My mom always made wonderful baked beans. They were, in fact, the stuff of picnic myth, anticipated with much salivation and anticipation. Even now, six years after her passing, the family still speaks in hush, reverent tones when speaking of “the beans.”
When my mom was alive, I cooked, but there was something that happened to me after she died and I was no longer able to call her and ask her culinary questions. I became a self-proclaimed foodie, and my exploration of different dishes became almost obsessive.
So it has been in my quest of monumental baked beans. I “know” what my mom did to the beans. Mom always used navy beans. If she had the time, she used dry beans, boiled and soaked overnight. She drained the beans, mixed them with ketchup, and mustard, and brown sugar. Baked beans always involved at least a pound of good bacon or “fat back” if she could get it (my dad was from the South, so fat back was a staple even in my northern home).
But somehow, simple knowledge of ingredients does not a memorable bean make. I’ve played, poked, experimented and had both near-successes, and miserable failures.
I know this seems like a small thing. But when the responsibilities of a family fall from one generation to another, things like the perfecting of baked bean recipes become a part of what continues a family line. There are photos, there are stories — and there are recipes. We have a few … peanut butter frosting; “dough-glob” soup … and baked beans.
Tonight, we had a small gather of some friends. It was simple — hot dogs on the fire, store-bought potato salad — and (by my husband’s request) baked beans.
I started with two cans of “Bush’s” baked beans (one can traditional; one can maple). I added about a cup of loosely packed brown sugar, two tablespoons of mustard, three tablespoons of “Sweet Baby Ray’s” BBQ sauce. I mix it all up, and let it sit while I partially fried about 1/2 pound of bacon. I pre-fry my bacon (especially when I only have three or less hours) because I like the flavor without the “fatty” texture of the meat.
I cut the bacon into 1 1/2″ pieces, and mix them throughout the bean mixture. The last couple strips I cut a little larger, and left them on top of the beans for “looks.”
The entire casserole goes (without a cover) into a pre-heated 300 degree oven. Then, you simply walk away. Trust me on this one. Don’t peak. Don’t lower the temperature. Let them meld and bubble and allow all the ingredients to mingle and become good friends.
This party goes on for about 2 -3 hours. Mine was closer to three tonight — longer than I’m usually comfortable with, because I thought they were a bit burnt when I pulled them out of the oven. But I let them set (enough to tighten up a bit), and served them warm.
They were, dare I say, breath-taking! My husband even commented on how the were “just like his aunt’s” which I believed he loved even more than my mom’s. “Only they didn’t have the molasses,” which is a plus for him.
They were something to be proud of, I have to admit. Somehow, as I was enjoying their sweet, tangy goodness, I really missed my mom. I knew she would be proud. I’d taken the baton, and carried it successfully into my generation. A small step … but a step in the right direction, nonetheless.