The joy of brown bread

April 13, 2015

The bread is traditionally steamed or baked in a can, the rings leaving an impression on the loaves. A liberal coating of butter helps the bread slide out easily.

For as long as I can remember, my favorite bread, the bread that I still crave above all breads, has come in a can. It’s called brown bread, or outside of New England, where it is mostly unheard of, Boston brown bread. My grandmother, whose family came from Portland, Maine, a brown-bread holy land, would bake it often, sliding the dense, brown loaf out of an old bean can, slicing it in thick discs and smearing cream cheese across each surface. But generally, in a pinch, on a Saturday night, served with a plate of baked beans and hot dogs, my brown bread came from a gold and red B&M Brown Bread can. It came from a can because, in keeping with old New England tradition, B&M steamed its brown bread in a can, never baked it.

The company, best known for baked beans, still makes brown bread in a can; its factory stands tall on Casco Bay, at the north side of Portland, but brown bread, always a regional specialty, has become even more so. In fact, brown bread, as sweet and moist as cake, is fast becoming a rarity in New England too.

Which is why I was dumbfounded to see it on a menu the other day at Floriole Cafe & Bakery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

"That means Irish brown bread, right?" I asked the guy at the counter, assuming they were making that more commonly spotted tangy, yeast-less bread. No, he said, this bread is brown, with molasses and ...

"Made in a can?" I asked.

"Made in a can," he said.

New England brown bread was the first thing I ever bought with money I earned; I rode my bike to a church bake sale and bought a loaf off an ancient nun. But the thing is, even then, in southern New England in the late 1970s, brown bread was feeling like a forgotten bread. The can never seemed to help. My friends would eat it politely at all of my birthday parties, but they thought the stuff was odd; indeed, pulled from a B&M can, it came with rings around the edges, like cranberry sauce from a can. Anyway, I couldn’t believe I had found this great brown whale in the Midwest. I asked for a loaf. Floriole was sold out, but baking some more.

They are making it — in a can (but lovingly baked, not steamed) — through April; price: $6.75 per loaf.

So I returned to Floriole on a recent Friday morning, and Alex Roman, head bread baker, took me into the kitchen and unveiled three loaves of brown bread, each as cylindrical as a grain silo. He said, looking down at his work: "I think of it as the original bran muffin. We get questions: ‘Why is it brown? What is it?’

"It’s humble. From what I know, created by colonial New Englanders, with rye and cornmeal because they were preserving their reserves of other flours," said Roman. "They steamed it because, without ovens, they cooked in open fires."

The origin is a bit sketchy, but that’s mostly it: Rye and wheat were cheaper and readier; when mixed with molasses (for sweetness), brown bread became a variation on steamed pudding. But when the Erie Canal was completed in the early 19th century, New England had access to refined wheats and developed a taste for white breads. The long, very slow obsolescence of brown bread began. At least that’s one of the origin tales.

Roman sliced his loaf into discs familiar from my childhood and spread butter and jam across a piece.

Floriole makes brown bread because Rachel Post, the bakery’s original bread guru (a New England native who left Floriole last year to open an upcoming pizza joint), put it on their first menus. Now, they make it every spring. They don’t serve it with cream cheese; and Roman has never tasted B&M’s bread in a can. But he is a fine steward, using dark blackstrap molasses, buttermilk, rye flour. He’s 28, a Chicago guy with an old soul and a large, sad, pugilistic face — one of those people you can easily imagine appearing in an old photograph. He watched me quickly devour my first slice of his terrific brown bread and said: "I have become very interested in reviving old breads. I guess I see it as my responsibility to keep some traditions alive."

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BOSTON BROWN BREAD

Prep: 20 minutes

Bake: 40 to 50 minutes

Makes: 4 loaves, about 10 half-inch slices per loaf

Recipe adapted from Floriole bakery. You will need four cans for baking the bread. Head bread baker Alex Roman suggests 28- or 32-ounce tomato cans. We also had good luck with 11-ounce coffee cans. Make sure to remove the labels and to wash off any adhesive (Goo Gone helps). Butter the cans inside very well so that the baked loaves come out easily.

3 tablespoons soft butter for buttering the cans

1 3/4 cups (200 grams) fine white cornmeal

2 1/4 cups (285 grams) whole rye flour

2 cups (285 grams) whole wheat flour

2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

2 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 3/4 cups blackstrap molasses

5 eggs (250 grams)

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter your cans using a pastry brush.

2. Put the dry ingredients in a bowl; whisk to combine.

3. In another bowl, add all the wet ingredients, whisking to combine.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet; mix until just incorporated. Be careful not to over-mix, the mixture should be the consistency of a thick pancake batter.

5. Evenly distribute the batter among the 4 cans; each should be about three-quarters full. Slam the cans onto the table to level the batter.

6. Transfer the tins onto a rimmed baking sheet. (The baking sheet is used to keep you from having to deep clean your oven if the batter should overflow.)

7. Bake, 20 minutes; rotate pan, then bake for another 20 minutes. Test the bread by inserting a cake tester, or a long wooden skewer down the center of the bread; it should come out clean. If not, bake 5 to 10 minutes more.

8. Remove cans from the oven; allow to cool, 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edges of the breads; slide the loaves from the cans. Cool completely.

Nutrition information per slice: 156 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 32 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 287 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

 

 


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