Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Marjorie Has Been Wandering!

After the cleaning the stovepipe and chimney after the chimney fire that I mentioned in the last post, I had quite a time reconnecting the stovepipe.  It was not damaged or changed in any way, but I just had difficulty getting everything connected properly, but I finally managed it.

However, last week, the stovepipe kept coming apart where an elbow and straight piece join.  Now, I know that screwing the pipe together would have solved that, and for longer runs of stovepipe, installing three screws at each joint is a requirement, but they have never really been necessary in our installation.

I completed another cleaning on Saturday morning, and had a TERRIBLE time re-installing the stovepipe.  After further investigation, I discovered that Marjorie the Margin Gem cookstove had actually migrated backward enough that the stovepipe was no longer able to line up properly.  Fortunately, we have some wiggle room in our rear clearances, or the movement could have been a big safety hazard, too.

I think that the reason for the rearward movement can be attributed to vibration from the floor as we walk by the stove or perhaps repeated force from the front of the stove as we fuel from the front lid or front door or as the oven door is closed. 

Whatever the reason, I wanted to record what had happened to us here on the blog so that others could benefit from what we've learned.  It pays to know exactly where your stove is supposed to sit so that if things don't seem right, you can check to see if the stove has been subtly shifting.

Be safe!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Chimney Fire!

I hadn't originally intended to write a post about this, but after further reflecting on the event and on the purpose of this blog, I'm hoping that by sharing our experience, someone else will benefit from our misfortune.  On a mid-February Saturday morning, Nancy and I were fortunate to wake up unscathed in our own bed.  We had a chimney fire in the night, and God was truly looking out for us because no damage occurred.  Here is what happened:

Like I always do each winter night, I had filled the Margin Gem's firebox with the largest chunks of wood possible.  Usually, I then almost completely close all drafts and dampers so that the fire burns slowly all night long.  This assures us of a nice bed of coals to rekindle in the morning, a tank of hot water for our morning showers, and fairly steady heat being emitted in the kitchen all night.

On that particular Friday night, I loaded the stove and then thought that I'd leave the drafts and dampers open for a little while to let the wood ignite better before shutting everything down.  Unfortunately, my forgetfulness kicked in, and I went to bed without shutting anything.  Thus, the firebox was completely full, and the stove was wide open.  This was clearly operator error, and I'm duly embarrassed.

I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to go to the bathroom and thought I'd run downstairs and put some more wood in the stove.  I sometimes do this when I know that the fire has had time to burn down enough that there will be room for another piece of wood.  When I opened the stairway door into the kitchen, I could immediately tell that the kitchen was much warmer than it ordinarily should have been.  This was due to the fact that the fire had burned so rapidly--not due to the chimney fire.  When I removed the front lid over the firebox, I was shocked to see that only a few coals remained on the grate where normally there would have been a lot of coals and some as-yet-unburned pieces of wood.  That is when I investigated and noticed that the draft, the oven damper, and the chimney damper were all open.  I still didn't know that we had had a chimney fire at that point, though.

When I began to rekindle the fire by putting a few pieces of wood on the coals, I immediately noticed that the stove was not drawing correctly, and then I became aware that every time I opened a lid, a little noise came from the stovepipe.  That was when I realized that we had had a chimney fire.  By that time, the wood that I had just put in the stove had caught fire, and there was sufficient draft to carry away the smoke, so there was not much that I could do except close the oven damper and the draft and let the fire burn itself out so that I could clean and inspect the flue in the morning.

Fortunately, we had cleaned the chimney and stovepipe during the first part of February, so there was not as much creosote accumulated in the flue as there might have been.  In my opinion, this is the major factor which kept this event from being a full-fledged disaster.  The other thing that helps us is our chimney.  The Margin Gem cookstove is vented through the masonry chimney which is original to our 98-year-old-farmhouse, but the chimney has been professionally sealed and lined with a heavy-guage stainless steel lining with quite a bit of space between it and the brickwork. Thus, there is an extra heat barrier between the structure of the house and the flue.

The next morning, I hurried to take the stovepipe down and sweep and inspect the chimney.  I didn't snap any photographs because I initially didn't plan on blogging about this event and I was in a huge hurry to get the fire going again because we had a ton of laundry to do and needed it to heat our water.

You might think that a chimney fire would burn away all of the creosote that is in the flue.  In my experience, what happens is that the creosote sort of bubbles and puckers so that it actually protrudes into the flue and impedes the draft.  It becomes sort of like the carbonized stuff on the floor of your oven after a pie boils over.  Because it is so brittle, it is easy to clean out of the chimney.

In my eighteen years of cooking with wood cookstoves, this is the second chimney fire that I have experienced.  Both events have some things in common: creosote, a hot fire, and an open oven damper.

The Margin Gem's oven damper in the open position.
It is the lower lever on the left with the black sphere on the bottom.

The first one occurred in the summer of 2004 (I remember this because Nancy and I were engaged).  I had baked bread in the Qualified on a late spring or summer afternoon, and after the bread came out of the oven, I opened the oven damper to let the heat escape up the chimney rather than heat up the house.  I knew that the chimney needed cleaning, but did not dream that I chimney fire would result.

All of this serves to remind me of a short quote from Gladys Dimock that Jane Cooper included in her 1977 book Woodstove Cookery: At Home on the Range: "Except for starting the fire, I always keep the oven damper closed.  This prevents the flames from going up the chimney and igniting any creosote.  We had a chimney fire once because the damper was left open.  Never again."

During summer use, I still open the oven damper when I'm finished cooking to let the heat escape up the chimney, but I'm careful about it.  Obviously, keeping creosote at a minimum is quite important too.

If you discover that you have an active chimney fire, the first thing to do is close all dampers and drafts on your stove because you want to deprive the fire of its source of oxygen.  This was sufficient to extinguish the 2004 chimney fire.

We keep a chimney fire extinguisher handy at all times.  This is a stick-shaped thing somewhat similar to a flare that is activated and put into the firebox.  I've never used it, though.

Another method for extinguishing a chimney fire which I've only read about is to put water-soaked newspapers on top of the fire in the firebox.  The idea is that the heat of the fire will cause the water in the papers to turn into steam, which will then travel up the chimney and extinguish the burning creosote.

If any of you have further information about chimney fires, please share it in the comments below.  We all should want to be responsible woodburners because operating our stoves safely results in fewer hazards and insurance claims, which in turn keeps us safe and our insurance rates low.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Popovers Fontaine

I love popovers!  I haven't made them in quite some time, but I decided to throw them together tonight since our chickens have been keeping us very well-supplied with eggs.

I wish I could remember where I got this recipe.  When I worked for the bank, sometimes I would be sent to work in the Avoca office.  I enjoyed substituting there because they had a break room where I could eat my lunch, and in that break room, they always had a stack of cookbooks that I would sit and peruse while I waited for my lunch hour to be over.  Thus, I know that I copied this recipe out of one of their cookbooks, but I didn't write down which one.

Popovers are extremely easy and fun to bake, and if you are a homesteader or farmer with your own chickens and dairy cow, you can produce most of the ingredients that you need by yourself.  Here is what you will need:

Popovers Fontaine
 
3 Tblsp. melted butter
3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
 
First, build your fire so that you will have a hot oven.  You're shooting for about 400 degrees.  Then, put the butter in a dish in the warming oven or on top of the reservoir (or wherever) of the range to melt.
 
The butter melting in the warming oven.

Grease 8 five-ounce custard cups and place them on a baking pan with edges.  I know that some people bake popovers in muffin tins, but I've never had very good luck with that, and using custard cups has never failed me.  You MUST put the cups on a pan.  Most of the shortening that you use to grease the cups will come out and dribble down the sides of the cups onto the pan.  You don't want that mess on the bottom of your oven!
 
 
 
Beat the rest of the ingredients together with a whisk.  Add the melted butter last.  The batter may look a little lumpy.
 
Fill custard cups half full of the batter.  Place in the oven until they puff up and are golden brown.  The recipe originally stated that they needed to be baked from 45-50 minutes.  I find that amount of time to be way too long.
 
 
 
I love to watch popovers bake.  You never can predict how they are going to look when they come out of the oven.
 

I always eat these with a little homemade pancake syrup, but I think that they would be good dusted with a little powdered sugar, too.  Fruit makes a great accompaniment for popovers.
 
 
 
My favorite memory surrounding this recipe is from the day Nancy and I were married.  My aunt and uncle stayed overnight here with me on the night before we were married, and so I baked popovers in the Qualified Range for our breakfast.  Just as we were sitting down to eat, my brother and my sister both arrived separately, so I ended up serving an impromptu breakfast for five that morning.  If you have unexpected company, these are an easy but novel go-to food.  I hope you enjoy them! 
 


Friday, January 15, 2016

Chinese Cooking: Taking Your Wood Cookstove for a "Wok"



 
Nancy and I love Chinese food.  We both savor every bite of crab rangoon, but she prefers cashew or sesame chicken, while I have a deep and abiding affection for sweet and sour.  I had never eaten Chinese food at all until I went to college at Ames, and I don't even remember what prompted me to wander into my first Chinese restaurant there on Welch Avenue in Campustown, but I'm surely glad that I did.

Long ago, before the shopping mall that is closest to our home became a virtual ghost town, there was a fairly decent Chinese restaurant in the food court there.  The restaurant was designed so that you could watch the cooks prepare your food while you waited, and I'll admit to being fascinated by the fast-paced, fiery spectacle that Chinese cooking presented.  Thus, when I saw an out-of-the-ordinary wok on clearance in Atlantic, I snatched it up.

The wok is out of the ordinary because, instead of having a completely rounded base, it has a base that fits down inside the "eye" of the cooktop.

The directions that were attached to the wok at purchase stated that the shelf around the perimeter of the wok is to be used as a place where you can put cooked food to stay hot while other food is cooked down at the center base.
A side view of the wok as it rests on top of the firebox.
 
It may be kind of weird, but I always associate woodburning cookstoves with distinctly American cooking, but it turns out that they are surprisingly well suited to Chinese cooking.  In the photos below, you can see what I mean.  I'm not going to share any recipe in this post because I'm very new to the homemade-Chinese-cooking experience, and I'm not completely happy with the things that I have created yet--tasty though they were.
 
The first thing that I did was cook the sauce for our entrĂ©e.  As soon as it was finished, it was removed to a trivet at the back of the stove.  Then I made the fried rice.
Fried rice cooking in the wok.
Wok cooking is usually done for a very short time at a very high heat.  Thus, building a hot fire and then putting the wok down in one of the eyes above the firebox creates the ideal wok cooking scenario. 
The wok resting in the eye directly above the firebox with a hot fire
built directly below it.
Once the fried rice is finished, it can be put into the warming oven so that it stays hot while the meat is cooked.
The finished fried rice in the warming oven.
Since the base of the wok is so small, only a little of the meat can be cooked at a time.  As the meat (in this case chicken) cooked, I removed it from the wok to drain on a paper towel-covered plate in the warming oven.

You can see how the versatility of the wood cookstove comes
in handy while cooking Chinese at home.
Once the meat is finished frying and has all had a chance to drain, the oil is discarded from the wok and then the meat and sauce are combined and cooked in it for a very short time.  Everything is then served over the fried rice. 
 
Of course, one wouldn't have to have a wok as unique as mine to make Chinese on a wood cookstove.  In fact, one wouldn't need a wok at all to make the Chinese dishes that I've been experimenting with, but it certainly goes a long way to making my concoctions feel authentic.  Either way, the wood cookstove is great for cooking Chinese!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Using the Wood Cookstove as a Slow-Cooker

On some cold days, you just don't want to shut the oven door on a woodburning cookstove.  In fact, you simply don't want to do anything that will reduce the radiant surface area of the cookstove.  The cooking method that I'm sharing in this blog post is perfect for those cold days--like yesterday and today--when the fire is going full tilt for heat and you don't want to sacrifice any of it for cooking your supper.

I first tried this almost eight years ago when I wanted to see if I could mimic a Crock-pot with the oven of the wood cookstove.  In a Crock-pot, the heat comes at the food from the sides as well as the bottom of the crock.  I have only used this cooking method for slow-cooking roasts, but it works really well.

First, you must select an appropriate cooking vessel.  Yesterday, I used my three-quart Saladmaster saucepan.  It belonged to Granny, who purchased it in 1963 and used it so hard that the handle fell off years before it ended up in my possession in the late 1990s.  Its handlelessness (I know that's not a word, but I like it anyway.) is precisely the reason that I use it.  You want to choose a vessel that can have all parts of it exposed to heat.  I don't use the lid that actually goes with this pot because it has a handle that would not be oven safe.  Instead, I used an all metal lid that I purchased at a second-hand store in Atlantic.  I have used aluminum foil as a lid, too.



Next, prepare your food as you would for any ordinary slow cooker.  I had chosen a small chuck roast, so I first seared the outside of it in a little butter.  Then I added some beef broth, some dried onions, and some seasonings.



Place the cover on the vessel.



Slide it into the rear corner of the oven closest to the firebox side of the stove.  Leave it there with the oven door open for as long as is necessary to cook whatever you have chosen.  Our small roast was in the corner of the oven from about ten o'clock in the morning to our suppertime at half past six.


In most wood cookstoves, this corner of the oven would be the hottest area because the firebox is immediately to the left, and when the oven damper is in the baking position (where ours stays during cold weather), all of the flue gases travel up the back of the oven on their way to the stovepipe.

To increase the heat, I removed the rack from below the kettle in the middle of the afternoon.  This afforded greater heat transfer to the food by conducting heat directly from the oven floor to the bottom of the kettle.



The roast turned out to be very flavorful, and coupled with potatoes that we baked this way and some homegrown frozen sweet corn, it made an excellent supper.

On the upper side of the roast, you can see two light-colored
places where bubbles had been rising as the roast simmered
in the open oven.
 
If you try using this method of slow cooking in your wood or coal cookstove, please let me know how it worked for you by utilizing the comments section below.  Happy cooking!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Using Your Wood Cookstove as a Clothes Dryer

I can probably count the number of times we have used our clothes dryer in the last year on the fingers of one hand.  We keep it around for emergencies, but sometimes even an emergency can be handled more quickly in an old-fashioned way.

One such emergency occurred one weekend earlier this month when Nancy and I needed black dress socks for our choir outfits on Sunday morning.  Fortunately, I had thought ahead enough to throw the load of dark dress socks into the automatic washing machine before I went to bed on Saturday evening, but they still needed to be dried on Sunday morning in time for church.  I could have dried the socks in the dryer, but there was no need because we have a wood cookstove!

When we have a small article of clothing that needs to be dried in a hurry, I pin it (or them as in the case of the required socks) to a wire clothes hanger and then hang it all from the handle of the warming oven door.  As the heat rises from the cooktop, the clothing dries very quickly.  See below for cautionary statements regarding this method, though.


Drying socks on the Margin Gem.  I've also dried
underwear this way, but I'll spare you the embarrassment
of having to look at it.


When we were still using the Qualified Range, it functioned as a much better clothes dryer than the Margin Gem.  For one thing, along the front of the range and along the right side, the Qualified was equipped with a guard rail that I frequently used as a clothing or towel rack.

You can see the chrome plated towel racks on
the front and right sides of the Qualified range in
this picture.

You can sort of see to the left rear of the Qualified (by the bellows) that there was a gap of space between the rear of the range and the wall.  This gap was created by the fact that the chimney juts into the kitchen; this is where our Vaughn range boiler now sits.  This space was the perfect spot for our extra tall clothes rack, which was a Christmas gift that my in-laws bought me from Lehman's.  We would put a small clothes rack near the right side. 

Even if the space behind the Margin Gem still existed, this would no longer be nearly as efficient a method to dry clothing because the Margin Gem has a built-in heat shield on the back that causes it to not radiate nearly as much heat (hence its significantly lower clearance requirements).  Also, putting a rack to the right of the stove is also not effective since the water reservoir absorbs the heat from that side of the range.

Blog reader Gary D. from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, modified his Ideal Sunshine cookstove by adding some towel racks which were originally made for Vermont Castings heating stoves.



But now, I must caution you.  Drying clothing or any other thing near a woodburning stove or other heating device can be dangerous!  Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Clothing or other things drying near or on a hot stove can dry before you know it, and then they become a fire hazard.  I once scorched a wet tea towel beyond salvage in record time on the Qualified.

2) Never leave clothes drying on or very near a cookstove unattended.

3) If you are planning on leaving your stove with clothing drying near it, make sure that the clothes have been moved a safe distance away, using your stove's clearance requirements as a guide.

4) In your calculations of safe clearances, figure out where your racks would land if they fell toward your stove.  I've heard of fires starting because of flammable things falling against woodburning stoves, and no one wants that to happen.

That said, being able to use your cookstove as a clothes dryer has some distinct advantages beyond the savings on your energy bills.  Depending on your geographic location, winter air can be quite dry, so hanging wet clothing around the cookstove adds humidity to the air in your home.  This makes your home feel warmer as well as relieving you of such annoyances as static electricity or bloody noses.

Also, clothes that are hung to dry last longer than if they were dried in a tumble dryer.  The lint in your dryer's lint filter is the result of wear and tear on fabric.

Using your cookstove to dry clothing is another way to get as much good as possible out of these wonderful appliances; just be sure to do it safely.



Thursday, December 24, 2015

Lavon's Ginger Cookies


One of the things that I enjoyed the most about my time spent as a local banker over a decade ago was that if I had a question about anything, all I had to do was wait until the right customer came in, and I could get the answer from an expert.  I learned about chuck wagon cooking from a lady who had grown up in Cherry County, Nebraska, for example.  Another lady taught me about potato salad dressing made with sour cream.  I was schooled in our community's history by many older ladies and gentlemen, and I was taught the genealogy of most of the other "old guard" families in our area.

Another thing that was great fun was the fact that several of the older women in the community would bring us various types of food.  Among the things I remember were buttermilk cake, prune pie, rhubarb jam, whole wheat bread, and ginger cookies made from the recipe that I'm going to share with you.

Lavon was one of the prettiest elderly ladies that we waited on.  My grandmother had known her as one of the older girls when she was growing up in the township to the west of ours, and she had always remembered her as being extraordinarily beautiful in her youth, too.  One day shortly before Christmas, Lavon brought us some of the ginger cookies that she had always made for her family for Christmas.  She was in her late eighties or early nineties by that time, and she talked about how she had skipped making them one year because they were getting to be a lot of work for her.  A grandson complained so loudly, however, that she had resumed baking them while she still could.  She told me a little about the process of making the cookies, and I asked if she would share the recipe.

A few days later, she brought in a copy of the recipe in her own handwriting with notes scrawled in the margin, and it was the dearest gift she could have given.  I've scanned it so that you can see it below.



This is a very old recipe, but they are truly delicious cookies with an old-fashioned flavor that just can't be beat.  They also keep beautifully.  I will confess that the first time I made these, I had so many Christmas cookies and sweets that I didn't get these frosted in time for Christmas.  In the holiday hubbub, I forgot about them in a tin on the dining room hutch.  I'm embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until summer vacation that I discovered that they were there, and they were just as fresh and tasty as they had been in the beginning.  I frosted them and enjoyed them perhaps more than I would have at Christmas.

Since Lavon's handwriting is a little difficult to read due to the arthritis and poor eyesight which affected her in her later years, I'll translate for you.

In a heavy, large kettle (the Magnalite kettle that you see in the pictures below is a 5-quart Dutch oven), place 1 cup shortening.  Put this on the fire and let it begin to melt.


Add 1 cup of molasses and stir.


Add 2 cups of sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 2 tsp. ginger, and 1/2 tsp. salt.  (Lavon warns not to add the sugar earlier than this.) 


Stir all of this together well and bring it to a boil.


Once this mixture boils, remove it from the fire immediately.  One of Lavon's notes in the margin warned to not let the mixture continue to boil.  I'm sure that this is so that the sugar doesn't begin to work toward soft ball stage.

Once the mixture has been removed from the fire, add 1 tsp. of baking soda.  Stir this in and watch carefully since it could foam over.



This part is really fascinating to watch.  Once it appears to be done foaming, let this mixture cool until it is kind of lukewarm.

Add two beaten eggs and some vanilla flavoring.


Then add enough flour to make a dough that will be able to be rolled out after it has been chilled.  Lavon said to add four cups of flour, but I find that more is necessary.


Let the dough stand in the refrigerator (or on your cold back porch) until well chilled.  Lavon said several hours or several days would work.

Roll out the dough and cut it into desired shapes.  I use a gingerbread man cutter, but the cookie that Lavon brought us was a star.


Bake these cookies on a greased cookie sheet for 8-10 minutes in a moderate oven.




Lavon frosted these with a thin powdered sugar glaze, but my sweet tooth prefers a thicker frosting.  Either way, these are a very enjoyable old-style cookie.

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas.  We were supposed to have 1-3" of snow this morning.  It looks to me like we've had somewhere over 6", and when it comes on the day before Christmas, it couldn't be more perfect timing.  Remember that the birth of our Savior is the reason that we celebrate at this time of the year!