Monday, December 29, 2014

Stovetop Potpourri

I hope that you all were able to enjoy celebrating the birth of Christ last week.  I feel a bit guilty about not writing a Christmas post like I have done over the last couple of years, but there just wasn't time.  This year, my school was still in session on the 23rd, and I barely had enough time to get our traditional candies and cookies made before Christmas, let alone have time to blog.

Anyway, many of you who read this post will undoubtedly have a "Well, duh!" reaction to its content.  To tell the truth, I'm having a "Well, duh!" reaction to my own ignorance.  Before I get too hard on myself, though, let me explain a couple of things: 1) My mother does not like home fragrances, air fresheners, potpourris, or perfumes of any kind.  They give her a headache, so I was raised in a home with unscented everything, and I, too, don't much care for overly scented things.  2) Nancy and I are not made of money, so while I believe we still spend too much in some areas of our lives, we try to avoid unnecessary expenses where we can.  Thus, air fresheners, potpourri, and Scentsy pots are not part of the regular housekeeping expenses here.

When we went to Nancy's parents' home (five miles away) for Christmas with that side of the family on December 26th, Nancy's sister Susan had put a little pot of things on the stove that looked like it was definitely not going to be a part of the Christmas dinner menu.  Since no pot of stuff on a stove may go undiscussed in my presence, I inquired as to what it was that I was looking at.  Susan explained that it was a pot of "stovetop potpourri," the recipe for which someone had found on Pinterest and which had become popular among the people she knows in her hometown.

"Turn it on and let it simmer," she said.

I did.  It smelled divine.  Nancy liked it, too.  I asked for the recipe.

We bought a new bag of cranberries the next day--we already had everything else--and Nancy remarks multiple times per day how much she enjoys the scent of this simmering on the stove.

Now see, I would never have thought about using a wood cookstove as a potpourri warmer, but I have to say that I think a cookstove is the perfect appliance for it for several reasons.  For one thing, the stove is going to be going anyway, so there is no added energy expense--which would have absolutely prevented me from doing this sort of thing on a gas or electric stove.  Also, I think that candles actually provide a greater fire hazard than a wood cookstove.

Here is the recipe:

1 orange, sliced
1/2 c. or so whole cranberries
1 Tablespoon whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups of water

Let this simmer on the stove indefinitely.  As the water steams away, add more.  You can use this as long as you are happy with the intensity of the aroma.  Our first batch has been sitting on the side of the range for three days now, and it still smells great.

The potpourri simmering on the side of the Margin Gem.

A quick peek at Pinterest revealed that there are many, many recipes for this sort of thing.  This particular combination (which smells just like expensive candles or bags of dry potpourri) is considered a "holiday scent," but Pinterest has many recipes for stovetop potpourri for different times of the year.  I bet this isn't the only recipe that we will have simmering on the stove over the next few months of constant winter firing!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Meme's Penuche Candy

A small piece of penuche on a dessert plate.

As is mentioned in the "About Me" section on the left, my great-great-aunt Meme is the person who taught me to cook.  She was also the one who unwittingly instilled in me a love for the woodburning cookstove.  She would be so embarrassed if she knew that I credited her with this aspect of my life, but it is true nonetheless.

Meme was the candy maker in our family for many years, and she taught me to make fudge and divinity.  I blogged about her fudge recipe last December, and in doing so mentioned penuche.  Penuche is basically a caramel fudge.  Meme had ceased making penuche before I began assisting her with the candy making in 1985, but she occasionally would talk about it.  She and her sister Pearl made all of their candy on the 1920s Monarch range that they had in the "big house" on the farm where my first cousin and his wife now have a new home (the old house having been destroyed by fire in the early 1960s).

It wasn't until the late 1990s that I finally got to taste penuche, and I fell in love with it immediately.  I looked up Meme's recipe for it and tried making it, but it was a complete failure--for the first many years that I made it.  Part of the problem was the recipe.  It read just as follows:

1 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 c. cream
1/3 c. milk
2 T. butter
1 t. vanilla

That was it.  Meme's recipes are just like many of those that belonged to great, experienced, from-scratch cooks: they didn't include any directions.  At first, I figured it was just me.  The next time I made it, I figured there was something that I didn't know.  I looked up other penuche recipes and found a variety of directions, but none of the recipes were exactly like Meme's either.

Fortunately, I have Meme's recipes (complete with the ancient panty-hose elastic that she used to keep them together in fifty-year-old shoeboxes), and I was digging through them for a different recipe when I found Meme's penuche recipe complete with directions.  What a find!

At this point, it seems fair to tell you that even though I've found directions, that doesn't mean that I've had success every time I've made this recipe.  Penuche, in my opinion, is tricky stuff to make, but it is so delicious that I haven't given up.

Here is what you do:

1. Combine sugar, brown sugar, cream, milk, and butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan.

2. Bring to a boil over the firebox, but then move the pan to a cooler part of the stove so that the boiling continues but not quite so briskly.

3. Cook to softball stage (238 degrees on a candy thermometer); don't take it off the fire a moment before, and don't leave it on the fire a moment longer!  I prefer to use the cold water test.  When you allow a few drops of the cooking mixture to fall from your spoon into a teacup of cold tap water, stir it around with your finger, and it forms a soft, chewy ball of candy, you have reached the soft ball stage.  Remove from the fire and allow to cool to lukewarm.

The penuche syrup as it appears after being dropped into the
cold water.

The penuche at the soft ball stage after I pushed it together into a
ball with my fingers.

4. When you can put your hand on the bottom of the saucepan without burning it, add the vanilla and begin beating.  The mixture will become a lighter color and will thicken.

5. At this point, you have two options.  I like to spread the candy in a buttered 8 x 8 cake pan to be cut into small squares later.  My mother remembers that Meme would drop the penuche from a teaspoon onto waxed paper and push a pecan half onto the top of each piece.  Just know that you have to work like wildfire at this point.  The candy will set up very, very quickly.

Either way, this old-fashioned candy is fantastic--when it turns out properly--and I hope that you'll enjoy it too.  Don't be turned off by the descriptions of my repeated failures.  I figure that one of the services that I can offer my blog readers is to suffer through the failures in order to deliver you a better chance of a successful final product on your first try.  Fill up the comments section with your findings, knowledge, and advice.  Good luck!

Note: The next time I make this, I'm going to try buttering the saucepan before cooking the penuche.  I think this might help keep it from turning grainy around the edges.

P.S. (12/23/14)  I forgot to mention that if you do have a batch that fails, don't discard it.  Doled out a couple of spoonfuls at a time, it makes a delicious sweetener for your bowl of hot breakfast cereal.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Link to Information Regarding Firing Coal

In reviewing where recent viewers of this blog have come from, I saw that several readers had arrived via a site called  After investigation, I found out that this website is a HUMONGOUS discussion forum about home heating (and cooking) with coal.  I could spend an entire day reading and learning there.

While my blog is devoted to cooking with wood--a fact which appears to cause them to shake their heads a little--I do know that some people who burn wood during the day keep their fires going at night with coal because of its longer burn time.

I have only had two experiences with burning coal, both of which were in the Qualified Range because it was equipped to do so.  The first experience was after I had gone to visit Lehman Hardware in Kidron, Ohio, for the first time.  While in Amish country there, I purchased a small sack of coal at a lumber yard.  I brought it home and tried it out.  I suspicion that it was bituminous (soft) coal because it was a mess to burn.  The whole inside of the stove was quickly coated with feather-like appendages of soot that caused the stove to draw very poorly.  It was quite smoky, and the smoke smelled horrible.

The second time that I had a chance to burn coal in the Qualified was very different.  Nancy's grandparents broke up housekeeping in 2010, and in the cob bin in their summer kitchen, a few lumps of coal remained from the days some sixty years earlier when they were still heating with a combination of wood, cobs, and coal.  I picked through the decaying cobs and hauled home all of the coal that could be found.

I am quite sure that this coal was anthracite (hard) coal.  It burned with little odor and little smoke, and I would have to admit that I liked it--a lot.  I can definitely see the appeal: long burn time, no creosote worries, a more easily controlled fire, etc.  But alas, one has to burn what one has available, and even after a great deal of research, I know of no place where one could purchase nut or lump coal around here.  The other problem is that one little word which gets in the way: "purchase."  At this point, we burn wood not only because it is what we have available right here on our farm, but also because it doesn't cost us anything but chainsaw supplies and maintenance, exercise, and time.  Furthermore, we did not purchase the coal grates available for the Margin Gem, so burning coal in it right now is not really an option anyway.

At any rate, the people at NEPACrossroads said some very nice things about my blog and linked to it, so I want to return the favor.  Many of their discussion points are applicable to cooking on a wood fire, too, and the pictures of their vintage stoves are fun to look at.

That said, take a look if you feel like it, and should you decide to burn coal, be sure that your stove is properly equipped to do so.

You can visit the thread about cooking with coal at NEPACrossroads by clicking here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Making Toast on a Wood Cookstove

I find it interesting to read the many articles about how to make toast on a wood stove (heating stove or cookstove) which appear all over the internet, and I've decided to put my two cents in with this post.

To be completely honest from the outset, we do not make toast very often on our wood cookstove.  Our early 1950s Toastmaster toaster is just too convenient.  However, I know that many of the people who read this blog are interested in homesteading, preparedness, or increased self-sufficiency.  Furthermore, many people who cook on woodburning cookstoves live an off-grid lifestyle, and a conventional toaster can be quite a drag on alternate power sources.  Thus, it seems pertinent to include information about toasting on a cookstove here.

One can make toast on a wood cookstove in five different ways.  I think some are better than others, though, so I'll warn you right now that I will be editorializing along the way.  You're not a bit surprised, are you?

To make an accurate comparison of the toasting methods, I used purchased bread so that each slice would be as nearly uniform in size and composition as possible.  No matter how I slice homemade bread, I cannot get it to be perfectly even, and I didn't want the bread to be a variable which affected the results of my experiments.

Method 1: Using a stovetop--or "camp"--toaster.  These can be purchased all over the internet in the style you see below or in what is sometimes called the pyramid style, where a louvered pyramid directs the heat of the stove toward the toast that is resting parallel to the sides of the pyramid.  Mine happens to have been purchased from Lehman Hardware, but I do not know whether they still carry it.

I consider the stovetop toaster method quite unsatisfactory for a woodburning cookstove.  I had asked for this toaster as a Christmas gift from my in-laws several years ago, thinking that it would be the perfect thing to add to my collection of wood cookstove accessories.  To make a long story short, I could never get it to work right on the Qualified range, but thought it must have just been me.  It went to the basement for several years, but I decided I would try it out on the Margin Gem.
The bread that you see in the picture rested on the toaster for 30 minutes and did nothing but dry out.  Thinking that I might just as well get rid of the thing (Nancy is constantly pointing out that we have too much stuff in our house), I decided to give it a try on the gas range.  Within four minutes of having the thing over a pretty high flame, I had very respectable toast.  Thus, this toaster went back to the basement in case I need toast in the middle of a summer power outage, but it will not be used on the Margin Gem again.
Method 2: Laying the toast directly on the cooktop.   Of course, you first want to make sure that your cooktop is very clean--free of fly ash, wood dust, and any spilled food which might have cooked on and then carbonized.  Lay the piece of bread wherever you feel that the heat is appropriate.  I put mine directly over the firebox, but I think that at the time I was conducting this experiment, that place was perhaps a little too hot.
When you feel that the bread is toasted to your liking on the first side, turn it to toast the other side.  Watch it carefully because this method goes quite quickly.

A lady who lives in our small town and is a friend of my mother's once told me that the only toast that she ever had growing up was made this way.  She shared this memory because for some reason she and my mom were talking about burnt toast and how it can be salvaged by scraping the burnt parts with a table knife until all of the blackened crumbs have been scraped off.  She grew up thinking that scraping the burnt part was just a necessary step in the way everyone made toast, so you can see that this method can easily result in burning your bread rather than toasting it.

The aspect of method two that I don't much care for is that the toast always leaves its autograph on the stovetop.  If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you've seen picture proof that I'm not as fussy about the look of my stovetop as I probably should be, but still.

Method 3: Toasting bread on aluminum foil on the cooktop.  I didn't think of this one myself.  I found this one online here at this "toast post" on the Paratus Familia Blog.

Clearly, this method works--quickly, too--and I've made good toast this way before, but in the pictures above, I had the foil over a part of the stovetop that was a little too hot for toasting.  My main complaint with this method is that after you've used your toast foil for a while, it will need to be replaced.  That is why this is not my preferred method.

Method 4: (my preferred method) Toasting on a cast iron griddle.  I asked for this 11 1/4" breakfast griddle as a Christmas gift when I was in either junior high or early high school.  It is extremely well seasoned from frying pancakes and French toast, so things don't stick to it.  I put it over the hottest part of the stove and lay the bread on it.

Watch carefully and turn the bread when it is toasted according to your preferences.

Bread toasted using my preferred method of using the
cast iron griddle.  You'd think that I could at least keep
the camera strap out of the picture, wouldn't you?
You can see that this method results in good looking toast.  I can't tell any difference between the flavor of this toast and that which comes out of the electric toaster.  This method doesn't take much time after the griddle is hot.
Method 5: Now, if you are going to spread a layer of real butter on your toast anyway, an extremely delectable treat is made using this method which is similar to the fourth one.
Using soft butter, spread an extremely thin layer of it on only one side of the bread.  Lay the buttered side down on the hot griddle.  Again, watch closely and turn as soon as it has reached the desired shade of brown.  Turn it over to toast the unbuttered side.

The toasted buttered side.

The toasted un-buttered side.
Method five results in toast with an amazing flavor, but since I usually spread light tub margarine over my toast, I don't do this often.  It is quite a treat, though, and the less butter you use, the better the flavor, in my opinion.  You just have to be sure that the thin layer of butter covers the entire side of the bread; otherwise, it browns very unevenly.

Toast made with Method 5 and spread with Nancy's grandma's
recipe for pineapple-rhubarb jam.  Yum!
I guess I should say that there is a sixth method.  It involves putting the pieces of bread in an extremely hot oven (500 degrees or more) until it has reached the desired shade of brown, but I'm not going to try that because I slightly warped the steel bottom of the oven on the Qualified Range by getting the oven that hot, so now I try to avoid firing the stoves in that manner.

As with any cooking done on a wood cookstove, there are as many methods as there are cooks.  Please utilize the comments section below to share yours!