Saveur (March 2012)
In August 2009, we were staying with our friends Dan and Wendy in Belfast, Maine. That Saturday, they suggested that the four of us drive up to Bangor for the annual American Folk Festival.
Mere moments after we arrived at the outdoor festival, the skies opened up. A Nor'easter socked Bangor for the entire day, drenching everything in sheets of freezing rain. The two of us Southern boys were essentially wearing every article of clothing we'd brought with us (how could it be this cold in August?!), and we were ready to pack it in and head back to the house. Dan and Wendy are made of hardier stuff, however, and we stayed for the day, teeth chattering and rain pouring down our necks. (It wasn't a total bust: We saw a nifty maple syrup demo, and we heard a very cool Quebecois vocal group.)
By the end of the day, we were frozen to the core and soaked to the bone. We headed back to Belfast, lit a fire in the potbelly stove, and hung our clothes to dry.
Suddenly Wendy had an inspiration: We'd make brown bread for dinner. The two of us had never heard of it, but she assured us it was a New England specialty. Dark and dense and subtly sweet, a slice of warm brown bread slathered in butter, Wendy said, would be just the thing to restore our souls.
Reader, brown bread saved our lives.
It's that memory of brown bread on a rain-soaked Maine evening that made us want to bake this the very second we saw it in the March issue of Saveur. The recipe is actually tucked away back in the index, as an accompaniment to the recipe for baked beans. (If we're being honest, the real reason we made those New England-Style Baked Beans was to give us an excuse to make the brown bread.)
The prep is really easy: You mix the dry, you mix the wet, you mix them both and there you have the facts of life the bread. Steam it in a bath of boiling water and then transfer the whole thing to the oven. Cooking it in a coffee can gives brown bread its signature shape, but you could certainly use a loaf pan instead.
The mix of cornmeal and different flours -- white, whole-wheat and rye -- gives this bread an excellent, complex flavor. It gets a very slight tang from the buttermilk, and a hint of sweetness from the molasses. The steam bath keeps it dense and moist, a tad bit like a steamed pudding. It really is a wonderful bread, and it's positively perfect alongside a bowl of baked beans.
If you grew up eating brown bread, we bet this'll bring back fond memories. And if you've never had it, you've got to try it. Either way, we highly recommend a loaf of brown bread in your near future.
If you really want to appreciate the experience, you could go stand outside in a cold rain for six hours first.
But that part's optional.
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Butter, for greasing and serving
Heat oven to 300°. In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, rye, whole-wheat and all-purpose flours, salt, and baking powder and soda; set aside. In another bowl, whisk together molasses, buttermilk, and egg until smooth; pour over dry ingredients, and stir with a spoon until just combined. Transfer to a cleaned and greased 13-oz. metal coffee can, and cover can with a piece of foil; place in the center of a 6-qt. saucepan. Pour 6 cups water into pot around can, and bring to a boil over high heat. Transfer pan to oven, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the bread comes out clean, 2 1/2–3 hours.
Remove can from water bath, and let cool for 20 minutes. Uncover and unmold bread from can; let cool completely. Slice into thick rounds and spread with butter.