It is finally starting to look and feel like spring around here. After dropping an additional foot of snow on our winter-weary heads, Mother Nature has at least had the decency to come back every day and melt it. The frozen ground underneath the ice and snow is turning to mud, and little green shoots are poking their heads out to feel the warm (!) sunshine. All the mud has earned this time of year an in-between seasonal nickname: Mud Season. But it is also Maple Tapping Season here in northern New England, and there is nothing, I mean nothing, like real maple syrup that went from tree, to pail, to tub, over fire, to jug, to you. I have waxed on about REAL maple syrup before, so I will stop now.
Maple syrup has been a New England local product for a very long time, used as a sweetener in syrup form, as well as maple sugar. Cane sugar was too expensive and hard to come by for early New Englanders, and during the 19th century, was frowned upon by abolitionists as supporting slavery. So maple sugar has held favor here for some time.
When I began reading recipes for “Boston Baked Beans”, I noticed that maple syrup and sugar had been replaced with white and/or brown sugar, which in conjunction with molasses, contributed the classic sweetness to these beans. I wanted to come up with a baked beans recipe which got its flavors from maple syrup and molasses, but there was still something missing. I had also never seen a baked beans recipe with apple in it, another traditional New England local food that would have been lurking in an almost-empty root cellar by the end of winter. Baked for a long time, I hoped the apple would cook down into sauce, and lend its own sweet flavor to the beans. I was not disappointed.
Apple-Maple Boston Baked Beans
Cooking time after overnight soak: 5 1/2 – 6 hours; plan accordingly. They are completely worth your time.
1 lb. dried navy beans
1/2 lb. salt pork (bacon works too, if that’s what you have), cut into 1 inch chunks
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
4 whole cloves
2 medium apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1/2 C molasses
1/2 C maple syrup
1 tsp dry mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak your beans overnight, drain and rinse them, put them in a big pot with 3 quarts of water, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook until they are just tender, but not mushy, about 25 minutes. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid. You’ll need about two quarts.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 deg F. Place the beans in a large Dutch oven. Put one clove into each onion quarter, and bury the onion, salt pork, and apple quarters down in the beans. Pour the molasses and maple syrup over it all, and sprinkle the dry mustard over it.
3. Pour the 2 quarts of liquid over the whole pot evenly, put the lid on the pot, and place in the oven. Bake for 3 hours, checking it every hour or so to make sure it hasn’t cooked dry. Add some hot water if it does, just enough to come nearly to the top of the beans. After three hours, remove from the oven, fish out the cloves while you can still see them, stir everything together, cover, and put back in the oven for another hour. After that hour, remove the lid, stir again, and bake uncovered for another 30 minutes. The onion and apples will have nearly melted in, the sauce will have thickened a bit, and the salt pork will be very tender. Take them out of the oven, salt and pepper them to taste, and let them rest for 20-30 minutes. The sauce will continue to thicken while the beans rest.
These beans are caramelized, smoky, and saucy. They are exactly what I want baked beans to be.
I love baked beans, because they are another one of those alchemical food transformations. The before-and-after of them is so remarkable. Of course, I also love them because they are delicious, simple comfort food.
I read a lot of recipes to come up with this one. Here are my sources:
Yankee Magazine Best New England Recipes-Homemade Favorites For Every Season
The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook-Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler, 2nd edition
Union Oyster House Cookbook-Jean Kerr and Spencer Smith
The Yankee Cookbook-Imogene Wolcott
Bean by Bean-a cookbook-Crescent Dragonwagon
Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook-edited by Debra Friedman and Jack Larkin, 3rd edition
New Hampshire From Farm to Kitchen-Helen Brody
Once more, I strongly urge you to acquire some Real Maple Syrup. Leave the “pancake syrup” behind on your way down the Road. See you again soon.