Ah March, a lion at one end, a lamb at the other and, sadly, in between yet more winter. We've used up our glittery holidays, and who can remember the pleasure of the first snow?
There is nothing left but the final trudge toward spring.
If trudge we must, we might as well slush along in the footprints of experts. In New England, it is often said, summer begins with a flash on July 1 and lasts clear through till independence Day. Survivors of that winter season have learned how to cope.
The baked-bean supper is as traditional a New England winter refuge as the cozy hearth. It originally served a religious purpose: The beans, bubbling away through Saturday night, were ready to eat on Sunday, leaving Puritan hands free to observe the Sabbath.
There is something homely and comforting about the dish -- its chubby, capped pot and the slow warmth from the oven as the beans cook for hours, gradually scenting the kitchen and finally the whole house.
There are as many recipes for baked beans as there are cooks, but all begin with soaking pea beans overnight and cooking them till tender. (One old cookbook suggests blowing on the beans; when the skins breaks, they are done.)
An early American cookbook, "The American Frugal Housewife," by Lydia Marie Child, was frugal indeed in its recipe for baked beans, calling only for the beans, salt pork, water and pepper. All recipes agree on this, but most allow a sweetening of brown sugar or molasses or both.
From there on, it's like fingerpainting -- whatever appeals. Rum is a frequent addition, and some people use beer. Tomato paste finds a place in some recipes, as does mustard powder and even curry powder. Onions, chopped up or struck with cloves, are nestled into the bottom of some bean pots.
Then comes the long, slow (250 degree oven) cooking -- 6 to 8 hours.Check occasionally, and add more hot water if it's needed.For the last 1/2 hour of cooking, remove the lid so a crust will form.
Baked Beans are traditionally served with Boston Brown Bread. The following recipe is from the 3rd edition of the "United States Regional Cookbook," published in 1947:
Sift together 1 cup yellow corn meal, cup graham flour (try a health-food store if your supermarket fails you), 1 cup rye meal, 1 teaspoon salt. Add 3/4 cup molasses and 1 1/2 cups buttermilk and mix well.
Place rounds of greased paper in bottom of 1-pound baking powder cans (today, one is more likely to have a 1-pound coffee can). Grease the sides of the cans and fill 2/3 full. Place the cans on a rack in a large kettle, add warm water to half the height of the molds. Cover the kettle and boil gently from 1 to 2 hours, or until done. (More hot water may have to be added from time to time.)
Uncover and place in a 400-degree over for a few minutes to dry the tops. Remove from cans immediately and serve with baked beans.
To complete the dinner in traditional New England fashion, serve an Apple Pan Dowdy -- simply apples sliced, spiced and sweetened and laid in the bottom of a pie dish, then topped with a rich biscuit dough and baked in a moderate oven for 1/2 hour, or until biscuit topping is done. Serve with thick cream flavored with a bit of nutmeg.