Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March: Baked Beans

March is a heartbreaker. In January, we look forward to it as the beginning of spring, but when it’s here, it often brings some of the nastiest winter weather of the year. I always associate the winter’s most satisfying and heartwarming comfort food with March, because it’s a month when we need to fortify ourselves to get through the last winter storms and over the hump into spring. For that reason, I often make my enormous cassoulet in March and invite friends to share the head-to-toe warmth that lots of beans, duck, and fat can provide. Another favorite March meal is baked beans.

The recipe I use for my baked beans is one that I pieced together from a superb short story written by iconic Canadian author Pierre Berton. According to Berton, baked beans were what fortified the Klondike gold rushers on their long and arduous trek across the Arctic to the gold fields. They would make a huge batch of beans and then let it freeze, gnawing off chunks of the bean-sickle as they struggled across the rugged trail.

Berton’s short story included his version of the Klondike beans recipe, but, in keeping with the rough and ready methods of the gold rushers, he was extremely vague about amounts and measures. His instructions included things like “a handful” of this or “a nice amount” of that or “enough” of something else, and, memorably, “pork cut into cubes the size of marshmallows.” It took me a long time and many experiments to develop a recipe from his tale, and I have added a few touches of my own that don’t appear in his short story. The result is a concoction that I have been using for late winter meals for many years. It freezes well (naturally) and should be served with lots of fresh bread to mop up the juice.

Pierre Berton’s Klondike Baked Beans

1. Soak 1 litre of dried white navy or Great Northern beans overnight
2. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a large pot, adding fresh water to cover by 3cm. Add 2 bay leaves, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 – 2 Tbsp each of oregano, thyme, chili powder, parsley, and 1 tsp of ground cloves.
Simmer at low heat for 2 hours.
3. Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Put the beans in a large casserole or baking crock and add ½ kilo of bacon chunks* cut into cubes (marshmallow size)
4. Put the liquid into the pot and add 3 tomatoes, ½ Cup of chili sauce, 1 can of tomato paste, 4 onions (2 chopped fine and 2 chopped coarse), 1 Tbsp of dried mustard, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp of celery seed, 1 Tbsp of Tabasco sauce, 1 Cup of dark molasses, and ½ Cup of maple syrup
Simmer at low heat for about an hour, then pour the reserved liquid over the beans
5. Cover and bake at 325 for about 4 hours
6. One hour before serving, add 1 Cup of sherry or dry red wine and lay 6 bacon strips on top. Half and hour before serving, remove the cover to crisp the bacon (use the broiler at the end if the bacon isn’t crisp enough).

*You can ask the butcher for the end pieces of slab bacon, which are smokier than the middle portions. Alternatively, use smoked turkey leg instead of the bacon. Klager’s in Fonthill is very accommodating at supplying either.


  1. Does the Berton recipe come from "Pierre & Janet Berton's Canadian Food Guide"? I had that book many years ago, and it included a baked bean recipe that I tried, and then adapted and altered over many years until what I have now bears absolutely no resemblance to the original. In the meantime, I seem to have given the book away. I'd love to see Berton's original recipe. Sherry or red wine? Surely that wasn't in his version.

    1. I have copies of two Pierre Berton books which contain the Klondike Baked Beans recipe:

      "Just Add Water and Stir" (1959) presents the recipe in an elaborate essay which gives historical context while being vague about quantities. This one, which I suspect began as a column in the "Toronto Star", like most of the book, appears to be written more to entertain the reader than to inform the chef. Indeed, we studied it in Grade 13 English when I was in high school circa 1995.

      "Pierre & Janet Berton's Canadian Food Guide" (1974, a revision of "The Centennial Food Guide", 1966, which does not contain this recipe) presents the recipe in the normal way, with measurements but no back story.

      The recipes are very similar, but not the same, between the two books. The version in "Canadian Food Guide" contains a much smaller list of spices compared to that in "Just Add Water", which contains just about the entire spice drawer.

      Both versions contain a cup of sherry and agree that the beans should be baked at 250 degrees for at least 6 hours. They also use only molasses, not maple syrup. Besdies that, the recipe above is very similar to Berton's.