In December I posted an unnamed recipe that turned out to be my great-grandmother’s recipe for brown bread. That receipt, as she would have called it, did not explain how the brown bread ought to be cooked, but right before I began making it myself I scanned a few on-line recipes for brown bread and was reminded that in New England it is traditionally made in a can.
I knew this, but not having cooked in a can before I must have forgotten that part.
To be honest, the thought of cooking bread in a can was a bit daunting, if not also absurd.
Then I recalled my mother’s cousins’ making some references over the years to their grandmother’s cooking something in a coffee can. It had to be the brown bread, I figured, and so I began looking for something akin to a coffee can in which to cook my bread. Since I buy my coffee in the form of beans in bulk, I opted for a tin can that once held 28 oz. of tomatoes. When I make the bread again I’ll use two cans, as I had just a little overflow of bread after it rose.
Basically, you mix the ingredients and pour them into a buttered tin can. Then you find yourself a larger pot, securely cover the top of the open can with tin foil (I tied dental floss around the foil to keep it from shifting), place the can in the pot on top of some kind of platform (don’t just let the can rest on the bottom of the pot), and fill the pot with enough water to cover half the can. Bring to a boil and let it run for two-and-a-half to three hours (yes, that long), adding extra water if necessary. When it’s done, let the can cool and extract the bread. It will be in the shape of the can mold and very moist from the steam.
I made the brown bread with baked beans and hot dogs, because that is how my great-grandmother made it every Saturday for the mid-day meal. My mom was very disappointed when she learned that I didn’t season the hot dogs with celery salt (who knew?). I guess I missed that detail of Saturday dinner over the years. At any rate, my great-grandmother made this every Saturday and one of her three daughters, Barbara, continued the tradition with her Friday night meals using canned beans and canned bread. B&M continues to sell brown bread in a can if you need a quick fix.
According to my mother, her grandmother also served her brown bread with cod cakes, so brown bread is apparently quite a versatile side.
Mom remembers this, she said, because she hated the smell of the cod in the kitchen. Nevertheless, on many Fridays mom and her Aunt Harriet would also go to Leonard’s Restaurant in Taunton, Massachusetts for cod fish cakes and carrots.
The joys of Lent and fish on Friday could not be more understated.
When my great-grandmother and her daughter Harriet lived on the second floor of a two-story house on Bradford Street in Taunton, she would steam the brown bread and two unmarried women on the first floor, the O’Brien sisters, would make the baked beans. (I assume this helped to even out the molasses purchases, as both baked beans and the brown bread, in particular, require a lot of molasses. Not to mention the fact that baked beans take something like five hours to cook. A little shared labor surely went a long way.) Every Saturday, after confession at St. Mary’s, they would bring the two dishes together for Saturday lunch. My mother and her cousins also joined in this weekly ritual.
After my great-grandmother passed away, the O’Brien sisters continued to make baked beans for Harriet. (They also apparently locked Hat out of the house if she, a woman in her thirties, stayed out past midnight. That must have added something a little stronger than molasses to Saturday dinner.)
I saved a slice of the brown bread for my mother and she said it was just like what her grandmother made. “It has that tang,” she said in reference to the pronounced molasses flavor.