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.
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.
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
is why I was dumbfounded to see it on a menu the other day
at Floriole Cafe & Bakery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
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 ...
in a can?" I asked.
in a can," he said.
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
are making it — in a can (but lovingly baked, not steamed)
— through April; price: $6.75 per loaf.
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?’
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
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.
sliced his loaf into discs familiar from my childhood and
spread butter and jam across a piece.
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
40 to 50 minutes
4 loaves, about 10 half-inch slices per loaf
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.
tablespoons soft butter for buttering the cans
cups (200 grams) fine white cornmeal
cups (285 grams) whole rye flour
(285 grams) whole wheat flour
teaspoons kosher salt
teaspoons baking powder
teaspoons baking soda
cups blackstrap molasses
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter your cans using a pastry
the dry ingredients in a bowl; whisk to combine.
another bowl, add all the wet ingredients, whisking to
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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