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When icy drafts seep through the old windows in our apartment I start thinking about slow cooking. Any dish that requires me to have the oven on for most of the day is a bonus at this time of year, and it also fills the place with tempting aromas. Happily, we have lots of country ham left over from our Yankee Southern Christmas so I thought I would try combining it with it’s classic partner, beans. As mentioned previously, my Mom is from New England, so of course the first thing that popped into my head was Boston Baked Beans.

If you’ve only had “baked beans” from a can, you don’t know what you’re missing. The real thing is totally different, richly infused with the flavor of pork and the earthy tang of Blackstrap molasses. Being a history nerd, I have a facsimile of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer which was published in 1896. I figured that would be the best place to go for an authentic recipe. Her recipe uses salt pork but my left over country ham makes a good substitute.

In the process of making this dish I learned a lot about molasses and food science. For a deep complex flavor that is not too sweet, be sure to use real Blackstrap molasses in your Boston Baked Beans. When sugar cane juice is boiled to extract sugar crystals, molasses is left behind. There are three grades of molasses, first molasses, also known as mild or Barbados is produced by the first boil; dark or second molasses comes after the second boil, and finally, Blackstrap molasses from the third boil. Each boiling session creates a more complex and less sweet product. Blackstrap molasses also has the advantage of being very high in some important nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It is often sold as a health supplement, so if you can’t find it in your grocery store, try a health food store.

You’ll notice in the recipe that you cook the beans on the stovetop first, and then put them in the oven for a long slow bake. Here’s where I got a lesson in food science from the great Harold McGee. In his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, he explains that beans like an alkaline environment for cooking. Once they are exposed to an acid they will not become any more tender, no matter how long they are cooked. Our ancestors may not have had chemistry degrees, but they figured out that if you add molasses to the beans before you put them in the oven, you can leave them there for six hours and they don’t turn to mush. That’s because molasses is an acid and so it helps the beans keep their shape and texture, but they must be fully cooked first.

The origin of Boston Baked Beans is somewhat cloudy. We know that Native Americans in the area cooked beans with maple syrup and bear fat, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to see how that might become molasses and pork fat. This dish was also perfect for the Puritan household where no cooking (or even lighting of the fire) was allowed on Sundays. So Goodwife Smythe would bury the bean pot in the coals of the fire on Saturday night and by the next day the beans were done and could be eaten without breaking any religious tenets. Serve with hearty brown bread for a flavorful, yet healthy antidote to the excesses of the holiday season.

Boston Baked Beans
Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

The traditional bean pot has a lid and its body bulges out slightly in the middle. I used an oven-safe soup tureen. If you don’t have something like that, use a casserole dish and cover it with aluminum foil for most of the baking.

Makes about 4 cups of beans

1/2 pound of dried navy beans (about 2 cups)
1/4 pound of salt pork or country ham
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons molasses
4 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar (I like to use Turbinado or Demerara)

Soak the dried beans in water to cover for 4 hours or overnight, then drain and rinse.

Put the beans in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Slowly heat the water until the beans come to a bare simmer with just a couple of bubbles breaking the surface. If you boil them too hard, their skins will split. Simmer the beans half covered until they are tender, about 30-45 minutes. It is important not to overcook them, so check for doneness every 15 minutes beginning at the 30 minute mark.

Preheat oven to 250F.

When the beans are cooked drain them. Cut a thin slice from the salt pork or ham and put it in the bottom of your bean pot. Pour the drained beans in and then bury the remaining salt pork or ham in the beans with just the rind of the salt pork or fat side of the ham showing.

Mix the salt, molasses and brown sugar with one cup of boiling water and stir until dissolved. Pour this mixture over the beans. If needed add more boiling water to just cover the beans.

Put the lid on the bean pot or cover your casserole with aluminum foil and bake it in the oven for 6-8 hours, uncovering for the last hour to allow the pork to brown. Check the beans occasionally and add water if needed. When done there will be a little liquid left to form a tasty sauce, but most of it will boil away.

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