“One of the finest phenomena which the curious and reverent visitor in Boston notes is the appearance on his breakfast table of a shapely loaf, rounded and domed and richly browned in hue,” the Rev. Francis N. Zabriskie, an essayist and churchman, rhapsodized about his breakfast in the 1870s.
Zabriskie likened steamed brown bread’s aroma to incense. The clergyman claimed the moist bread, laced with molasses and often served with baked beans Saturday night, was unique to the Boston area.
In fact, brown bread could be found anywhere in New England. The following recipe comes from “The Concord Souvenir Cook Book” published in 1892. The cover was embellished with an illustration of Daniel Chester French’s Minuteman statue of the citizen soldier leaving his plow and taking up his gun.
Concord, Mass., had become a popular tourist destination by the 1870s. People came to see Revolutionary War sites like the Old North Bridge and the Battle Road as well as the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.
During that period, the “Souvenir Cook Book” became a popular keepsake among visitors and history buffs. Spurred by the centennial celebrations of 1876, Colonial Revival enthusiasts found Puritan virtues in “authentic” foods from the Colonial and Federalist eras.
Almost any food made with molasses, cornmeal or rye flour was considered “early American.” Most of the recipes in the cookbook, such as Boston brown bread, are more Victorian than early American. Boston brown bread was not the “rye and Indian” bread of the 18th century, which was a heavy, unsweetened sourdough without raisins.
As sugar production became more efficient and its price continued to drop, American food became much sweeter over the course of the 19th century.
Steamed Brown Bread
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The following recipe comes from “The Concord Souvenir Cook Book” published in 1892.
You can make the sour milk by putting 2 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar in a measuring cup and filling with milk up to the 2-cup mark. Allow this to stand for 5 minutes before using.
Butter and then flour three cans. I recycle ½-pound coffee cans. Prepare a large pot with 3 inches of boiling water plus extra boiling water. A canning kettle with a tight-fitting lid is fine.
Thoroughly whisk all the dry ingredients through salt together in a large bowl. Stir in the raisins.
In another bowl, thoroughly mix the sour milk and molasses. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir just enough to moisten all the dry ingredients.
Fill the buttered cans ¾ full of batter, cover them with lids or aluminum foil and secure the aluminum foil tightly with string or rubber bands. Place the cans in the kettle. Add enough boiling water to bring the level halfway up the side of the cans. Cover the kettle tightly.
Steam the breads three hours. Check the kettle once and add more boiling water if needed to keep the water at the same level. Remove the cans from the kettle and take off their lids. Loosen the breads by running a knife around the inside edge of the can.
If the knife becomes at all sticky, the breads are too moist and you need to brown the breads by placing them uncovered in the oven, still in the cans, for 10 to 15 minutes at 300 degrees F. Remove the bread from the cans. Slice the breads crosswise and serve warm with butter and cream cheese.