Steamed brown bread, a New England tradition, was a treat for us even growing up in the Midwest. We ate it out of a can (I never knew it any other way) and it was always something exotic and mysterious when it arrived on our dinner plate, almost on a par with getting chow mein carryout from the local Chinese restaurant.
My memory is of the B&M brand of canned brown bread. This is a proud company from Portland, Maine, that first opened for business in 1867 and was canning corn long before it thought to can brown bread or Boston baked beans, the company's most important product. B&M has since been bought up by a succession of bigger food corporations over the years. But the brand and the factory still exist in Portland. The beans, cooked in open pots in brick ovens, come in a can as well as a jar uniquely shaped to look like a classic bean pot.
Making steamed brown bread at home is simple, but the technique may be new to you as it was to me. Instead of baking in an oven, the bread cooks in a pot of boiling water, usually in some sort of tin can or similar mold. (You can even make it in a flower pot). To get the can, I had to buy a pound of coffee at the supermarket. We don't normally get our coffee in a can anymore. Then, after I had mixed the batter, I found that the recipe I was following in Aliza Green's The Bean Bible was much more than enough to fill the 1-pound can she called for. I see now that James Beard, who included an almost identical recipe in Beard on Bread, called for "cans," plural.
An iconic New England food, steamed brown bread typically calls for three types of whole-grain flours, starting with rye flour, corn meal and either whole wheat, graham flour, oat flour or, in my case, since it was what I had in the pantry, barley flour. The batter must contain molasses--a staple ingredient in bygone New England--to give the bread its distinctive color and sweetness. Baking soda and buttermilk react to give the bread its rise. Traditionally, it can be made plain or with raisins.
If you are using coffee cans to make the bread, you'll need to grease the inside or line them with parchment paper. You'll also need a tall pot ( or pots) to steam them in, with a wire rack or empty tuna cans or something similar (I used stainless baking rings) to put at the bottom of the pot so that the bread is not touching the heat source. Since I only had one coffee can, I improvised at the last minute with a small, high-sided cake pan. It worked just as well. Either way, the mold should be covered with a double layer of aluminum foil tied securely with a length of butcher's twine.
To make your bread, mix together 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oat flour (or substitute barley, whole wheat or graham flour), 2 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoons salt. In a separate bowl, mix together 2 cups buttermilk and 3/4 cup molasses.
Pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour the batter into 2 greased, 1-pound coffee cans (I used spray canola oil) or molds lined with parchment paper. Each can should be about 2/3 full. Place the cans into tall pots with a wire rack or empty tuna cans on the bottom. Fill the pots with water to a depth halfway up the side of the bread can (or mold). Bring water to a boil, reduce heat and continue boiling for about 2 1/2 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the bread comes out clean. When the can is cool enough to handle, simply remove the foil, invert the can and tap the bread out onto a cutting board. You may have to use a thin knife initially to separate the bread from the inside of the can.
Note: Aliza Green suggests cooking the bread 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Meanwhile, James Beard calls for cooking the bread 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Quite a difference. We cooked ours for2 1/2 hours and it seemed fine. If two loaves seem like too much, cut the recipe in half and just make one.
My wife thinks the bread gains from sitting a day or two before being eaten. We agree that the only way to serve it is with a generous slather of cream cheese and preferably a bowl of Boston baked beans.