Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Update on Hot Water System Maintenance

In my September 11, 2014, post about maintaining our dual hot water systems, I noted that we have trouble with the water in the electric hot water heater souring over the winter.  I had written that my goal last winter was to cycle cold water through the electric water heater once per month by using it for laundry.  I had hoped that this would prevent the water from souring and would thereby make the late spring ritual of putting the electric water heater back into service much easier.

Unfortunately, after writing that post, I totally forgot my good intentions until November, at which point the water in the water heater had already soured.  There was no point in doing anything until spring then.

This year, I decided to do better.  I wrote in my Sept. 30th post that I had turned off the electric water heater that day.  Usually, when I do this, I use the last of the electrically heated hot water by doing laundry or taking a shower just so I don't feel like the energy used to heat it was wasted.  This year, I thought that maybe if I didn't use the last of the hot water, it wouldn't sour as quickly.

No dice.  Two weeks after turning off the electric hot water heater, I decided I'd flush it out by using my intended laundry method that I wrote about last year.  I set all the valves appropriately and discovered that the water had already soured!  Usually, this doesn't happen nearly as quickly as it did this year, and what is more baffling to me is that it has never happened in the wood-heated system.  This last part is doubly confusing when I admit to you that the Margin Gem was not fired a single time for a space of nearly two months during the summer.  I don't get it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Canning Pickled Beats on the Wood Cookstove

Sometimes it is just hard for me to spend large amounts of electricity or propane on cooking jobs that I know can be put off until I can do them on the wood cookstove.  I'm such a skinflint!

Pickling beets is one of those jobs that I have put off this year.  Besides the pots of hot water that are inherently a part of the canning process, some canning recipes have extended pre-cooking times that also take a fair amount of energy.  Therefore, they are perfect for the wood cookstove, so I save them for as late in the season as possible.

Pickled beets are a food that make me think of my mom's side of the family.  I remember both sides of her father's family making these delectable treats, and it is one of those foods that I associate with dinners at my grandma's house when I was very young.  That is not to say that I enjoyed them when I was very young, however.  For me, pickled beets--and beets in general--are an acquired taste, and even now, my relationship with them is kind of strange.  At the beginning of this last summer, for example, I was really longing for fresh beets to cook, but couldn't find any, and those in our garden were growing extremely slowly this year.  I found a jar of pickled beets on a shelf in the fruit room and savored them, stretching them out over several meals.  Now that autumn is here, I have no desire to eat beets, but I know that this will change again when I least expect it.

At any rate, pickled beets are kind of fun to make because of their vivid color, and they are really pretty easy as pickles go.  This recipe for pickled beets is the one that my mom's side of the family has used for many years, and so I have no idea where it originated.  It may not be as exciting as what some people have in mind when they think of pickled beets (it has no onion or visible spices in the final product, for example), but it provides exactly the flavor that I want when I bite into a dark red slice of deliciousness.

This was the first year in several that I have managed to grow a beet crop to maturity.  The multitudinous colony of rabbits here have an affinity for beet greens, and they and I have been having an annual battle about who owns the beets that I plant.  I won this year, but not without a fight.  Unfortunately, the beets were of widely varying sizes.  I'm a gardener, but not a good one, so I have no idea why this was.  The one thing I know is that it was not due to them needing to be thinned.  I decided to can the small beets whole, and slice and pickle the larger ones. 

The first step for both processes is the same: wash the beets and boil them for about fifteen minutes.  This allows them to be peeled easily.

The washed beets getting ready to boil directly
over the fire.

Once the time is up, fish the beets out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and plunge them into a basin of cold water so that they will be cool enough to handle.  Slice the tops off the beets as well as the roots, then slip the skins off.

Oh, side note: I carried the cooking water out to the driveway and dumped it there.  I didn't put it down any of our sinks because I didn't want it to stain anything.  When I dumped it out, it looked like I had just committed some kind of heinous murder because it was a bright blood-red.

The peeled, parboiled beets.  Don't they kind of look like gems?
At this point, we took the large beets out and cut them horizontally in slices about a quarter-inch thick.  The small beets were put into pint jars to be pressure canned.

Now you must make a spice bag.  We use a 4" square cut out of one of my old undershirts.  Onto this square of cloth, place 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1 tsp. cloves.  Pull up the edges of the cloth, give them a little twist, and tie them with some cotton cooking twine.

Place this spice bag into a clean kettle and add 2 cups white vinegar, 2 cups water, and 2 cups sugar.  Bring all of this to a boil and add the beet slices.  Bring everything back to a boil; then move the kettle away from the fire so that it can simmer for 15 minutes.

A busy cookstove!  The beets are simmering in the middle.
Once the beets have simmered for fifteen minutes, they need to be packed into jars for canning.  I can remember my mom and other women in the family using the open-kettle method for canning pickles.  I'm not scared of it, but I don't like having to mess with sterilizing jars and then handling them hot, and then I've never had very good luck with them sealing, so I opt to water bath these.  I process them for ten minutes in a boiling water bath, but you do the research and find out what you think is safe.

I use the green sweet corn kettle that you see over the back of the firebox in the picture above for small batches of water bath canning.  I've put a rack in the bottom of it to keep the jars from resting directly on the bottom of the kettle because that can cause jars to break.  It works really well. 

Once the jars come out of the canner, rest them on a towel that you don't care about because if any beet juice escapes, it will cause a fantastic stain.  Then wait for that ever-rewarding pinging sound of jars sealing.

I wish that there was a way to capture the beautiful color of pickled beets in a photograph.  Wait.  Let me rephrase that.  I wish that I knew how to capture the beautiful color of pickled beets in a photograph.  I did the best I could with the photo above.

During every family canning or freezing event, Meme would always say, "Oh, these will taste so good when the snow flies," and she was always right.  These are definitely summer in a jar.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Baking From-Scratch Refrigerator Rolls in Your Wood Cookstove

When you are using a wood cookstove to cook all of your meals, you will likely have a hot oven at each mealtime.  When the cookstove is being fired constantly for home heating, you can have a baking-temperature oven in just a few minutes at any time of the day.  This adds an element of flexibility to the menu that one does not have with a modern range. 

That may sound strange, I know, but hear me out.  Now, obviously we only use our gas range in the summer months, but if we used it year 'round, I'm such a skinflint that it would bother me to turn on the gas oven for short, optional baking, so I would think twice when planning meals so as to avoid using the energy.  However, the fire that heats the cooktop of the wood burning range is also the fire that heats the oven, so no extra energy cost (or at least very little) is accrued by heating the oven--hence the extra flexibility.  Therefore, the recipe and method that I'm going to share in this post is one that I would never use in the manner that I'm going to show you if I were confined to using a modern range.

Some time ago, I received a reproduction copy of the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook (Wiley Publishing, Inc. and General Mills, Inc.). I think that it was a Christmas gift.  I haven't used it as much as I would like, but the prose centering around one recipe for refrigerator dough caught my eye.  I'm convinced that this is the precursor to the various canned bread doughs that we now see lined up so neatly in the dairy case at the grocery store.  Every cook knows that a meal is kicked up a notch when there is fresh yeast bread to be served with it, but sometimes schedules don't allow going to the trouble of mixing and proofing dough while making other food preparations.  This is the perfect recipe to help ease that process.

Of course, I rarely follow recipes exactly, so I've made some adaptations.  Here is what I did:

On an evening when we had mashed potatoes as part of our supper (I could have mashed potatoes every day and never get tired of them), I saved the water that they were cooked in.  It turned out to be almost exactly a cup and a half of potato water.  After we had eaten supper, that water was still warm, but no longer hot, and I started mixing the roll dough.

To the potato water, I added a tablespoon of yeast, then two-thirds cup of sugar, and a bit more than a teaspoon of salt.

To that, I added two eggs (I used duck eggs), 2/3 c. of room-temperature shortening, and about a cup of leftover mashed potatoes.

Then, I started mixing in All Trumps bread flour.  After I had added three cups of flour, I beat the dough very briskly with my spoon in order to get the gluten activated and the lumps of mashed potatoes broken down.

I stirred in approximately another three cups of flour and then turned the dough out onto a floured board and began to knead just enough flour into it that it stopped sticking to my hands.  It was still a pretty soft dough, though.

I put the dough into a clean bowl and coated it with thin layer of shortening. 

After tightly covering the bowl with plastic wrap, the whole thing went into the refrigerator. 

The key to keeping this dough in good condition is to keep it refrigerated and to be sure that you punch it down regularly.  I have kept it in the fridge for as long as six days.  I mixed this batch on Tuesday evening.  The picture below shows what it looked like on Wednesday morning just before I punched it down for the first time.

Of course, you could make all of the dough into whatever kind of roll you want and bake it all at once, but that would be a LOT of rolls, and really, the beauty of this recipe is that you can have so much flexibility and variety.  Here is what I did with this batch:

On Wednesday evening, I made cinnamon rolls.  Usually, I open the door of the warming oven on the Margin Gem, spread an old towel on it, and let loaves of bread and pans of rolls rise there.  I don't close the warming oven door because it gets too hot for the dough. 

However, because this dough is so cold after having been in the refrigerator, the closed warming oven is the perfect place to put these rolls to rise.  I put a hot pad on the floor of the warming oven and place the pan of rolls on that so that the pan is not conducting too much heat, though.

I baked these rolls in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes.  Remember, baking times are relative in a wood cookstove.

Now, because I had used a shiny pan, I knew that the bottom of the rolls would not be done enough, so I placed them on the middle of the cooktop for a few minutes.

That did the trick, and they were perfect.  After turning them out of the pan onto a rack to cool, I returned them to the pan and frosted them.

As I said in the previous post, I love frosting, but I have to tell you that I put too much frosting on these rolls.  This recipe makes a really rich dough, so I should have been more sparing.  When I ate these, I had to scrape some of the frosting off, and I NEVER do that!

On Thursday evening, I made plain dinner rolls to go with our roast beef supper.

Then, this morning, Nancy and I made the last of the dough into cinnamon twists.

This was the first time I had ever made cinnamon twists.  I talked to Janet L., who was a school cook when Nancy and I were still eating school lunch, and asked her how they made the delicious from-scratch cinnamon twists that we used to eat.  She told me to simply roll small pieces of dough between my hands like little kids do with Play-Doh to make "snakes."  Dip them into melted butter, then a cinnamon-sugar mixture.  Twist a few times and put them on the pan to rise.  It worked like a charm.

These were plenty large, so I'll try to make them smaller next time, but they were a big hit.

I'm going to continue to experiment with different kinds and shapes of these rolls, and I will continue to add pictures to this post to show the many possibilities that this recipe has.  I'm thinking that it would be very easy to coat them with some herbs and parmesan to make savory rolls, for example.  What would be your suggestions?  Let me know in the comments section below.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Duck Egg Brownies Baked in the Woodburning Cookstove

I didn't have school a week ago Friday because we had had parent-teacher conferences during the week.  On Friday morning, I traveled to a farm between Elkhorn and Marne, Iowa, to purchase a flock of seven ducks.  It has been over a decade since I've had ducks here on the farm, and I've missed them.  They are so much fun to watch and listen to.

Our new ducks.  Hatched this spring, laying regularly, and only
$5 each, they were a steal!

Nancy and I occasionally purchase a duck to roast because we both prefer dark meat, and since all of the meat on a duck is dark meat, it's a win-win situation for both of us.  I'm hoping that these ducks will be our breeding stock to hatch several more ducklings next year, but in the meantime, I'm enjoying having duck eggs in the refrigerator again.

The Internet has all kinds of information on the nutritional content of duck eggs, and I encourage you to investigate it all for yourself.  In the days before the internet, though, we relied on what our elders told us, so what I will tell you is that Granny (my grandmother on my dad's side) always said that duck eggs were too rich to eat plain, but they made great baked goods. Furthermore, one of our elderly farmer neighbor ladies, who has always been a great poultry woman, says that all of the best bakeries in Europe use duck eggs.  What I know from experience is that I really like to bake with them.

When we first had ducks when I was young, Meme was still baking, and she would use our duck eggs when there were enough to share.  Even though duck eggs tend to be a little larger than chicken eggs, she would use them in an even 1:1 exchange, so that is always what I have done.  Sometimes I add a little more flour to make up for the extra moisture.  So far, the only thing that I have not been able to bake with duck eggs is a from-scratch angel food cake.  Both times I tried it, the cakes fell out of the pan while they were inverted to cool.  This is an unbelievably discouraging event, so I have never tried to bake an angel food cake out of duck eggs again.

One of my favorite recipes to use duck eggs is Meme's brownies.  As near as I can tell, Meme's recipe comes from Baker's Chocolate.  It was cut out of either a magazine or a food package, and she kept it on the underside of the lid for the jar in which she kept her squares of unsweetened chocolate.  If I remember correctly, the recipe originally called for twice the amount of chocolate that she always put in it, but this was Meme's way.  She was a notorious chocolate lover, but she halved the chocolate in nearly every recipe she baked.  I don't know whether this was from motives of economy or personal preference, but because everything that we had from her kitchen was baked in that way while I was growing up, that is now my personal preference. 

To make these brownies, here is what you do:

1. You'll need a moderate oven to bake these, so build your fire accordingly.

2. Grease an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 baking pan. 

3. Combine 1/3 cup butter (Meme always used Crisco, but I think butter gives a better flavor and is cheaper when we are milking) with one ounce of unsweetened chocolate in a small sauce pan.  Place this on the stove away from the fire to slowly melt.

Soapbox Moment: I really DO NOT LIKE the new packaging on the Baker's Chocolate bars.  I want the individually wrapped ounces back.  I cannot get the bar to break along the lines!

Butter and chocolate melting over the coolest part
of the Margin Gem's cooktop.
4. While the chocolate and butter are melting, combine 1 cup sugar and two eggs.  Stir together, but don't beat too much air into it.

The duck eggs waiting to be combined with the sugar.
Note that the yolks are slightly larger than a chicken egg,
and the whites are completely clear rather than tinted
slightly yellow

5. Add 1/2 tsp. baking powder, a pinch of salt (if desired), and about a tsp. of vanilla.  Again, stir to mix, but don't beat.

6. Pour melted butter and chocolate into egg and sugar mixture, being careful that the melted ingredients are not allowed to cook your eggs.

7. Add 2/3 cup unsifted flour.

8. Pour into prepared pan and bake in a moderate oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out just about clean.  This can take anywhere from about twenty minutes to a half hour, depending on how hot your oven is.  Brownies are pretty forgiving of a slightly cooler oven, but if your oven is running hot, that can be more of a problem.  Remove from oven and cool.
The brownies in the oven of the Margin Gem.

You could stop here, of course, and Nancy wishes that I would.  However, Meme always frosted her brownies, and I am of the opinion that frosting makes the world go 'round.  More than once, I have gotten funny looks from people when I fall into a glucose-induced trance, wax poetic, and murmur "Frosting is the lubricant of the world!"

Meme always made regular powdered sugar frosting with a heaping teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa in it (again, not very chocolaty) and spread it over the brownies, and that is what I do too.

The first brownie out of the pan.  I accidentally put a little more cocoa in
the frosting than usual, but it was still tasty!

There are many, many recipes for brownies floating about, and I've used several different recipes for different occasions.  I would have to admit that I've run across very few that I didn't like, but I think these are my favorite.  The texture is especially rich and chewy when they've been made with duck eggs. 

More recipes to come!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Roasting a Chicken in a Woodburning Cookstove

I mentioned in my last post that I had several blog posts started.  This is not one of those posts, but I want to share what we had for our noon dinner today because it was so simple and turned out so delicious.

Usually, when I roast a chicken, I use my aunt Meme's ancient Wagner Ware "Drip-Drop Baster" roaster which had belonged to her mother and undoubtedly saw the inside of a woodburning cookstove's oven many times.  I'm not going to completely abandon that method of roasting chicken, but when we were at the Dutchman's Store in Cantril, Iowa, this spring, I purchased the Crow Canyon Home red enamelware roasting pan that you see in the pictures below.  I hadn't used it until today, however.

Because the fire in the Margin Gem was already burning, I added a bunch of small sticks and pieces of bark because I wanted to get the oven up to at least 400 degrees.  Roasting whole poultry at a high initial heat causes the skin to brown beautifully, and that was the goal.

After the fire was roaring, I placed the whole chicken in the center of the roasting pan and surrounded it with some small red potatoes that we had purchased at our local farmers' market this summer.  I then added several pearl onions from our garden, some celery stalks, and sections of whole carrots.  Next, I took a whole bulb of garlic and separated it into its individual, peeled cloves and dispersed them among the vegetables.  Into the cavity of the chicken, I placed the leaves of the celery stalks, two of the garlic cloves, and one whole pearl onion.

I sprinkled some Lawry's Seasoned Salt, several pinches of poultry seasoning that I also purchased at our local farmers' market from Wild Rose Farm, and some freshly ground pepper over the whole kit and caboodle.

The chicken and vegetables seasoned and ready to be roasted.
Everything was then ready to be placed into a quick oven.

I decided to keep the oven running hot for the duration of the roasting time, so I used a lot of small sticks and pieces of wood.  I added a little boiling water from the teakettle about midway through, and in an hour and half, our dinner was done.  Nancy and I both thought it was excellent.

When I roast a chicken this way again, I will try basting the vegetables and the bird several times during the cooking.  This should make the meat even more flavorful and moist, and I may consider adding some fruit to the vegetables.  What did take a lot of time was peeling all of the pearl onions and garlic cloves, but using wedges from a larger onion would speed that process considerably.

Let me know how you roast a chicken in your wood cookstove by utilizing the comments section below!  I always enjoy correspondence from my readers.