My grandma excelled in what I affectionately refer to as husky rural cuisine. A Northwest Wisconsin farm girl via South Dakota, she specialized in dishes that served many people—chicken pie, plantation ham, and apple pie prepared in a 13 x 9-inch cake pan. To keep housefuls of relatives happy (and no gourmands among the lot) she leaned on a tight portfolio of uncomplicated dishes (this is a polite way to say we had the same food over and over again).
The word uncomplicated is not a knock on the food. It was delicious and comforting. Especially the baked beans. Baked beans were grandma’s go-to for any home barbecue or local event, like the church picnic, the church potluck, or the church bowling league banquet. The larger Northern Bean (most baked bean recipes use the smaller navy bean), and the generous amounts of molasses, bacon, and tomato made these beans hyper-comfort food. If grandma were a wedding DJ, this bean dish was her equivalent of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.”
When I started cooking, I felt obliged to preserve the recipe and make the beans from scratch. Perhaps someday I would have dozens of mouths to feed, or belong to a parish.
My first few dozen batches of beans were either too dry or too bland, but these issues went away with experimentation. I use a slow cooker instead of grandma’s method of baking—it yielded the same tenderness, and cut several hours out of the recipe. I chalked the blandness up to a recipe transcription error: upping the bacon and molasses mades the finished product darker, sweeter, and richer. A couple extra spices (the original called for only ketchup and molasses) added more flavor depth.
The result is a cauldron of comfort well-suited for your next secular or sacred gathering. I don’t think grandma would turn her nose up at these either, unless I had my hat on at the table, or was making too much racket in the basement.
Around 12 servings
- 1 lb. dry Great Northern beans
- 1 lb. bacon, cut into half-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 can (15 oz.) chicken broth
- Salt to taste
Soak the dried beans in 6-8 cups of cold water overnight. There should be a few inches of water covering the beans. They’ll plump up in the morning, so they need room to grow.
The next day, drain and rinse the beans. Put a thin layer of beans and uncooked sliced bacon in the bottom of the slow cooker. Top with ketchup, molasses, and mustard. Repeat with another layer of beans, and again add more ketchup and molasses. Add any remaining beans and uncooked bacon on top, with the spices and brown sugar. Pour in a can of chicken broth and 1 cup of water, or slightly more until the beans are barely submerged.
Cook the beans on low in the slow cooker for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally. Add water only if the beans have completely dried out. If it’s too soupy, remove the lid from the slow cooker and let the sauce reduce. Everything should be a deep, beautiful brown color.