Culinary Semantics: Iowa Brown Bread vs. Steamed Boston Brown Bread
I recently came across a copy of The Woman Suffrage Cook Book, written by Mrs. Hattie A. Burr, and published in Boston in 1890. The preface to this excellent volume reads:
This little volume is sent out with an important mission…
Among the contributors are many who are eminent in their professions as teachers, lecturers, physicians, ministers, and authors — whose names are household words in the land. A book with so unique and notable a list of contributors… has never before been given to the public.
I believe the great value of these contributions will be fully appreciated, and our messenger will go forth a blessing to housekeepers, and an advocate for the elevation and enfranchisement of woman.
— Hattie A. Burr. Boston, November 25, 1886.
A glance at the contributors page revealed many from New England, a few from the Midwest, and one Mrs. Emma P. Ewing from Ames, IA. Witnessing this collision of personal, geographical connections — which predates me by nearly 100 years — I could not resist trying Mrs. Ewing’s recipe, particularly when I realized that her “Iowa Brown Bread” sounded exactly like what I grew up calling Steamed Boston Brown Bread. (You have to admit, Boston wins the alliteration game.)
Since my kitchen lacks a “pudding-boiler,” I halved the recipe — like the previous owner, whose pencilled inscription remains — so it would fit into a 1 lb can for steaming. I also modified the cooking methodology to suit the modern kitchen.
Mrs. Emma P. Ewing’s Iowa Brown Bread
1 1/2 cups corn meal
1 cup rye flour (or substitute buckwheat flour to make this recipe gluten-free)
1 1/2 cups sour milk or buttermilk
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup raisins (I used golden raisins)
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
Butter the insides of a clean, dry, 1 lb coffee can. In a large bowl, sift together the corn meal and rye flour. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, the molasses, and the salt. Dissolve the baking soda in a spoonful of warm water, and whisk into the wet ingredients. Quickly pour the wet ingredients over the dry, and stir well.
Scoop the batter into the buttered coffee can-mould in stages, studding each layer with raisins. Tossing the raisins with flour first will prevent them from sinking during cooking. (Flouring the raisins is more important for a thinner batter. I used buttermilk instead of sour milk, so my batter turned out quite thick.)
Double a piece of aluminum foil, and cover the top of the mould. Tie the aluminum foil tightly in place with butcher’s twine.
Set the mould in a canning pot (or lobster pot, depending on what part of the country you’re in) full of simmering water. Use a rack or a baking ring or an upside-down baking pan to elevate the mould so it’s not sitting directly on the bottom of the pot. The water should come about halfway up the sides of the mould.
Cover the canning pot and steam the bread for about 3 hours, adding more boiling water as needed. I found I needed to add more water (which I boiled in a tea kettle first) about every 45 minutes. You may have to add water more or less frequently, depending on how tightly the lid of your canning pot fits. After 3 hours, remove the mould from the canning pot. Let cool slightly, but remove the bread from the can while still warm, or it will stick.
I’ve always eaten this type of bread with Boston baked beans, so I’m not sure what dish it traditionally accompanies in Iowa. The moist, dense texture of the bread is almost like a gingerbread (hmm… maybe next time I’ll add a little cinnamon and ginger…).
Thanks to the whole grains and dried fruit, a slice of this bread provides a filling, satisfying snack. It’s especially yummy spread with cream cheese, or dolloped with yogurt and drizzled with honey — whether you’re in Boston or Iowa.