Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fannie Farmer's Boston Baked Beans And Golden Corn Bread

What rich dark sweetness! I was brought back in time by this turn-of-the-century recipe. The strong molasses flavor gave me a sense of its popularity as a sweetener back in the day.

You may know from an earlier blog post that I'm taking a food writing course.  I'm also learning a little about American food history. When my text book, American Food, mentioned Fannie Farmer's The Boston School of Cooking Cookbook, I got excited thinking I had one! I ran over to the fireplace in the kitchen. There it was on the mantle. A prop. A member of a vignette of vintage books. Holding the book, I realized I had been brushing dust off its cover for a few years oblivious to its historical role in New England cooking. When I opened it, I saw it was originally written in 1896 and this is the 1938 edition!  How fun, I thought, to now try a few recipes.

Since we just covered Yankee foods, and my first assignment was a memoir about foods growing up, I chose to make Fannie Farmer's Boston baked beans for my family. I'm not from Boston but I grew up not far away in Woonsocket and remember having Petites baked beans on Saturdays. I remember going to Petites with my dad. There were always long lines and the beans were ladled into stoneware crocks. We would return to Petites often with a cleaned crock, ready for more beans. 

Staying with the historical theme, I thought it would be nice to cook beans in a vintage crock I have but was unsure about its safety so I used a cast iron pot instead.  First, I had to soak navy pea beans overnight. 

In the morning, I boiled the soaked beans. The recipe says, 

". . . cook until skins will burst, - which is best determined by taking a few beans on the tip of a spoon and blowing on them, when skins will burst if sufficiently cooked." 

Okay, what does that mean? Will it take 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? I looked it up on the internet where a recipe said cook for 1 to 2 hours. Still, not precise timing. After cooking for about 1 1/2 hours (oops, forgot to set the timer for 1 hour) I tried the technique Fannie suggests and the beans kept flying off the spoon when I blew on them, which made our mini French poodle, Sammy, very happy.  I was amused at first but gave up after a few tries.

Next I scalded the salt pork. Then I scraped. Again, not really being sure what this meant. Then I trimmed and added the salt pork to the beans.

 After 6 hours, the beans looked and smelled amazing!

I failed at making her Boston Baked Bread recipe but I had a backup. I whipped up her quick and easy corn bread recipe and baked it in these small cast iron pans. The corn bread tasted great, in a rustic old-fashioned sort of way, even though it was a little dry.

Boston Baked Beans
1 qt pea beans (navy pea beans)
3/4 lb fat salt pork
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp to 1 cup molasses, according to taste
1/2 tsp mustard, if desired
Boiling water

"Pick over beans, cover with cold water, and soak overnight.  Drain, cover with fresh water, heat slowly (keeping water below boiling point), and cook until skins will burst, - which is best determined by taking a few beans on the tip of a spoon and blowing on them, when skins will burst if sufficiently cooked.  Drain beans.  Scald pork and scrape, remove 1/4 inch slice, and put in bottom of bean pot.  Cut through rind of remaining pork every half-inch, making cuts 1 inch deep.  Put beans in pot and bury pork in beans, leaving rind exposed.  Mix salt, molasses, and sugar, add 1 cup boiling water and pour over beans; then add enough more boiling water to cover beans.  Cover bean pot and bake 6 to 8 hours in slow oven (250 degrees F), uncovering the last hour of cooking, that rind may become brown and crisp. Add water as needed.  If pork mixed with lean is preferred, use less salt."

Golden Corn Cake
3/4 cup corn meal
1 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
3 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 egg, well beaten
2 tbsp shortening, melted (I used butter)

"Mix and sift dry ingredients; add milk, egg, and shortening; bake in shallow buttered pan 20 minutes in hot oven (425 degrees F).  For shortening, butter, chicken fat, or beef drippings may be used."

Ham Broth
I don't have a recipe but this is what I did.  I bought a small ham from Whole Foods.  I added about an inch of apple cider to the pan and covered with aluminum foil.  Cooked until heated through.  When done, I put the remaining apple cider in a small saute pan (a little more than a cup), added about 1/4 teaspoon molasses (not too much as it has a strong flavor), about 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard, and reduced to about half.  I poured the broth over slices of served ham.

After all the effort, I was glad we all liked it! My favorite quote comes from my son. When he first tasted it he said, "What's it made with? Love? If it's made with love, love tastes weird." But, once he got used to the flavor he really liked the beans too.

New copies of Fannie Merritt Farmer's Boston School of Cooking Cookbook can be found here


  1. How cool is that? A happy coincidence makes a prop a useful tool in the kitchen, and sparks all kinds of warm memories, and thoughts of comforting food.
    In a time when everything is rush, rush, this post reminds us to slow down, savor, and appreciate/honor our past, our unique culture and experiences. Loved this! :)
    (Mmmm, and I can smell those beans, the scent of that ham broth... mmmm good!)

  2. Everything looks so good and delicious..I love homemade cornbread..one of my favorites!
    Great post I had fun reading it!

  3. The beans look delicious! I wish I could be there when you make this. The kitchen must smell like heaven!

  4. What a wonderful coincidence. It sounds like a great book.
    And your son's quote - too cute!

  5. Thanks for dropping by my blog and it's a please discovering yours. I enjoyed reading your post and your baked beans and bread are amazing.

  6. MMM MMMM GOOD! This will be on my list of recipes to make.

  7. OK, I've drooled on my keyboard. Are you happy now??????
    My wife Jilda and I went to Boston on several occasions and we loved, not only the city, but the food.
    The round-abouts made us a little dizzy, but that's not a bad thang.
    Great blog!

  8. Thanks everyone! The beans were fun to make and was a great experience for my family too. Gave us a lot to talk about that day.

    And, Life 101 - I was thinking more about the tree, and not only does it look like it belongs, it looks like it's giving your barn a hug.

  9. Look at that book! I think we have a copy of that around somewhere.

  10. Oooh! The corn bread and beans looks lovely, yummy treat.

  11. How fun. I love deciphering old recipes! The beans look great, and good idea to have a back up plan. The cornbread sounds perfect with the beans.

  12. Your beans look super delicious and so perfect with cornbread!

  13. Looooove the cookbook discovery. A new hobby of mine has been going to garage sales and finding well loved cookbooks to add to my collect. I read them like novels.

  14. Thanks again everyone!

    A Thought for Food, glad to hear you have one. Share a recipe sometime!

    Umm Mymoonah, thank you. Your profile picture is ADORABLE!

    Lisa, it was fun trying to figure out the language. I was reading some sentences over and over wondering what does it mean???

    Thanks Natasha, I agree. They're perfect together and so easy. What was I thinking trying to make that brown bread!!!

    Beloved Green, That's what I do! I always search out the old ones and save them for bedtime reading. It's like a treat. The hubs thinks I'm strange.

  15. Hi Linda - here it is a year later and I'm making Boston Brown Bread for my food history blog, www.auntlilskitchen.com. One thing that Fanny Farmer didn't mention, which some of the other period recipes did, was to dry out the top of the bread in a warm oven for about 1/2 hour. I'm surprised it said to steam it in a double boiler! I steamed mine in two greased coffee cans that were sitting in water and then there was a lid over that. (You'll have to see my blog post when it done...). But I too had a bit of a problem getting it done, but I'm going to try again. I loved the flavor as did my husband who grew up on the bread. Just needs a bit more practice. I'll be trying the beans as well!

    1. Hi Lisa! The double boiler method sounded unusual to me too. It was added to the end of the recipe as another option. She did describe cooking it in a mold and I thought about using a coffee can, but I didn't have one. I'd like to try it again but in a coffee can as the mold. Looking forward to hearing about your bread!