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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Forget the Coffee Cans but Bring on the Molasses! An 1898 Brown Bread (Muffin) from Connecticut and an 1896 Third Bread from Fannie Farmer’s Original Cookbook

Boston Brown Bread Muffins
and New England Third Bread


As we emphasized in earlier posts on the evolution of Rye and Indian (aka Ryaninjun) bread into Boston Brown Bread, New Englanders from the first years of settlement wished to eat bread made primarily of wheat. (See the first post in the series, Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas, for an explanation of these corn-related terms and how we're using them.) For centuries, though, this goal was unattainable for most. Wheat did not grow well in the region's rocky soil and what did grow was susceptible to a killing fungus known as "the blast." Imported from the mid-Atlantic colonies, it was an expensive luxury which only the wealthy could consume on a regular basis. The Connecticut River Valley, with rich alluvial soil suited to wheat growing, was the one area in New England where wheat was plentiful. But things changed with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Wheat imports from farming regions to the west became more plentiful and cheaper. Later in the century, mechanized milling further reduced the cost of wheat, though some began to complain that industrial-milled wheat, shorn of its germ and bran, was tasteless. It was certainly less nutritious.


Having a good supply of inexpensive wheat—and of inexpensive sugar and molasses too—is the context for the two bread recipes given below. The first one is from the Meriden Cook Book, a charitable cookbook produced around 1898 to support a Connecticut hospital. The recipe is for a classic steamed "Boston Brown Bread." Instead of steaming the batter, we chose to make it into muffins to be baked. We were quite pleased with the results. Baking rather than steaming meant we could cut the cooking time from four hours of simmering coffee cans (or a pudding tin) on top of the stove to twenty-five minutes of baking the batter in a muffin tin (or cupcake pan) in the oven. This simple change was a time and effort saver that we hope will translate into more cooks actually trying the recipe. The other changes we made to the Meriden recipe occurred because of the flours we had on hand. We were short of rye flour, so we used a half cup of all-purpose flour (King Arthur brand) along with a half-cup of rye. We also used whole wheat flour (1 cup) in place of the Graham flour the recipe calls for because Graham flour, very coarsely ground whole wheat, is hard to find for most bakers. Of course, if you have it, use it! You can also subtract about 3 tablespoons from a cup of whole wheat or all-purpose flour and add 3 tablespoons of bran for an approximation of Graham flour.
The second recipe, for "Third Bread," is taken from Fannie Farmer's original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1896. This time, we varied Farmer's recipe only by replacing one of her three cups of white flour with a cup of whole wheat flour. This reversed the ratio of whole grains to white flour in the overall recipe from Farmer's 2:3 to our 3:2. We think our Third Bread, a tad more nutritious, is just as delicious as Farmer's version. Of course, despite the name "Third Bread," neither our version nor hers uses the traditional blend of a third each of rye flour, cornmeal, and wheat flour. But both are in the spirit of that transitional New England bread, which retained the use of the abundant regional grains—rye and corn—while adding some wheat for a lighter loaf.
Both of these recipes reflect the fact that throughout the nineteenth century wheat had become cheaper in New England. They also reflect the abiding attachment to locally-grown grains. Few New Englanders today bake or steam either Boston Brown Bread or Third Bread. We venture to say that we are among the handful who have now incorporated these breads into our baking repertoire—and we also still make the old, sturdy Ryaninjun on occasion! Ryaninjun, a very dense bread made with low-gluten rye and no-gluten corn, is for sure a healthy bread, but perhaps not for everyone. Boston Brown Bread Muffins and Third Bread are both sweetened a bit, but not very much per muffin or slice. And they're packed with lovely whole grains—rye, cornmeal, and whole wheat—and a small amount of white flour to give them some rise. We think they are worthy contenders for a place on the family table and we hope you'll try them.
Boston Brown Bread Muffins
Preheat the oven to 325º F
½ cup (60g) all-purpose flour
½ cup (53g) rye flour
1 cup (113g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (138g) cornmeal
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup raisins, loosely packed
1½ cups sour milk, made from a scant 1½ cups milk mixed with 1 tablespoon vinegar, allowed to rest at least 5 minutes, or use 1½ cups buttermilk
1/2 cup molasses
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Grease a 12-cup muffin or cupcake pan.
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir in the raisins. Mix together the molasses and sugar. Add the sour milk (or buttermilk) and molasses mixture to the bowl of dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Don't overmix. Spoon the batter into the greased muffin pan, filling each cup about two-thirds full.
Bake for about 25 minutes. The muffins are done when the centers are firm and springy to the touch. To double-check for doneness, a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin should come out clean.
How We Made It
For our muffins, we used King Arthur whole wheat and all-purpose flours, an organic rye flour and an organic, stone ground cornmeal local to us in Rhode Island, organic raisins, 2% milk mixed with cider vinegar, and Grandma's molasses mixed with organic granulated sugar. We used Arm & Hammer baking soda and Morton's table salt. But in the spirit of frugal New Englanders of ages past, feel free to use whatever ingredients you have on hand or your budget allows. The results, we promise, will taste like—but far better than—the canned Boston Brown Bread you can still find on the shelves of supermarkets in New England.
The original steamed version of this 1898 recipe, "Boston Brown Bread," can be found, along with historical notes, in our book Northern Hospitality, p. 361.
New England Third Bread
2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour, plus up to 4 tablespoons
1 cup (113g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (106g) rye flour
1 cup (138g) cornmeal
1½ teaspoons salt
2¼ teaspoons (1 packet) dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
½ cup molasses
Whisk the flours, cornmeal, and salt together in a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and add the molasses. Allow the yeast mixture to activate—bubble up with foam on top—for about five minutes. If making the bread by hand, add the yeast mixture to the dry ingredients in the bowl. If using a stand mixer, transfer the dry ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer and add the yeast mixture.
Mix the dough thoroughly with a wooden spoon by hand or with the flat beater of the stand mixer on low to medium speed. It will be very soft and sticky. Continue mixing by hand with the wooden spoon, or replace the flat beater of the stand mixer with a dough hook and mix on low speed. The dough should begin to come together. If it sticks to the sides of the bowl, add up to 4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, just until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and begins to form a loose ball. Knead by hand for 10-12 minutes or in the stand mixer for 7 minutes, or until it is transformed from a loose batter into a shiny but slack dough.
Set a bowl of water on your counter or work surface so that you can conveniently wet your hands throughout the process to keep the dough from sticking. With wet hands, remove the dough from the bowl or mixer and place it in a lightly greased bowl. Again wetting your hands, lift, stretch, and fold the dough over the bowl several times, then form into a tight ball and place it back into the bowl with the creased side down. Cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel and leave it to rise in a warm spot until double in bulk, about 1½-2 hours. Again with a bowl of water nearby to wet your hands, gently deflate the dough, remove it to a lightly wet board or table, and shape it into two loaves with the seams at the bottom. Place the loaves in well-greased pans. You may also form the dough into one big round or two smaller rounds and place it in a large or two small greased cast iron skillets. You may need to stretch the loaves a bit to conform to the length and breadth of the pans or the shape of the cast iron skillet.
Cover the loaves again with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let them rise in a warm spot until not quite doubled in bulk, which will take about an hour. After about a half-hour of rising, begin to preheat your oven to 375º F.
Bake the loaves for 40 minutes at 375º F, but check the loaves after about 20-25 minutes. If the tops are browning too quickly, reduce the oven temperature to 350º F and continue baking for another 45 minutes, checking for doneness after 30 minues or so. When the bread shakes loosely in the pan it is done. A toothpick or skewer inserted in the middle of a loaf should come out clean. Allow the baked loaves to rest in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove from the pans to the rack and cool completely.
How We Made It
When making any bread, we find a better crust is formed if we spritz cold water into the oven two or three times early in the baking process. The steaming effect helps the crust remain soft and allows the bread to expand. After the first third or so of baking time, when crust formation is desired, you no longer have to open the door and spritz the oven interior with water. This is what we did with our Third Bread, to great effect. We baked our bread in two standard, 9 x 5 inch loaf pans.
As with the Boston Brown Bread Muffins, we used King Arthur whole wheat and all-purpose flours, an organic, stone ground local cornmeal and organic rye flour from a local provider, Grandma's molasses, Morton's table salt, and Red Star Active Dry yeast.
We used a stand mixer, and were happy we did. While making bread by hand is an immensely gratifying experience, this is a very sticky dough at the outset, and it remains a quite sticky dough throughout the mixing and rising process. The stand mixer made it a breeze to mix. We found that wet hands are the key to handling the dough once it's mixed. The results are a pliable, slightly sweet bread with a delicate crumb that reminded one of us of the Honey Bread she was used to getting as a child from Lyndell's, a famous Somerville, Massachusetts, bakery.
Third Bread is as suitable for slicing thin and topping with savory items like smoked salmon and cream cheese as it is for slicing thick, toasting, and buttering for breakfast. It's also great just as it is and we recommend trying your first slice untoasted and spread with soft butter. While this molasses-sweetened Third Bread was a familiar flavor in late nineteenth-century Boston and New England, it will now not only delight those served it but also surprise their taste buds!

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