for the Savages. (Racism, I know! Shocking!)
And when they finally managed to grow wheat, into those proverbial amber waves of grain, they adapted it into their quick bread repertoire, and drew on the memory of those old European recipes, producing biscuits, pancakes, soft rolls, and various tea breads, such as this Hobo Bread from Michigan. (Yes, I’m rather glossing over the culinary contributions of the native Americans; but the tradition of bread in American Indian tribes, and in Mexican culture, is mostly limited to various flatbreads. And I will discuss that later in the week; for now, I’m keeping myself more in the European vein of things.) Americans, it seems, have been very slow to jump on the hard-crust, slow-risen, artisan-style bread wagon. But quick breads? We’ve got them in spades. So I thought it appropriate to start out with a particularly delicious one.
I first heard about this bread from a friend of mine who hails from Detroit. “You have to try Greenfield Village Hobo Bread!,” she told me. “It’s so good!” Personally, I had never seen or heard of it, but the way her smile burst onto her face, the way her eyes rolled back with the memory, the excitement in her voice, all told me that I had better darn well try to find it. A quick internet search turned up a recipe, entitled exactly as she’d said, “Greenfield Village Hobo Bread”. The bread is a very popular best-seller at Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. The recipe had apparently appeared in the Bellwether, a weekly newspaper for the staff, and got spread around. And after making it, I can definitely see why.
This bread is so good! It’s incredibly moist for how little fat is in it, the flavors of the currants, sugars, and walnuts together are superb, and is super-easy to make. Yes, ok, for those of you in the know, this Hobo Bread doesn’t usually have currants. It usually has raisins; but I’m actually not that big a fan of raisins. I find currants lovely, though, so I generally use them instead. Feel free to use raisins for greater authenticity. Another little tweak I gave the recipe was to switch some of the water for brandy. The original recipe calls for soaking the currants (or raisins) in water, but what does water taste like? Nothin’, is what. And currants and brandy are best friends, so I gave it a go. It was delicious! Try bourbon or spiced rum for a variation, if you like.
This is a thoroughly American bread, all the way from its quick bread nature, to the ingredients used, to the name and the way it’s made (hobo cooking, as such, originated during the Great Depression, and generally involves cooking in tin cans, or aluminum foil packets tossed into a fire). Not to mention that hoboes themselves are pretty American – show me any other country that has them! Now, I’m not sure if you’d find many hoboes cooking with currants and brandy, but I do know there’s not a soul who would turn down a slice of this bread. So the next time you’re, you know, riding the rails, pack some of this in your bindle – you’ll probably make a lifelong friend if you share it.
Greenfield Village Hobo Bread
1 cup currants (or raisins)
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 cup brandy
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1. Grease and flour 3 or 4 empty and clean soup cans, or two small loaf pans, or one large loaf pan. Preheat oven to 350º F.
2. Pour boiling water over currants. Add brandy, and let cool.
3. Whisk together baking soda, salt, and flour; set aside. In a large bowl, mix together butter, milk, vanilla, egg, and the sugars. Add the currants and all the liquid.
4. Gently mix in flour mixture and walnuts, until just blended. It’s ok if there are lumps or some streaks of flour.
5. Fill the soup cans to half full, or divide evenly between loaf pans. Bake for 40 minutes to an hour. Cool 5 minutes in cans or pans before removing to a rack to cool completely.
1. The egg should be at room temperature; otherwise, the melted butter will solidify when the two are combined. You could certainly substitute oil for the butter, but the flavor will be different.
2. Of course, I totally understand wanting a non-alcoholic version; so if you prefer that route, try using apple juice or orange juice instead of the alcohol.
3. This recipe will double beautifully, and freeze well if necessary.