Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lemon Meringue Pie Pic

I'm sorry that I haven't posted very much recently.  Rest assured, the Margin Gem has been very busy; unfortunately, so have I.  There is so much to tell everyone that I have several posts started, but haven't had the time to finish any of them.  Hopefully, things will get better soon.

We were busy baking yesterday and had a great noon dinner with a new recipe that I'll share sometime.  Made two pans of sticky rolls for breakfast at church, two pans of orange glazed rolls for dinner at Mom and Dad's, a braid for our supper, a pecan pie, and a lemon meringue pie for dinner today.  Used the stovetop oven for the pecan pie, and it worked like a charm.  Took a quick photo of the lemon meringue pie as it was coming out of the oven.

Lemon meringue pie coming out of the oven on the Margin Gem
for our Easter dinner.
 Hope everyone had a blessed Easter celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Baking Potatoes in Your Wood Cookstove

I know that Irish potatoes have been on the receiving end of a lot of bad press lately, and I understand the reasons for this, but I have to admit that I'm still a loyal potato fan.  Hands down, my favorite way to eat potatoes is to have them mashed, however, Nancy and I like baked potatoes too. 

Over the weekend, winter storm Triton hit our area with much needed rain on Friday night and Saturday, some ice early Sunday morning, and then what was supposed to be a little bit of snow.  The one to four inches which were forcast became somewhere between eight and nine inches yesterday afternoon with blizzard conditions.  School was cancelled today, which was a gift from God, since we had been gone to State Speech Contest in Nevada, Iowa, over Friday night and during the day on Saturday, and I needed some time to get caught up with some paper checking.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to cut firewood on the weekend before last, and with the weather being so uncooperative this weekend, things are looking pretty grim in the woodshed.  To conserve fuel, we had forgone having a fire in the Jotul heating stove, and we were trying to get by on just the heat from the cookstove.  This has made it much more chilly in the house than we are used to because the Margin Gem is not able to heat our drafty farmhouse by itself.

I checked papers next to the open oven door this morning, and I really didn't want to close it in order to make my noon dinner, so I planned my menu accordingly.  For my staple, I decided that a couple of baked potatoes sounded really good.  Of course, one can very easily bake potatoes in the oven of a wood cookstove.  My preference is to bake them at about 400 degrees for an hour.  One could also use various pans or stovetop ovens to bake them on the stovetop, but this would have reduced the heat that was radiating from the stove into the room--something that I certainly didn't want today--and I was only going to be baking a couple of medium-sized spuds.  I've also read about people wrapping them in foil and baking them in the ash pan beneath the fire.   I think that accessing the ash pan for cooking is messy, though, so I developed a different method several years ago.

After washing and piercing the potatoes with a fork, I wrap them tightly in foil.  Then, I remove one of the lids above the oven and lay the potatoes on top of the oven box with the small sides facing the firebox.  Don't put the potatoes with their long sides toward the firebox because you don't want to impede the draft of the stove any more than necessary.  I turn the potatoes so that the opposite short side is toward the fire after about twenty minutes.

The potatoes wrapped in foil and resting on top of the oven box.
Please excuse the unattractive state of the cooktop.  What can I say?
The stove is under hard use.  The beauty of the wood cookstove is that
those marks (some accidental drippings from the side of a cast iron
skillet) will eventually just cook away since the stove is continually fired.
The amount of time that it takes the potatoes to cook thoroughly is dependent on how hot the fire is, how large the potatoes are, etc.  I've seen them be completely cooked in as little as a half hour, but they can take a full hour too.  I always test them to see if they are done by squeezing them.  If they give, they are done.

The perfect finished product.

I rounded out today's dinner with home-canned round steak (probably the smartest thing I've done with round steak--soooo tender!) and some leftover baked beans.  It was delicious.

Certainly, one cannot bake a large number of potatoes using this method because you don't want to hamper the draft of your stove, but if you are going to only bake a couple of potatoes, this does the trick.  I know that some people who read this will think that a microwave is is great for baking just a couple of potatoes in a hurry.  All I can say is don't get me started on what I think of microwaved baked potatoes!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 4

What I Do
This post is intended to be an accurate and detailed account of what I do to keep the temperature of my wood cookstove ovens steady.  Remember, however, that every stove and every chimney is different, and it is entirely possible that for another wood cookstove user, none of this information will prove useful.

The first steps in baking in either of the cookstoves that we currently use is the same: start the fire.  The process of establishing a steady fire should result in a bed of coals being present in the bottom of the firebox.  A bed of coals serves to prevent the oven temperature from fluctuating drastically, but I find that coals alone provide insufficient heat for baking.  Furthermore, it doesn't take long--especially in the Margin Gem--for the coals to "ash over."  "Ashing over" is my own term to describe the process of the outer layer of a glowing coal becoming ash as combustion of the burnable material is totally completed.  If you've ever burned charcoal, you are familiar with this situation and know that the bed of charcoal needs to be stirred a bit when you can no longer see the glowing coals for the layer of ash that has accumulated on their outsides.  Once coals have ashed over, the heat which radiates from them is significantly diminished.

Before I go on with the next steps, it is important to understand another characteristic of the wood-fueled fire: the amount of heat radiating from the fire is determined by the amount of surface area of the burning firewood.  The greater the surface area which is burning, the greater the heat radiated.  Suppose you have a log which is four inches in diameter and eighteen inches in length.  If that log is put into the firebox and ignites, the maximum surface area which will be radiating heat is approximately 251.2 square inches.  Now suppose that the same size log is split into four smaller pieces and all four pieces are put into the fire at once.  The same volume of fuel has been added to the fire, but the surface area of those four pieces is now 539.2 square inches.  Thus, the four smaller split pieces will burn hotter than the one whole log, but they will not burn as long.

This whole geometry lesson is important because once you have established your bed of coals, you control the temperature of the oven by adding appropriately sized pieces of firewood to keep the oven at the temperature that you desire, using larger pieces for cooler temperatures and smaller pieces for hotter temperatures. 

Managing the baking fire in the vintage Riverside cookstove and managing the fire in the new, airtight Margin Gem cookstove are two distinctly different processes, so I'd like to talk about the two stoves separately now.  We'll start with the Riverside.  Maintaining the oven temperature in the Qualified was basically the same process, by the way.
A small log burning in the Riverside Bakewell.

The firebox on the the Riverside (and the Qualified) is quite small compared to wood stoves which are built for heating.  Once the fire has a well established bed of coals and the oven is near to the needed temperature, I would add one fair-sized split piece or whole log--there isn't room for much more--for a moderate oven.  This needs to be quite dry and ready for burning.  This should be sufficient for keeping the oven at a moderate temperature.  Once this log has perhaps burned to about half its useful life, I would add another piece of similar size.  While the second log is igniting, the first log is finishing its combustion.  This keeps the second log from suffocating or significantly cooling a fire which has completely gone to coals. 

If a hot oven is needed, then I would continually fire with smaller pieces of wood which would be added at more regular intervals.  Since the firebox is small, large pieces are not really an option, anyway. 

Riverside Bakewell firebox full of small pieces of wood.  A fire
like this would be needed for a hot oven.

Managing the oven temperature on the Margin Gem has proved to be quite a bit more challenging for me than I had expected.  We have used the Margin Gem exclusively for our baking since August of 2012.  I haven't ruined anything, but the Margin Gem's firebox operates on an entirely different principle of combustion than that of older style stoves like the Qualified and the Riverside.  Basically, in the Margin Gem, air enters the firebox above the fire rather than from beneath the fire.  Also, since the firebox itself is so much larger than the Qualified or the Riverside, I've discovered that adding only one piece of wood at a time is not sufficient for keeping the oven hot.  Instead, I always have to add at least two pieces of wood at a time.

Two pieces of wood burning in the Margin Gem cookstove.
In the Margin Gem, it has been my experience that more logs or split pieces make a hotter fire, and fewer makes a cooler fire.  However, I have encountered some challenges.  If the bed of coals in the firebox is quite deep, it can sometimes take quite a while for wood which has just been added to the fire to begin burning, and the oven cools because the new wood is preventing the heat from the coals from moving through the stove. 

I mentioned this to Mrs. Detweiler, an Amish acquaintance who has a Gem Pac cookstove.  She understood exactly what I meant and advised keeping the bed of coals to a minimum and making sure that they were frequently stirred down.  This causes the firebox to operate more like older style cookstoves where the oxygen enters the fire from beneath.  This certainly works, but it is not always easy to get the coals stirred down sufficiently.

What seems to work best is to make sure that I have plenty of small pieces of wood available when I am baking because they offer a more controllable heat.  The small pieces not only burn hot, but they burn quickly which provides an added measure of control.

I also have to remember that I cannot let each load of wood burn quite so far into its total combustion time as I would have in the Qualified or the Riverside before adding more wood.  Because the ignition time on new wood is longer in the Margin Gem, it is important to add the new wood to the fire sooner than what I was accustomed to.

I have also tried filling the firebox to the top and then controlling the amount of heat which the fire emits through the use of the drafts.  This method has not been as successful as I would like because the fire tends to eventually burn quite hot.  I'll continue to experiment and update the blog as I learn more.

Hmmmm.  I feel that I must again say that baking in a woodburning cookstove looks a lot more complicated in print than it is in real life.  Don't let any of these posts intimidate you.  They are merely well-intentioned help for those wondering how to manage the heat of a cookstove.  Each wood cookstove cook will develop his or her own techniques which will work best for each stove.  The biggest key is to pay attention to what gets results and to be observant.  Besides, the rewards of learning to bake in a woodburning cookstove are great.  For some reason, when I cook on a modern range anymore, it just doesn't feel like cooking.  That sounds funny, I know, but I can't describe it any other way.