Friday, June 20, 2014

A Vintage Piece of Advice

As we are getting ready for the family reunion which will be held at our house in early July, we've been having discussions about the menu.  My brother's most recent suggestion is to have a vintage menu from 1887, which is when our great-great-great-grandparents purchased the farm where Nancy and I live.  This prompted me to do some research last night because I have the hand written cookbook that my great-grandmother (the first of the family to live on this farm) started before she was married.

The book includes a few clippings from an unidentified newspaper which were written by Faith Felgar.    You can learn more about her here.  I'm including it on this blog because it does mention the use of a woodburning range and because sometimes I take for granted how easy baking bread has become in this day of reliable yeast and consistently milled flour.  For that matter, in today's world where so many households never have any from-scratch cooking occurring in them, this article is a good reminder of what our ancestors went through in order to just have a slice of bread.  There is no date on the clipping, but it was pasted between pages with recipes dated January 1914 and February 1914, so it is a safe bet that this column is just over 100 years old.

"Dear Faith Felgar,
     Why is it my bread gets so dark and holy [sic] when baked?  I knead it for half an hour the first time, then work it down, but it inclines to flatten and be sticky to the hands.  I would give so much to always be sure of the outcome with the bread.  We buy the highest-priced flour and we all like good bread, but mine is never very nice, so I'm quite discouraged.  I will be grateful for any help you are able to give.
     As nights grow cooler the making of a really good loaf requires a bit more care, and though it is not difficult, it must not be neglected, for on such little things as temperature and heating depends our success or failure.
     Follow this to the letter just once and report:
     Any young housewife that has bother with bread will be pleased with the result and if it helps you, help me be saying so:
     Into a teacup put one cake of dry yeast (this is for large batch), a half cake for four or six small loaves, and allow enough warm water to cover.  New milk is a good guide for temperature where there is no thermometer.  When soft and tiny sparkling bubbles appear in the liquid it shows that the germs are active.  Now beat in enough flour to make a stiff batter; cover cup with inverted saucer and keep in warm place.  In the warming closet of a range is usually suitable, but if firing heavily it may be too hot. When light, beat it down and let it rise again.  I have never had bad results if this had to be attended to several times before 8 p.m., but this time of year there is little bother with rapid growth.  Three medium white potatoes boiled in their jackets, peeled and mashed while hot.  Do not use the water they were boiled in.  Ordinarily I use just some mashed potatoes and the liquid drained from them, as it is less bother, but when I want to find if it is the yeast, the miller or I, I use the potatoes cooked without paring.
     To these three potatoes add half a gallon of water for small batch.  Remember to have it the right heat and warm the flour by stirring it over the fire.  Be gentle with the heat and stir well or it will become full of hard lumps.  Add the cup of sponge, then beat in the flour.  Do not beat a certain number of minutes, but count the strokes--150 is none too many--and the spoon must be brought from the bottom upward in and over and over motion.  Never stir round and round.  Put on the lid (no slang intended) and wrap the vessel, which should be not over one-third full, in a clean cloth, and over this throw any heavy rug--ironing blanket or what not--to keep the temperature uniform.
     In the morning warm another pan of flour and work this in until the bread becomes elastic and will not stick to the board.
     Add the salt and sugar if you wish and a bit of lard when you stiffen the sponge.  The first is all I use for light, delicious bread.
     Dip a cloth in melted lard and run over the mass; return to vessel to become light.  Never neglect it till it has spent its energy or it will not be so good.  When it doubles, work down.  Next time make into loaves, covering each lightly with melted fat.  Keep from draft.
     Loaves made so will rise straight up, be white and flaky--no coarse holes--and sweet to the taste.  In the oven it will continue to rise, not run, and should brown slightly in fifteen minutes.
     Leave in oven until the loaves shrink a little.  It is then done entirely to the center."

I might try this method sometime, but for now, I'll stick to my usual.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Optimizing the Hot Water from Our Wood Cookstove

A few Saturdays ago, I was in a hurry to get as much laundry done as quickly as I could because I thought that the potential for rain was going to limit the clothesline drying time.  As I have said before, the range boiler on the Margin Gem has no trouble keeping up with the hot water demands of the high efficiency front loading washing machine.

The problem is that cycles on that machine take just short of three years to complete, and I can get a lot of laundry done in very short order with a wringer washer.  Nancy needs her morning shower, though, and I've mentioned before that she is rather passionate about how hot her shower needs to be.  The recovery time on the water jacket/range boiler system is not as quick as on an electric or gas hot water heater, so I pulled out my old wash boiler.

I bought this stainless steel boiler at Walnut, Iowa, over a decade ago.  I chose it because it was in good shape, had a tight fitting lid, and was made of stainless steel.  I haven't used it very often (probably not often enough to make it worth the price I paid for it yet), and this was actually the first time that I used it on the Margin Gem.  Since the Margin Gem has both the reservoir and the hot water jacket, I hadn't felt the need to use it for quite a while.  However, the Qualified range was not equipped with either of these methods for heating water, so the wash boiler used to come in much handier.  One of the reasons that we chose the Margin Gem, though, was because the depth of its cooktop would accommodate this piece of equipment.

The capacity of the wash boiler is approximately ten gallons, so it is about double the size of the water reservoir attached to the right side of the Margin Gem.  I filled it to the top with cold water from the tap.  The water was entering the house at approximately 54 degrees Fahrenheit.  I had built a brisk fire in the stove and put the boiler directly over the firebox.  As you can see from the picture, I also had filled the teakettle and the 40 cup coffee boiler and put them next to the boiler, and the little green water bath canner had some water remaining in it from canning apple juice.  After I topped off the reservoir, I went outside to milk Bonnie, feed the bottle calves, and do the rest of the chores.

When I returned about an hour later, the water in the boiler measured 165 degrees F.  By the time I had my act together and was ready to wash (a few minutes later) the water in the boiler had reached 180.  Of course, in the old days people would actually boil their white clothes in their wash boilers, but in these days of more modern detergents and fabrics, that has been rendered obsolete, so I dipped the water out of the boiler into a bucket and hauled it down to the wringer washer in the basement.  There, I added quite a bit of cold water to get it to the point where it was a more reasonable temperature for washing, even though it was still plenty hot.  I did the same with the water from the other vessels on top of the stove and the water in the reservoir, supplementing with hot water from the tap heated by the water jacket.

CAUTION: Carrying such hot water this way is very dangerous!

I used the high efficiency automatic in tandem with the wringer washer and was able to get everything washed and hung out in time that it all got dry before the rain came.

To date, we haven't turned our electric water heater back on for the summer season.  We turned it off on Sept. 27, 2013, so that means that the Margin Gem has been fired every day since then.  I have a hunch that the warm, humid weather that we are experiencing right now is going to cause us to "go modern" pretty soon, though.

We hope everyone is having a great Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Popover Puff Tart

This elegant but relatively simple dish originated with a Pampered Chef recipe.  Let me say right up front that I like a lot of the Pampered Chef merchandise, and if you were to take inventory of our kitchen, you would find many pieces of Pampered Chef equipment--some of which are used very regularly.

However, I have a couple of little problems with Pampered Chef recipes.  One is that because Pampered Chef is out to sell their merchandise, the directions for each recipe are made so complicated by them telling you in bold print which of their products you are to use to complete each task.  Second, Pampered Chef recipes often include the use of a pre-packaged or pre-processed ingredient such as canned biscuit dough, etc.  I don't mind a bit that their recipes use these things, but I wish that they would also include a "from scratch" version for a couple of reasons.  To begin with, many people are trying to cut as many of the pre-packaged, processed foods from their diets as they can.  Furthermore, I've spent a lot of time poring over vintage recipes, and nothing frustrates me more than when a recipe says something like "a box of marshmallows" or something like that.  The size and contents of packages change over time, and a recipe that calls for a "package" of something is then rendered useless.

Thus, the recipe that I'm sharing here originated with a Pampered Chef recipe, but I drew on my great-grandmother's from-scratch recipe for cornstarch pudding to modify it so that it is completely from scratch.

This recipe is particularly timely if your family is like ours and experiences a rise in the consumption of eggs in the weeks before Easter.  We poke holes in each end of the eggs and blow the egg out of the shell so that when we dye Easter eggs, we are only dying the empty shell.  This is a great system because sometimes the weather on Easter forces us to hold our egg hunts indoors.  You have to understand something about our Easter egg hunts, though: they are a competition, and we hide the eggs so well that sometimes we don't find them all.  Thus, hiding only the shell prevents us from having a rotten mess on our hands.

It's a timely recipe for other reasons too.  We had a huge apple crop last fall, and we've still got bushels of apples in our utility room.  It is quite cool in there, and the apples were Jonathans, so they've been keeping quite well.  We need to get them used, though.

Since the cookstove is being fired almost constantly still, I added small pieces of wood to make a brisk fire in order to bring the oven temperature up to around 400 F.

Here is what you'll need to make the popover puff crust:

3 Tablespoons butter
6 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
First, melt the butter in the bottom of a cast iron skillet.  I used a #8, but I think the next size up would have been better. 
I didn't measure the butter for this particular tart, and I think I got
a little too generous.  This resulted in a puff that wasn't as pretty as
it usually is, so I guess this is one time when more butter isn't better.
Remove the skillet from the heat and tilt and turn it until butter coats the entire bottom and goes part way up the sides.  Set aside.
Combine the eggs, milk, and flour, beating well.

Add the melted butter from the skillet, beating it in quickly so that if it is a little hot yet, it doesn't cook the eggs.  The batter will look a little lumpy.  Pour all into the skillet and put it in the hot oven to bake.

The popover puff is supposed to bake in a hot oven for about twenty minutes.  Then, the oven heat is to be reduced to moderate for another fifteen or so minutes to finish the cooking.  I've found that reducing the heat is not really necessary.  All you need to do is be sure that you've accomplished your hot oven by burning small pieces.  Then, don't refuel the fire as quickly as you would if you were maintaining the high oven heat.  Rather, let the oven gradually cool down to a little hotter than 350 before you add fuel to the fire. 

Of course, you'll want to occasionally take a peek in the oven to see that everything is progressing as it should.  This is particularly fun during this recipe because the popover part changes so dramatically.

The popover puff about midway through its baking.  This is not
nearly as pretty as some that I have made.

While the popover puff is baking, begin working on the fruit filling.  You'll need the following:

4-5 baking apples (I think Jonathans are best)
1 orange
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 c. raisins
1/4 c. dried cranberries
2 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch

Core and slice the apples into a skillet.  I use Granny's large Saladmaster stainless steel frying pan for this step.  Add the raisins and cranberries.  Zest the orange, putting the zest in the pan with the fruits.

Squeeze the juice from the orange and add it to the 1/2 c. of orange juice.  Add enough water to make a cup of liquid. 

In a medium bowl, combine the rest of the filling ingredients and whisk until smooth.  Pour over fruit.

Place the fruit mixture directly over the firebox.  Stirring constantly, cook until thick and fruit is coated.

By the time I inherited Granny's frying pan, the bottom was warped
enough that it doesn't make contact with the stovetop except in the
center.  Therefore, I remove the stove lid beneath it to speed the cooking.
While you are cooking the filling, the popover puff crust will probably finish baking.  Remove it from the oven when it is golden brown and appears to be firm all the way through the bottom.

As the popover puff cools, it will contract and make a nice "bowl" to receive the fruit mixture.

This is what the fruit filling looks like when it is finished.
Pour the fruit filling into the popover puff crust, dust lightly with powdered sugar if desired, and enjoy!  I think that it is delicious.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Blog Reader's Cookstove - IV

Late last year, reader Rebecca contacted me with information about her family's cookstove.  I have been too busy to blog (as you can tell from the single, solitary posts in January and February), so I feel very guilty about taking so long to post this information--especially because Rebecca's cookstove is a Flameview, and this blog has fielded lots of questions about Flameviews.

Rebecca's Flameview cookstove.
The story of Rebecca's cookstove is one that is not only a testament to how great a woodburning cookstove is, but it is also a testament to what a difference proper insulation can make.  Rebecca and her family live in southern Manitoba, Canada, where temperatures during the winter days can run about -4 F and the nights are generally -31F.  Before purchasing the Flameview, they had been considering installing a masonry stove when they renovated their house.  However, a 48 hour power outage, which ended up causing them to have to temporarily vacate their home, prompted them to decide that a stove which could not only heat their house but also heat their water and cook their food would be a better choice.

The Flameview fit that bill.  They installed their stove in a four-seasons sunroom which is two feet lower than the rest of their house, thus facilitating the transfer of the heat of the stove (and the sun) up into their living quarters without the use of fans.

What's truly impressive is how much of their home heating the Flamview provides, and part of this amazing ability is due to how smartly Rebecca and her husband completed the renovation of their home.  I'll let you read her words:

"When the sun is shining (even if the weather is bitterly cold) I can do a good burn in the morning, something small for lunch and then nothing more until 4:30 pm. When the sun is not shining, then I need to burn more in the morning.  We go through about two large Rubbermaid 68 liter [18 gallon] totes of split wood a day total for heating and cooking. When it is sunny maybe only one tote.

During the renovation we built out the existing walls of the house and added 10" of Ruxol insulation so that our walls in the main house are about R60. We also added new triple-pane windows throughout and more blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic. Unfortunately we only put double-pane in the sun-room. We have 6" walls in the sun-room with pink insulation that is R22 plus thin foil insulation that is R5. If we did the sun-room again we would make the walls thicker and do triple pane windows!

Because our house is well insulated, once we heat it up, the heat stays for quite a while. Even now that it is so cold at night, if we get the house up to 22 degrees celcius [72 F] before going to bed then bank the fire, the furnace only comes on at 5 or 6 am (we have the furnace set at 18 degrees celcius [64 F])."

With this system, the Flamview is able to provide nearly 100% of their home heating unless they are away from home for over twelve hours.


A vew of the firebox side of the Flameview.
In response to my question about what they like best about the Flameview, Rebecca's husband responded that he liked being able to see the fire.  Rebecca, on the other hand, mentioned that she is most impressed by how "crispy and golden" everything looks and tastes from the oven.  She specifically mentioned the oven fries had a superior quality to them that she had not been able to produce in the oven of her modern range--which she still has but rarely uses now that she has figured out how to control the heat of the wood cookstove.
The only drawback that they mentioned is that, in their experience, quite a bit of smoke escapes into the house when the firebox door is opened.
Below, you will see two photographs of the back of the range.  The top one shows how the rear-mounted water reservoir is connected to the coil inside the range.  The bottom one shows the thermostatic control option which is available on Margin stoves as well as the optional electric blower which helps circulate the heat from the range.
Rebecca added some very valuable information about the Flameview in general and the use of the blower on my post entitled "Purchasing a New Woodburning Cookstove," and I'm looking forward to having her chime in quite frequently to help out with a Flameview owner's point of view.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

First Fire from Scratch Since Nov. 9, 2013

I am not dead.

Sorry.  I've done so little blogging lately that I couldn't resist the temptation to borrow the above line from Alice Walker's The Color Purple. 

Life has been so busy here that I haven't had time to do much blogging--a fact which I find very discouraging because I've got a lot to tell you.  However, I just wanted to write a quick post for documentation purposes. 

Nancy and I just arrived home a few minutes ago (a little after 10:00 p.m. CST) after spending the day at the Iowa High School Speech Association's Large Group All-State Festival in Ames.  Two of the speech groups that I co-coach were honored there today, and we are very proud of their success.  We actually stayed in Ankeny with the kids last night so that we would be able to arrive at C.Y. Stephens Auditorium on the ISU campus before 7:30 a.m. without having to wake up long before the crack of dawn.

This brings me to the point of this post.  Tonight I had to do something that I haven't done since Nov. 9 of last year: start the fire in the kitchen cookstove from scratch.  By my calculations, that means that the last fire that we had burned for 103 days straight: a new record for us. 

When Nancy came home early from work yesterday, she loaded the stove and shut all the dampers and drafts, and I honestly thought that it would hold fire better than what it did.  There were a few small embers in the ashes when we came home tonight, but not enough to start a fire.  The thermometer in the dining room read 49.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the furnace was set at 50, and the range boiler was completely cold to the touch.  Both fires are started again, and we are already into the fifties.

Anyway, I've got to get to bed now.  We've got a really busy week ahead so that the speech team can be ready for district individual contests next Saturday.  I hope to get caught up with all of you soon.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sweeping the Chimney: A Task for a Warm Winter's Day

In our corner of the world, the temperatures in January were a real roller coaster.  We've dipped below zero a few times, and we've been up near sixty.  Fortunately, the warmest days have landed on the weekends, and we've taken advantage of them. 

So what do wood cookstove owners do on those warm days?

We cut, split, and stack firewood, and sweep the chimney, of course!

When we were using the Qualified range, I only swept the chimney once per year in the fall, and really there was never much to sweep out as long as we were burning good, seasoned hardwood.  However, the Qualified wasn't airtight, and though we would load it up and shut it down during the day and at night, it couldn't hold a fire long, so it was consistently burning hot.

The Margin Gem is a different story, though.  When we are home, it is burning hot, but during the days and at night, we load it up and shut it down, too, and it actually holds a fire for a long time (our record is over 24 hours).  Since it has the capability of a slow burn, creosote naturally does accumulate more than it did with the Qualified.

As most of you probably already know, the creosote that I'm talking about is a product of the incomplete combustion of wood.  This black or dark brown substance clings to the inside of a flue, and unfortunately, it is flammable.  Thus, it is what is responsible for the dangerous chimney fires that wood burners want to work hard to prevent.

A couple of weekends ago, we swept our chimney for the third time this heating season.  The process is fairly simple.  The first thing that I usually do is disconnect the stovepipe from the chimney and cover the flue opening with a plastic grocery bag held in place with the elastic band from a discarded pair of underwear. 

What?  Too much information?

The reason I cover the chimney opening is twofold.  First, the soot is prevented from falling all over the stove and the floor as it falls down the chimney.  Second, this helps stop the regular draft of the chimney, so less of the soot is flying into my face while I'm on top of the roof.

We have been maintaining the same fire in the cookstove since Nov. 9.  (It would have been longer than that, but that was the day of our wood cookstove workshop, and we wanted our guests to have the experience of starting the stove.)  Therefore, even though we waited until there was only a small bed of coals in the bottom of the firebox, I skipped this step because I didn't want the smell of the burning coals to simply be escaping the stove into the house for that long.  Thus, I got a face full of soot.
Next, I climb to the top of the roof with my chimney sweeping brush and lengths of rod which screw together at intervals to push the brush down the chimney and pull it back up again.

The north side of our roof isn't that steep as roofs go, and it is covered with asphalt shingles which generally afford pretty good traction, but it still bothers me a little to go up there.  I don't really understand it, either.  When I was in junior high, my grandparents on my dad's side re-roofed the dairy barn here on our farm.  At the time, Granny was a spry 72 years old, and she was the one who had to do all of the high work, so it was she who straddled the ridge pole to nail the cap back on, and I remember getting up there and straddling it with her for a lark.  I don't know what changed for me, but you wouldn't catch me dead up there now, so I generally don't like to get up on the roof to sweep the kitchen chimney.  However, I learned something this year.  If I sweep the chimney on a warm enough day, I can do the job barefooted, and I don't feel at all like I'm in danger of slipping and falling down the roof.  Weird, I know, but I thought I'd tell you about it in case it will help any of you reading this.

As you run the brush up and down the chimney, the larger chunks of creosote fall down to the bottom.  Some chimneys have small square clean out doors for the removal of this refuse, but since our kitchen chimney is the original chimney of the house with a new stainless steel liner in it, the bottom of the chimney is now where the stovepipe enters.  Thus, the creosote must be raked out of the chimney there.

Another thing that I have learned in our second year of having the Margin Gem is that sweeping the chimney is made much easier and more effective if the fire which precedes the sweeping is a really hot fire of small, very dry pieces of wood.  This makes the creosote in the chimney very flaky and easy to dislodge.

Of course, if your cookstove is vented through a chimney which exits through the ceiling--like the chimney for our Jotul heating stove--this whole process is much easier and can be accomplished while standing securely on the floor in the house.

Sweeping a chimney is a little messy, and it does take some time, but it is one of those things that responsible wood burners have to do occasionally in order to keep the fire department from coming over for a visit.  I hope your wood fires are burning brightly and your chimneys are drawing well!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Card from Us to You

Merry Christmas!
Things have been very hairy here over the last few days as we made the last mad preparations for Christmas, so I'm late getting my Christmas blog post out to my readers.  I should have completed this earlier so that I could have posted it this morning before we spent the day away from home first at my parents' and then at Nancy's folks'.  I'll play the sick card, though, as I have been under the weather for a little over two weeks and still feel miserable.
As I blog tonight, I'm waiting for the fire in Marjorie the Margin Gem to burn down a little bit.  I loaded her up for the night, but got a little over-zealous, so the lids over the firebox didn't fit down snugly.  There is very little danger of fire when this is the case because the strong draft of our chimney generally pulls any sparks that the fire may put off away from the loose lids, but I'm not taking any chances.
Marjorie the Margin Gem has been a very busy lady.  The current fire in her was the one that was started on November 9th when we hosted our wood cookstove workshop.  We have not had to restart her from scratch since then.  Over the last two days, she has turned out several batches of candy, cookies, Chex Mix, and I don't remember what all. 
Marjorie the Margin Gem sporting the Apricot/Raisin
Tea Ring that I baked for Christmas Breakfast.
We have had a wonderful day with family on both sides, but now I'm ready for a long winter's nap. 

I hope you all have had a chance to reflect on the reason that today was special:

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."  John 1:14 KJV