Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Art of Creating a "Duo-Temp" Oven in a Wood Cookstove

I think that I have an oven fixation.

There, I admitted it. 

Even when looking at a modern range, the first thing that I'm interested in is the oven.  In fact, when we were at the Iowa State Fair this summer, I spent what my wife and her family considered an interminable amount of time touring travel trailers, but I was only interested in the trailers that had stoves with ovens on them.  I wouldn't even consider buying a camper if its stove didn't have an oven.

Oops.  Sorry, I'm getting carried away.  I wasn't actually considering buying any of the trailers which had ovens in them either.  Our budget would certainly not allow such a thing. 

It's just that cooktops hold no real fascination for me, which I think is why I'm not very interested in cooking on woodburning heaters.  If I had been satisfied with that, our old Englander woodstove would have placated my appetite for cooking on wood quite sufficiently.  I'll admit to being intrigued by watching the Youtube videos of Misty Prepper doing a lot of cooking and even baking biscuits on top of her Fisher woodburning heating stove, but for me a cookstove isn't a cookstove without an oven.

That said, it can sometimes be a bit frustrating to me that both of the working cookstoves here only have a single oven.  The first two stoves that my mother cooked on in her married life were both equipped with two separate ovens.  My grandmother on my dad's side had two ovens on her stoves for the last twenty-six years of cooking that she did, and my grandmother on my mom's side is famous for cooking in two different ovens simultaneously.  In fact, for Thanksgiving 2011, Grandma was cooking in three different ovens all at once--and she wasn't even hosting the dinner that year!  Obviously, I'm used to having some "oven flexibility."

Of course, the advantage to having two different ovens is twofold: a) more space for more foods, and b) the ability to cook at two different oven temperatures.  The acquisition of the stovetop oven last fall certainly helps with both of these, but I had been creating a "duo-temp" oven using the single built-in cookstove oven fourteen years before purchasing the stovetop one.

I formed the idea for this trick after I remembered a conversation that I had once had with a saleslady at Kitchen, Bath & Home in Ames, Iowa.  While I was in college at Iowa State, I would occasionally take some time to visit historic downtown Ames.  Of course, I was drawn to Kitchen, Bath & Home because they had a beautiful red AGA cooker in their front display window.  One Saturday morning, I ventured inside the store and spent a pleasant half-hour visiting with one of the salesladies about cooking on an AGA.  Naturally, I told her that what I really wanted was to cook on a woodburning range, but she was a dedicated employee and did her best to persuade me that an AGA would make me every bit as happy. 

In the course of our conversation, she taught me how one uses the AGA Cold Plain Shelf in the roasting oven of an AGA.  The super-condensed version is that the shelf is inserted in the middle or toward the top of the oven, and a cooler baking space is thereby created between the floor of the oven and the Cold Plain Shelf, while a hotter roasting space is created in the top part of the oven.

Knowing that the ovens on most wood cookstoves are heated from the top down like the AGAs (for more information about this, see this post), it didn't take me long to try this in the Qualified range.  I can still remember the first meal on which I used this technique.  Mom and Dad and I had supper together in the little house, so it was in the first year that I had the Qualified, and we had roast chicken, baked potatoes, dressing, and escalloped corn--pretty starchy, I know, but so delicious.

What I do is to cover one of the oven racks with aluminum foil.  Then, I place that rack in the middle position.  Since the oven is heated from the top down, the area above the rack will be hotter than the area below the rack.  I don't know what the actual temperature difference is because I've never had more than one oven thermometer to measure both spaces simultaneously, but I can tell you that it has worked every time.

Baking potatoes in the hotter, upper part of the oven while
green bean casserole is cooking in the cooler, lower part of the oven.
I used this technique for cooking our supper last night.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my preferred method for baking potatoes is to cook them for an hour at 400 degrees.  Green bean casserole only has to cook for half an hour at 350.  Thus, the "duo-temp" oven method worked great in this situation.

I have also used this technique at Thanksgiving dinners.  Once the turkey is out of the oven, I put my makeshift cold plain shelf in so that I can bake the dinner rolls down below in the moderate section while I brown the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes and dry out the dressing a little in the hot upper section.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1) I never scrape all of the fly ash from the top of the oven chamber in the flue area beneath the cooktop.  Doing so would probably result in an even larger temperature difference between the two chambers created in the oven by using this method.  I would just be extra careful about the top of the food cooking too quickly in comparison to the bottom.  Some foods can be turned or stirred, though, and that would eliminate this concern.

2) Using this method renders the reading on the oven thermometer useless except to give you a general idea of how hot the oven is.  Since most oven thermometers are in the middle of the door right about where the foil-covered rack is going to land, they are only going to present a happy medium between the two temperatures of the upper and lower parts of the oven.

As usual, I hope that this little hint helps someone else make his or her wood cookstove cooking adventures more successful.  If you are a wood cookstove cook who does something similar or has something more to add, please take advantage of the comments section below.  Happy cooking!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Stove that Started It All

I credit my great-great-aunt Meme with getting me interested in woodburning cookstoves.  Born in 1895, she was in her eighties by the time I was born, but she was still walking beans (for those of you who are too young or from an urban background, that is what we called it when people walked the soybean fields in order to hoe or cut the weeds in the days before herbicides made this practice obsolete) and keeping very active.  She was my maternal grandfather's aunt and grew up on the farm where my grandmother, brother, and cousin all make their homes today.  My grandfather was both an only child as well as an only grandchild since Meme and her sister never married.  Meme expended all of her motherly instincts on my grandfather, in many ways becoming much closer to him than his own mother was. 
When my mother's generation was growing up, it always felt to them like they had an extra grandmother because Meme was very much a part of the family at all times.  With her great-nieces and nephew she did things like take them to see Mary Poppins when it first came out in theaters, but by the time I came along, her driving days were numbered, so the majority of the time that I spent with her was in her apartment, where we played together and she started baking cookies with me very early on.
As I mention in the "About Me" column beneath the labels index on the left, Meme and her sister had been given a toy wood cookstove when they were young.  She reminisced about how the two of them would collect small sticks in the yard and burn them in the stove, baking tiny pies in the oven and cooking small pots of things on the top.  Eventually, Meme's sister-in-law (my great-grandmother) convinced her to give the stove to some cousins to play with.  During that time, several of the stove lids were lost, a frying pan handle was broken, and the long stovepipe extension went AWOL.  Meme always indicated that she saw the stove on a visit to their house after the children were grown, and she was heartbroken to see it in such a state of neglect, so she asked for it back.  Her wish was granted; she brought it home and cleaned it up, using baby food jar lids to replace the missing stovetop lids.
Thus, it came to be that I always played with it while visiting her.  She left her home on Grace Street in 1977, and I remember playing with it on the living room floor there, so I had to be very young when I started enjoying it.  Once she moved to her apartment, my sister and brother and I spent countless hours in the second bedroom, which she had fitted up as a sort of sewing/play room, "cooking" buckeyes, acorns, and some other nut that I haven't been able to identify.
The enjoyment of this toy stove was compounded by the fact that Meme's last real-life cookstove reposed comfortably in the summer kitchen out on the farm.  I made frequent forays into the dilapidated old building to gaze at the beautiful Monarch range with its rusted nickel trim and white enamel panels.  When I was in high school, I even re-blacked it in an effort to keep the rust in check so that I would be able to use it when I got my own home.  Sadly, some unidentified reprobates burgled it while I was in college. 
At any rate, imagine my surprise while I was cruising e-bay and ran across another toy stove exactly like Meme's!  I've seen many toy and salesman sample stoves over the years, but this is only the third one of these that I have seen.  You can visit the ebay auction here.  The photographs that go with the entry are quite inclusive, so I want to document them here because this truly is the stove that started my fascination.



Looking at these pictures brings back the memory of many happy hours spent with Meme.  Goodness knows how many "meals" of buckeyes she pretended to eat for us.  While she attended our dinners or patronized our imaginary restaurants, she would recall the days when she and her mother cooked on the Monarch cookstove.  She would vehemently deny that she had romanticized wood cooking for me, but she did.  I remember telling her as a little kid that I wanted to cook on a real wood cookstove someday.  She told me that she thought it was silly and would then talk about the days when they couldn't start a fire due to poor weather conditions and chimney draft problems, but I was already hooked.
I can't justify spending the money on the price listed on this "buy-it-now" auction, but I sincerely hope that whoever the lucky buyer is gets just a fraction of the enjoyment out of this stove that Meme's stove brought to us.   

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Height of Irony: Frozen Pizza Cooked in a Wood Cookstove

Tonight's supper: frozen pizza.  It got a little more brown than
we might have liked because we were glued to while
we followed the local high school football scores.  Go Vikes and Eagles!

Q: What do a tired teacher and his wife have for supper on the last day of the first quarter of school?
A: Frozen pizza.

Yup.  It's sad.  Very, very sad.

However, this English teacher's mind appreciates the irony of cooking the quintessential modern convenience food in the appliance which symbolizes the kitchens of a century ago.  I can't help but smile whenever I think about it.  Weird, I know.  I never have claimed to be normal.

I told Nancy that I'd been wanting to blog about cooking frozen pizza in a wood cookstove for quite some time, but I was a little ashamed to do so.  She--ever the pragmatist--said that it would be a good post because it shows that wood cookstove cooks can be regular people too.  Pretty wise sometimes, isn't she?

The Margin Gem is particularly convenient for baking a frozen pizza on a busy night because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is so easy to get the oven hot in a hurry.   To do so, I just build the fire with a lot of small pieces of wood--usually nothing larger than two inches in diameter. 

I've discovered that the thermometer in the oven door is not only inaccurate, but it is also slow.  The oven thermometer that is to the right of the pizza in the picture above seems to be very accurate, and it shows that as the oven heats, it is always hotter than the thermometer in the door indicates.  This proves true that some wood cookstove thermometers merely measure the temperature of the oven door rather than the oven.

Once the oven has reached the appropriate temperature, you want to back off on adding so much fuel because you don't want the temperature of the oven to continue to climb.  In fact, depending on how much fuel is in the firebox and at what phase of combustion it is in when the oven reaches temperature, I can just close the drafts on the Margin Gem, and that will maintain the oven temperature for the short amount of cooking time that a frozen pizza needs.

My mother always served homemade applesauce on pizza nights, and now both my brother and I (and maybe my sister too, but we haven't discussed it) feel like pizza has to be served with the wonderful stuff.  I didn't know that he had this same penchant until his wife mentioned how strange it seemed to her.

When we have frozen pizza, however, it is a last-minute, when-we-don't-have-a-better-plan event, so there is rarely defrosted applesauce waiting in the refrigerator.  This used to mean that we'd have to negotiate thawing a tub of it in the microwave or chip away at it and eat it as slush.  Now, I just put a container of it in the warming oven as soon as we are beginning to heat the oven for the pizza.  By the time the pizza is cooked, enough of the applesauce is thawed to be able to serve it with the pizza.

Well, there you go: the ultimate "cheating with your cookstove" post.  If you would like to comment, please be gentle.

Oh, and please don't tell me how evil frozen pizzas are.  My imagination is probably more vicious than the facts.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Request for Tomato Information

On page 184 of my well-loved copy of Jane Cooper's Woodstove Cookery: At Home on the Range (Storey Publishing, 1977), there is a recipe for tomato sauce which is simmered for two days.  Hmmmm . . . . perhaps I am being overly generous when I call it a recipe.  It includes no measurements for anything and merely says to pare a bunch of tomatoes; to put them in a heavy, non-aluminum pot; to simmer them for two days until you've reached the desired thickness; and to add whatever else you would like to flavor it at about halfway through.

This "recipe" has a certain element of romance and intrigue to it, doesn't it?  I mean, it seems to me like anything that has to simmer for two days ought to come to a savory climax that, upon one taste, transports a person to a completely different time period when people slaved for interminable hours over a wood fire creating all manor of delicacies which have been lost to the twenty-first century palate.  Furthermore, the recipe seems perfect for the wood cookstove because that is the only appliance for which I am willing to foot the bill for such a long cooking time.

I have tried this at various times over the last several years, and I have to say that I've never been transported anywhere but to a state of frustration.  First, I decided that what was happening was that I was adding sugar to the tomato sauce too early.  I theorized that the longer the sugar was cooking, the more caramelized it was becoming, and that was what was causing a slightly burned flavor to creep into the sauce.

Here's what has made me begin to wonder, though.  Recently, we have been making my sister-in-law's pizza sauce, which doesn't have any sugar in it, and I still managed to ruin it.  The first time we made it, we didn't simmer it all that long because we had used Roma tomatoes, so the fresh pulp from them was not too juicy.  The sauce turned out great.  This last batch was made with a combination of Roma and regular tomatoes, so the pulp was very runny.  I put nothing in the pulp and simmered it very gently for two days before putting the spices and lemon juice in it, but I could tell before I even added anything to it that it was going to have that old familiar slightly burned taste to it.

The long simmering time appears to be mainly intended to evaporate the excess moisture from the sauce.  Before finding the ketchup recipe that I shared here on the blog, I had tried this long simmering method to reduce the tomato pulp for ketchup, but always got similar results.  Now, however, I think I'm really partial to the "draining by hanging in a bag" method.

My question, readers, is this: can anyone explain to me why the burned flavor appears in the two-day simmered sauce?  I'm cooking it slowly in a stainless steel stockpot.  It has not scorched or even mildly stuck to the bottom of the pot.  I don't understand it, but I've not had the years and years of tomato cooking knowledge and experience that some of you have undoubtedly accumulated.  Does anyone else use this method for reducing tomato sauce but end up with a desirable end product?  Please be generous with your advice down in the comments.  I'm anxious to have this mystery solved.