Thursday, September 13, 2018

Cheating with Your Wood Cookstove: Gooey Butter Cake

A quick internet search reveals that Gooey Butter Cake is a pretty common recipe, but I didn't know that several years ago when I found this recipe in the back of my mother-in-law's mini-van.  It had been written on a fancy recipe card and then photocopied onto an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper.  It was attributed to someone named Hilda and neither Leona nor anyone else in the family knew where the recipe had come from.  No one knew Hilda, and no one even recognized the handwriting on the recipe card!

I made this according to the recipe the first time, but I wasn't that impressed.  I tweaked it just a bit this time, and the reviews are better, but I still wouldn't call this a stellar dessert.  However, if you need something a little exciting but don't have much time, this could do in a pinch, and because it is so rich, a little goes a long way.

For the bottom layer, here is what you will need:

1 chocolate cake mix (this is why I call this recipe cheating)
2 eggs
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp. vanilla

The original recipe called for a yellow cake mix, but my first change was to use a chocolate one.  I would say that yellow cake is probably my favorite, and if given a choice, chocolate cake is the last thing I would take. However, the bottom layer of this cake has kind of a brownie texture, so I opted for a chocolate cake mix, and that suits my eaters much better.   Lately, I've taken to putting about a tsp. of burnt sugar flavoring into brownies, so I also added that.  If you are unable to find burnt sugar flavoring, you can fairly easily make your own burnt sugar syrup.

As always when baking in a wood cookstove, the first step is to build your fire and begin heating your oven to the desired temperature.  You need a moderate oven for this cake, and I think it is best to shoot for around 325ºF.

While your oven is heating, begin melting your butter over the coolest part of the cooktop.

Combine the melted butter, cake mix, eggs, vanilla, and burnt sugar flavoring.  This could be done by hand, but I used an electric mixer because the mixture is so stiff.

Once everything is thoroughly combined, transfer to a greased 9"x13" baking pan.

Press the mixture into the bottom of the pan, spreading evenly all the way to the edges.  Buttered fingertips make this process a bit easier.

For the second layer you will need these ingredients:

1 pound of powdered sugar
8 oz. softened cream cheese
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine all of these ingredients until smooth.  Again, I used an electric mixer.

Spread the cream cheese mixture on top of the cake mixture.  I am careful to not let it touch the edges of the pan.

Bake in a moderate oven for about 40 minutes.  "Hilda" forbid me from peeking during this time, but I did take a gander in the oven at about thirty-eight minutes.  I think it is generally bad wood cookstove practice to never peek.  Mind you, I'm not advocating opening the oven door every few seconds, but we have to be reasonable.  When Meme taught me to bake, she never used a timer for anything.  In fact, she didn't even own a timer. Instead, we would take casual looks at the kitchen clock and rely on the sense of touch and sight.

I used to have a blind friend who could tell whether something was done baking by the smell of it.  However, wood cookstove ovens are not vented into the kitchen, and the Margin Gem even has a gasket around the oven door, so you can rarely smell baked goods until you open the oven door at least a crack.  

What Gooey Butter Cake looks like when it is done baking.
If you look closely at the oven thermometer, you can see that
the oven was running at about 325ºF.  I wouldn't go much
hotter than that.

Remove from the oven and cool completely.  You could eat this cake at this point, but I have to say that I think this one benefits quite a bit from being covered very tightly and refrigerated for at least a day.

These are extremely rich, and I find that a 1"x1" square is plenty to satisfy my sweet tooth for quite a while.

I hope you enjoy them!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Summer Uses for a Cold Cookstove

My last post was about Marjorie the Margin Gem cookstove coming out of her summer retirement.  I got to thinking about that.  In reality, even though she had not been fired since May, it wasn't as if she had just been taking up space.  In the summer, she becomes a rather versatile kitchen cabinet--versatile because she doesn't mind if I set hot things on her.

I also mentioned that we don't use her for baking for Monday Markets anymore.  During the first season of Monday Markets, she did all of the baking because she had the only functional oven we had at that time.  You can read about that in this post.

Now, during Monday Market baking, Marjorie serves as a proofing center while her oven stores some large pieces of cast iron cookware.

Marjorie holding a small fraction of the sweet rolls baked yesterday
while they were rising.

During the approximately eight months of the year that the wood cookstove is being fired, the roles of our two kitchen stoves are reversed, and the modern gas stove becomes an elaborate cooling rack and storage area.  I also have a large, homemade cutting board that fits almost perfectly over the gas stove top and makes a nice addition to our counter space.

Using a cold wood cookstove for storage is not a new idea at all.  I used to know of an elderly couple in Macedonia, Iowa, who had an old wood cookstove in their kitchen.  When the lady of the house wanted to remove it, her husband opposed the idea because he didn't know where he would keep all of his medications if not in the cookstove.  I've also heard of people using cookstoves to store groceries and pet food. 

When I first moved back into our house from the little house up the hill, the chimney was not yet ready to hook a cookstove back into it.  Thus, my old Qualified range (which was only a little over a year old at that time) sat patiently waiting to be used again.  I used it as a microwave stand because the idea of the wood cookstove "supporting" the modern technology of the microwave oven appealed to my warped sense of irony . . . Yup, I'm that much of a nerd.

For those of you who have wood cookstoves in your kitchen which are not used year round, please fill up the comments below and tell us what you do with your stove in the off-season.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Marjorie Comes Out of Her Summer Retirement

Our weather has finally turned a little cooler; in fact, we are supposed to have lows in the upper 40s tonight.  The air is much drier than it has been too, so I couldn't resist starting a fire in Marjorie the Margin Gem cookstove.  I have not had a single fire in the stove since May 27th.  This is the longest stretch of time I've been away from cooking over wood since 2002!

First I swept the chimney, cleaned out the stovepipe, and cleaned out the oven flues.  I always kind of enjoy the first chimney cleaning at the end of the summer.  Since the stove has been unused for such a long time, much of the hard creosote has loosened, so I'm able to do the best job possible.

I've been really hungry for Popovers Fontaine for quite a while, so these were my supper.

The popovers coming out of the oven.  Doesn't
Marjorie look nice in this photo?  Her lovely
appearance is due to my uncle Glen and my
mother-in-law having given her a good shine
for our family reunion back in the first part of July.

I also used the fire to cook some wild plums for making jelly later.

Wild plums from the road ditch cooking on the Margin Gem.

The small, short fire created enough hot water to wash a load of tablecloths and do up a few dishes, too.  Gotta love the efficiency of a wood cookstove!

Nancy was worried that it would get too hot in the house, but the thermometer in the living room only topped out at 70ºF, so we were more than comfortable.

I'm excited because our forecast has very reasonable temperatures for the next several days.  I told Nancy tonight that my goal is to switch off the electric water heater on Sept. 18 this year.  That is the day after the last Monday Market (Monday Market days are really crazy baking days here, but the baking is now all done in electric and gas ovens in order to keep my help--our mothers--from revolting due to the temperature of the kitchen.).  The two things that will have the biggest effect on my goal are temperatures and fuel status.  I'll keep you all posted.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Book Review: "Rediscovering the Woodburning Cookstove" by Robert Bobrowski

Where has the summer gone?  At the beginning of June, I had big plans to blog regularly over the summer and had hoped to get our summer kitchen moved closer to the house so that I could continue cooking over wood during hot weather.  We've made progress toward that, but it hasn't happened yet, and talking about it deserves its own post.

Today, I want to review the book Rediscovering the Woodburning Cookstove, written and illustrated by Robert Bobrowski.  Published in 1976 and originally retailing for $5.95, its ISBN number is 0-85699-130-9.  It was published by The Chatham Press of Old Greenwich, Connecticut.

A scan of the front cover or Robert Bobrowski's book.

For me, this book was an eBay find some years ago.  I no longer remember how much I paid for it, but I can guarantee it wasn't too much; otherwise, I wouldn't have bought it.  My copy is autographed by the author, but the message that accompanies the signature is so full of swear words that it probably actually detracts from the value of the book.

Rediscovering the Woodburning Cookstove is an album of information about various models of historic woodburning cookstoves sprinkled with some lore from the various cookstove users Bobrowski interviewed in compiling the stove biographies.  Directions for using a wood cookstove are present, but definitely take a secondary place to the historical information.

The most charming feature of the book is Bobrowski's artwork.  I counted no less than 107 hand-drawn pencil illustrations spread over the book's 95 pages.  Bobrowski also did a masterful job of choosing a wide variety of woodburning cookstoves to share with the reader.  From simple box stoves and the true original "cookstove" to various models of portable ranges to a beautifully rendered "set range," pretty much all styles of wood cookstoves known to man in 1976 are covered in this book.  (For a detailed discussion of each of these types of wood cookstove, see this post.)  Bobrowski also shares information about various equipment and accessories which are cookstove compatible.

Throughout the book, Bobrowski includes recipes which other cookstove owners shared with him as well as a few of his own.  The recipes are interesting, and several have a definite eastern United States feel, which is obvious to this Midwesterner because of the presence of fish and fiddleheads (forty-year-old cookbooks from the Midwest don't include fish recipes as a general rule).  Come to think of it, most of the brands of stoves featured in the book are also more common in the Northeast than in other parts of the country.

The only criticism I would offer is that the text of the book is handwritten in a somewhat calligraphic style, which can be truly difficult to read at times. I noticed that my reading was slowed considerably by this aspect, and I suspect that someone with eyesight more troublesome than mine would find the book quite challenging.

A scan of an interior page which shows the beautiful illustrations
and the difficult text.

I'm glad to have this book as a part of my wood cookstove media collection.  I've seen copies available for purchase online recently, so perhaps you too could land a copy.  

I'd like to close this post by quoting the text on the last page, which echoes my feelings about wood cookstoves and sums up my purpose with this whole blog:

"Not enough has been said here about the wonderfully solid presence of a wood cookstove, the feeling of social warmth it exudes and the companionable crackle of its fire.  No modern appliance can be its equal in this regard.  Whether in the daytime or at night, a wood cookstove fulfills a role above and beyond that of cooking and heating.  This quality is an intangible one and may be understood fully only through owning or using one regularly.  Many say that, after a while, this large inanimate object begins to assume a personality and become a friend, and from my own experience I must wholeheartedly agree."

P.S.--A big thank you to all of you readers who have kept this blog so busy over the summer!  I'm humbled by the awesome number of readers I have even during the off-season.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Waving the White Flag on the 2017-2018 Heating Season

Well, after having a fire in the Margin Gem every day since Sept. 27, 2017, which was when we turned the electric hot water heater off for the season, we finally decided to tie a bow on the 2017-2018 wood heating season this morning.

I know several of you just gasped and shook your head at the discovery that over the last few days we had still been using the wood cookstove daily when our temperatures have been soaring into the upper nineties, even reaching 100 on Saturday.  Other readers who know me just had their suspicions regarding my sanity confirmed with this revelation.

To use the cookstove exclusively for hot water from Sept. 27 - May 27th ties our record which was set during the 2013-2014 heating season. During this time, not only was all hot water heated with wood, but I think all but about five of the meals which were cooked at home were also cooked over wood heat.  One of those five meals was a regular meal a couple of days ago.  The others were just boiled eggs or frozen pizza.

Some of you may be wondering how we were able to use the stove for so long in such warm weather without suffering too much.  Many factors contributed to our endurance:

1) Our century-old farmhouse was designed to have a woodburning cookstove in the kitchen.  This is a major factor in our ability to use the stove in warm weather.  The kitchen has six doors that open into other areas of the house, but all of these except for the pantry doorway can be closed in order to keep the heat out of the rest of the house.  The large east windows are double-hung, so the top sashes can be lowered in order to facilitate heat escape.

The kitchen windows with the top sashes open.

Also, since it is a two-story house and the stairway opens into the kitchen, we can open the upstairs door and let a great deal of the heat escape up the stairs where a fan was positioned in a window at the top of the stairs blowing hot air out of the house.

When our kitchen re-model is finished, yet another way to exhaust heat from the stove will be restored, so stay tuned for another blog post about that.

2) Our house is surrounded by large old shade trees.  Our shade is not as dense as it once was, but we still have a lot of it, and this makes our house stay much cooler in general.

3) We don't have to have a long-running fire in order to have sufficient hot water to meet our needs.  A fire which burns briskly for less than an hour creates more than enough hot water for a good shower in the morning. This also means that I used small pieces of wood which burned hot but not long.

4) We closed the "hyper-heat" reservoir damper and often opened the oven damper so that the stove itself wasn't radiating so much heat into the kitchen.

The reservoir damper in the open position.  When it is closed,
it is in the vertical position.

5) I would also fill the teakettle and our 40-cup coffee pot and put them directly over the firebox while the fire was burning.  These, coupled with the water in the reservoir, supplemented the hot water in the boiler and provided enough hot water to wash dishes and do a little laundry when necessary.  Of course, water in the kettles and the reservoir was used in the wringer washer and in hand washed laundry only.  It would have been difficult to get it into the high-efficiency front-loader. Anyway, heating water in this way absorbed the majority of the BTU's which would have emanated into the house from the cooktop.

6) Though we had some extremely warm days, the nights were still getting cool, so we could pull all of the heat out of the house during the night. Then we would shut the windows in the morning before the outdoor temperature got warmer than the indoor temperature.

7) The weather we have been having has been extremely dry.  This is not a bit good for any of our crops, but it made it so that the high temperatures were more bearable than they usually are in our area of the country.

Q. So what changed between yesterday and today?

A. Last night the outdoor temperature did not fall as low as it has been.  It was 67º outside when I woke up a little before 6:30 a.m.  The living room temperature was still at 77º.  This was only four degrees lower than the high temperature that we observed yesterday afternoon.  I always kind of figure that 70º is roughly our breaking point for comfort.  If the outdoor temperature doesn't dip sufficiently below that during the night,  we are uncomfortable.

Thus, after draining the electric water heater and flushing it out (the water in it always sours), we are back to paying for hot water, and I even broke down and turned on the air conditioning.  I'm feeling pretty weak today, but I'm comfortable!

Now, don't think I won't have anything to blog about over the next few months.  My goal is to get the summer kitchen moved from the end of the driveway up to the north side of the house within the month (we'll see if that happens), and I have a raft of wood cookstove literature to review, too, so check in frequently.  We'll be in touch!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Cooking Rhubarb/Pineapple Jam on the Wood Cookstove

I like to say that Nancy's grandmother was the Rhubarb Queen.  In her repertoire of spring recipes, some of her most famous foods featured rhubarb.  I've already blogged her Rhubarb Cobbler, and today I want to share her recipe for Rhubarb/Pineapple Jam.  By far and away, this is Nancy's favorite spread for toast, etc., and it is very good. 

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/4" pieces
4 cups sugar
1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple
1 package (3 oz.) strawberry gelatin
1 tsp. powdered fruit pectin

1. If you are using fresh rhubarb, combine the rhubarb and the sugar and let set overnight.  The sugar will draw the moisture out of the rhubarb and make it cook faster.  If you are using frozen rhubarb, just be sure to thaw it and and save the juice and this step is unnecessary.

2. Starting directly over the firebox of the wood cookstove, cook the rhubarb with the sugar.  This will come to a boil quickly because there really isn't that much volume to heat.  Once it comes to a boil, you may need to move it away from the fire a little.  Boil the rhubarb and sugar together for 12 minutes.

Rhubarb and sugar cooking together.
3. Add the can of crushed pineapple.

Rhubarb, sugar, and pineapple.

4. Add the gelatin and the teaspoon of pectin. 

All of the ingredients boiling together.
5. Bring the entire mixture back to a boil and boil for one minute.  Remove from the fire.

6. Now you have a few options.  You can pour the hot jam into sterilized jars, and it will keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.  This is what Nancy's grandma did, and we still have the pickle barrel-shaped jars that she used.  We do this sometimes, but I have also put this in jelly jars and water bathed it for ten minutes.

Unfortunately, the sunshine clearly shows that
the rhubarb and pineapple are not very evenly
distributed in this jar of jam.
This jam is excellent on anything, but I think it is particularly good on English muffins.  In the picture below, it is spread on some of our homemade bread.

Hope you are enjoying a good rhubarb harvest this spring!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cheating with Your Wood Cookstove: Broccoli Rice Casserole

I'm totally embarrassed by the recipe that I'm sharing with you today.

It is not healthy.

It is not original.

It is not from scratch.

It is not one made from all homegrown foods.

You've probably all seen it before.

But .  .  .

It tastes SOOO good!

This 1970s-era recipe was one of only two casseroles that my mom could get the three of us kids to eat while I was growing up.  We all loved it, and it was frequently requested on our birthdays when we got to choose what we ate for all three meals that day.  I still really enjoy it, and because of the cooking method, it is extremely well suited to being made on a wood cookstove.

You are going to need the following ingredients:

1/4 cup butter (I usually reduce this to 1 or 2 TBSP.)
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can cream of mushroom soup
An 8 oz. jar of Cheez Whiz (GASP! I'll talk more about this later.)
10 oz. frozen broccoli
1 cup instant rice

Here is what you do:

1) Build your fire so that eventually you will have a moderate oven.

2) While the oven is heating, gently sauté the onion and celery in the butter in a very large frying pan.  I like to use my Magnalite chicken fryer for this because it has much taller sides, and that prevents spillage on the cooktop. I usually add a sprinkling of pepper to this mixture, too.

3) Once the onion is translucent, add the rest of the ingredients in the order given, stirring after each addition.  You may need to add a little water if the mixture doesn't flow freely, but don't do this until the broccoli has thawed so you know how much moisture it will release.

4) After the mixture has started to bubble a little, pour it into a greased 7" x 12" casserole dish.

5) By this time, the oven should be running at about 350º.  Pop the casserole into the oven for about a half hour.  It should be bubbly around the edges and beginning to brown a little on the top.

6) Remove from the oven and serve.

My mom always served this with our homemade applesauce, and I think this is an excellent combination.  When I was little, Mom would always make hamburgers (sans bun; we never had hamburgers with buns) to go with this as our meat.  Later on, she began to put a pound of cubed ham into the casserole.  This adds a lot of flavor to this and makes it a one-dish meal.  That is my favorite way to make it, but I didn't have any ham to put in it this evening.  If you do put the ham in it, you'll need a bigger casserole dish.  I often use a 9" x 13" dish then.

I have made this casserole with home-canned broccoli quite successfully.  It is a good way to use up a vegetable that many don't find very good when canned.

Now, about that Cheez Whiz.  You can substitute other cheeses or other cheese sauces here as you see fit and your taste permits.  You could also make your own mushroom white sauce and parboil regular rice, and then this recipe is no longer cheating.  It's still a great cookstove recipe, though, because you take advantage of the hot cooktop while your oven is heating to bake the casserole.

And since I'm so embarrassed that I like this dish so much, let's just agree to not talk about it anymore. 

Thanks.  I knew you'd understand.