Boston Brown Bread Muffins

Posted on 18 May 2014

Boston Brown Bread MuffinsWhen I moved to Boston, New England was in the middle of its Muffin Era. Pewter Pot Muffin Houses had Colonial wenches serving up a couple dozen varieties which, according to the Harvard Crimson, all tasted pretty much the same except for the chocolate chip.

Home bakers were obsessed with finding the “real” recipe for the legendary Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin sold in the department store’s dining room. It was a cakey mountain, topped with crusted sugar and bursting with perfectly distributed blueberries. I’ve tested several “original” recipes swearing to have come from such unimpeachable sources as the actual baker’s mechanic’s wife’s hairdresser, but was never convinced.

The other Holy Grail was the moist, bakery-style bran muffin. I’m sure they have bran muffins down South, but I never had one until I moved here. I think it has something to do with molasses or perhaps a New England preoccupation with regularity. Traditional recipes call for All-Bran cereal, which I refuse to use on principle. I tried recipes with unprocessed wheat bran, but never found a keeper.

Then along came the Boston Brown Bread Muffin. It’s the bran muffin’s dark, mysterious cousin—the ultimate bran muffin without the bran.

I cut this out from the Boston Globe food section in 1987, taped it to an index card, and stuffed it into my “baked goods to try” cardboard accordion folder. I rediscovered it about 15 years later, after the elastic around the folder had snapped, and the dividers bulged way beyond their rated capacity. As I was triaging which recipes to save to my new 3-ring binder with sheet protectors, this one sweet-talked me with its Boston accent and all that molasses.

Had I not left the recipe to languish all those years, I would have discovered the genius of its author, Marion Cunningham, sooner. This came from The Breakfast Book, the first book she wrote under her own name after she had masterminded the updated Fanny Farmer Cookbook. She cleverly adapted Boston Brown Bread, a Yankee staple since the Pilgrims, repurposing it for breakfast rather than for supper with baked beans.

The tenderness of the rye and wheat flours give way to a tiny cornmeal aftercrunch. The softened golden raisins add a brightness in every sense, so don’t substitute regular raisins if you can help it.

You know how recipes say to fill the muffin tins only ½ to ¾ of the way up? You can fill these almost to the brim. They only overflow a little, enough to make that kind of muffin top we can all enjoy.

Now I guess I have to go back to finding that elusive Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin.*

*Done. See Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffin Cake.

Boston Brown Bread Muffins

Adapted from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

  • 1/2 cup rye flour
  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup plus about a tablespoon molasses (be generous here)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup buttermilk*
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  1. Preheat oven to 400º. Grease 12 muffin tins, or line with paper baking cups.
  2. With a fork in a large bowl, blend together the rye flour, cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, salt, and baking soda. In a small bowl, beat together the egg, molasses, sugar, oil, and buttermilk until well blended. Stir the egg mixture into the flour mixture and mix well. Add the golden raisins and stir to mix.
  3. Fill the muffin tins almost to the brim. Bake 15 minutes or just until the top sets and bounces back to the touch, or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the muffin center. Don’t overbake. Serve hot. Makes 12.

* I substitute Saco cultured buttermilk powder and water. You can also use sour milk; combine 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.

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4 responses to Boston Brown Bread Muffins

  • Claire says:

    As I have said before and will say again, this is the best muffin ever made.

  • Diane Brody says:

    And, of course, I think of you every time I make them! Thanks so much!

  • Sharon Scott says:

    I’ve forgotten how I ended up here – think it started with a search for sour salt(not ‘that citric acid stuff’) according to a Ukrainian foodie-buddy; have yet to find otherwise but happily landed on your blog. B&M Brown bread, their baked beans and some sort of franks – a favorite childhood Saturday night dinner; I think my mother had license to fix what she wanted on Saturday as it was always seemed to be something adventurous to our little eyes (and palates). Will pull up my ‘Beanie Weenies for Grownups’ recipe and serve these alongside. Thanks!

    • Diane Brody says:

      Thanks for your note — usually have these for breakfast, but assume they will go with franks. Your ‘Beanie Weenies for Grownups’ sounds like fun. Let us know how it goes. Best, Diane

  • Leave a Response


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