This past week marked the anniversary of a truly terrible and bizarre piece of Boston history; the great molasses flood of 1919 when a tsunami of molasses covered two blocks of Boston’s North End with a 15 foot wave of hot, sticky molasses. If you take a look at these pictures from the Boston Globe you’ll see the absolute devastation that the molasses flood brought to the densely packed neighborhood. Boston was the center of the molasses universe in those days as the area was home to many rum distilleries. Because of its abundance, molasses also was a key ingredient in local cuisine.
Molasses was the main sweetener for early settlers too. American style baked beans were introduced to the Pilgrims by local Indian tribes. While the Indian tribes used maple syrup and, the Pilgrims used molasses that was readily available and familiar because it was imported to Europe from the West Indies. The early settlers used molasses to sweeten everything from bread to beans to desserts such as Indian Pudding. While many Americans are not familiar with Boston Brown Bread and Indian Pudding, almost everyone is familiar with baked beans. While even today in northern New England they still use maple syrup, using molasses to sweeten the beans turns plain baked beans into Boston Baked Beans. It’s no surprise that the combination of beans and molasses became so popular that it earned Boston the name “Beantown”.
Traditional Yankee cuisine is still available here, although it’s a little harder to find than it used to be. Baked beans and brown bread were the traditional Sunday meal for much of New England for hundreds of years because it can be made ahead of time and kept warm; so locals could observe their religious rules of not cooking on the Sabbath. Now, there are restaurants that still serve traditional baked beans, but they are more of a novelty than a sought-after dish, except maybe by tourists. The real exception to this is Durgin Park – a touristy, yet all the same historical restaurant that still serves traditional Yankee fare. Here you can still get Yankee pot roast, baked beans, brown bread, Indian Pudding and cracker crumb cod. I worked right next to Durgin Park for several years, and it is where I was first introduced to Yankee cooking.
Whenever I want to tackle a traditional dish I’m torn between modernizing it or embracing the traditional recipe. Never has this been more so than with baked beans. Living in New England I feel obliged to make such a traditional dish the way it was intended: the way I first encountered it at Durgin Park fifteen years ago. But, that’s just foolish, because I want to make them vegetarian; that’s not the way they were intended. So, with this recipe I’ve thrown out the rule book and instead embraced the spirit of the original recipe. This is still a hearty winter dish full of rich sweet flavors, but I’ve replaced the fatty pork belly with a hearty dose of veggies. Not really an even trade is it? All the same, this is still a full meal, especially when paired with a slice of the heavy and hearty classic brown bread.
The brown bread is another traditional recipe. For this one I have adapted several very old recipes which I found in a few ancient cookbooks I have around. They all have variations of the same recipe. Most of them call for equal parts of rye and graham flour and corn meal. All of them call for sour milk and baking soda. I noticed that most new recipes for brown bread use whole wheat flour, white flour and corn meal, not rye flour, but why add white flour to a recipe that traditionally calls for something much healthier? The quick bread is sweetened with molasses and steamed – always. I use a Bundt pan (or you can use a tube pan) placed in a dutch oven for steaming instead of the traditional can, but the finished product is still hearty, sweet and the perfect accompaniment for the beans. It’s even better toasted with butter and jam the following morning. Enjoy!
These beans re-heat beautifully in the microwave. Just add a half cup of water, cover and cook for 10 minutes on 50% power, stirring once half-way through the cooking time.
2 cups great northern or navy beans soaked overnight
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped fine
1 carrot, chopped fine
1 celery stalk, chopped fine
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped fine
4 cups water, divided
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add the oil and heat until it begins to simmer then add the onions, celery, carrots and apple. Cook until the onions are translucent, about five minutes. While the vegetables are cooking combine the molasses, brown sugar, tomato paste, cloves, bay leaf, mustard powder, whole-grain mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Add the molasses mixture once the vegetables are soft. Add two cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil.
Place the soaked beans in a large oven-safe dish. Pour the vegetable and molasses mixture over the beans and seal tightly with a piece of foil. Put the baking dish on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Cook for 2 hours.
When 2 hours have passed, remove the pan from the oven and stir the beans. Add the salt dissolved in another cup of water. Recover the beans with foil and return to the oven. Check once an hour stirring the beans and adding more water as needed. The finished beans should be a rich brownish-red in color and very tender. The total cooking time will vary depending on the type of bean you use; about 4 hours for navy beans and 6 hours for the larger great northern bean.
Steamed Boston Brown Bread
Makes 1 large tube pan loaf, about 30 slices
This is essentially a graham flour bread that is leavened with baking soda instead of yeast. Most of us don’t have a steamed pudding pan hanging around, and I don’t even have a 1 pound coffee can. So, this recipe is adapted to use a large dutch oven and a standard metal loaf or Bundt pan. This means that it produces a much larger than normal loaf. If you’re not that into brown bread, you can half this recipe and steam it in a 1 pound coffee can (oh, and the cans really don’t hold one pound of coffee anymore, but people still refer to them as such). Do not use a glass loaf pan for this as it could shatter when steamed on the stove.
2 cup rye flour
2 cup graham flour
2 cup corn meal
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup molasses
3 cups buttermilk
Grease a 12-cup tube pan or Bundt pan and set aside. Bring 1 inch of water to boil in a large dutch oven set over medium-high heat. While the water boils, combine the flours, salt and baking powder. In another bowl combine the molasses and buttermilk. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Scrape the batter into the loaf or Bundt pan and lower the pan down into the boiling water. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Cook the bread until it is firm to the touch, about two hours.
When the bread has finished steaming use a pair of tongs inserted into the center of the tube to raise the pan out of the pot of water. You can use a paper towel to soak up any water or moisture that has collected around the edges of the bread. Heat an oven to 325 degrees. Bake the bread for about 20 minutes to dry out the edges of the bread and prevent the bread from becoming sticky. When the bread is done, remove and cool for ten minute before turning the bread out onto a wire rack. Serve immediately warm or toasted the following day. Can be kept covered for three days or frozen for two months.