Sunday, December 31, 2017

Vintage Candy on the Wood Cookstove: Divinity

December 23rd was devoted to Christmas cooking at our house.  Nancy and I made the second batch of Christmas Crack (aptly named for its entirely too addictive traits) and several vegetable/cracker dips.  Then, niece Josie came over again, and we made caramels and penuche, baked three dozen Danishes of various fruit flavors and a batch of mountain-top cookies, assembled an egg casserole, and made divinity.

I don't care for divinity.  Let me just say that right up front.  If it were the last candy on earth, I'm sure that my terrible sugar addiction would cause me to eat it by the handful, but since we are not in such dire straits, I could never taste it again and not feel deprived of anything.  However, it is one of the candies that my aunt Meme always made at Christmas.  She first taught me how to make it in December of 1985, and we made it together every year until she left her own home in 1992 at the age of 97.  I've made it alone many times since then, but it is a candy that I much prefer to have help with--I'll explain why in a minute.  

There was only one year that I didn't make divinity for Christmas; that was in 2009.  It always seemed to me that not very many people in our family liked it, so I decided to skip it that year.  My cousin Cory asked where it was at our family get together, and I explained that I had decided to forego it since I didn't think very many of us ate it.  He was so disappointed because he confessed that night that the divinity was his favorite of all the homemade candies.  I felt terrible since he was in the service at that time, and all of the comforts of home were doubly important to him that Christmas.

I assured him that I would make it again the next Christmas.  However, he was killed in a car accident in the fall of 2010 just after he had been discharged.  Now, I always feel like making the divinity is not just a Christmas tribute to Meme but also to Cory as well.

Divinity is a very old-fashioned, fat-free candy that apparently many other people besides my family associate with Christmas.  I saw it for sale in our local Super Saver this season, and one always sees it in the Christmas issues of the Vermont Country Store Catalog.  Meme used to tell me that she and her sister Pearl were in charge of making the candy in her home when she was young, and I often imagine what it would have looked like when the two of them would be cooking fudge, divinity, and penuche on the old Monarch range in the enormous farmhouse which used to stand where my first cousin and his family now live.

To make divinity, the first three things that you have to do are to put the teakettle on the fire, spread about 2 1/2 feet of waxed paper on a table or counter, and prepare whatever decoration you would like to put on top of each piece of candy.  I usually see some kind of nut like a pecan or a walnut on divinity when I see it for sale in a store.  Meme always poked a maraschino cherry half on the top of each piece of divinity, so that is what I do.  Before even beginning to make the candy, I cut however many maraschino cherry halves as I feel like I will need. This year, my niece Josie completed that task.
Josie cutting maraschino cherries in half.
Lay the maraschino cherry halves on a paper-towel covered plate while you complete the rest of the steps for the divinity.  You want them to be as dry as possible when you eventually use them.

Into a heavy-bottomed, two- or three-quart saucepan, place 2 1/2 cups white sugar, 1/2 c. hot water, 2/3 c. light corn syrup, and 1/4 tsp. salt (I always omit the salt).  Stir to get everything combined; then, place this directly over the firebox so that it comes to a boil quickly.  

The sugar, corn syrup, and hot water mixture
coming to a boil directly over the firebox.
The same mixture at a full boil.
When this comes to a full boil, you can move it away from the fire if you want, but it must continue to boil until it reaches the hard ball stage.  I always test this by using the cold water method where you drop a little of the sugar syrup into a coffee cup of cold water and then touch it with your finger to see how hard it is.  Test this frequently and start doing it early because this part of the process does not take very long at all, and you don't want to leave the syrup on the fire a moment longer than necessary. I'm convinced that this is where I erred in the two batches that have failed me in the last 32 years.

While the syrup is cooking, beat two egg whites until soft peaks form.

Beating the egg whites was Josie's responsibility, too.
Once the sugar syrup has cooked, pour the boiling syrup over the beaten egg whites very slowly, beating the mixture the whole time.  This is the first place where it is very helpful to have two people.  One can pour, and one can beat.

Now comes the hard part.  You must beat this egg white and hot syrup mixture until it begins to thicken.  I've seen this take about a half hour, but usually takes quite a bit less than that.  Either way, your arm will get tired. When it begins to thicken, add a half tsp. of vanilla flavoring.

Beating the divinity candy.
Now comes the tricky part.  When this begins to get thick and the glossy look has left it, you know you are now done with beating the candy. However, don't think you can sit back and rest and enjoy looking at it.  This is the point where you have to work like lightening.

VERY QUICKLY, drop the candy by heaping teaspoons full onto the waxed paper you had spread out earlier.  (Even with two of us doing this, the last pieces of divinity to be dropped looked considerably different than the first ones.)  As soon as you are done dropping the candy, poke whatever you are going to dress up the candies with into the tops.

Let the candies dry for a while before handling them, then put them in whatever container you will store them in.  These will become extremely soft and sticky if you leave them in an airtight container, so we always leave the lid of their tins slightly ajar in order to prevent that.

Two tins of divinity candy.
Here is the recipe in the original form I had copied it:

2 1/2 c. sugar
2/3 c. light corn syrup
1/2 c. hot water
1/4 tsp. salt
2 egg whites

Pour hot water over sugar, corn syrup, and salt.
Stir until sugar is dissolved.
Cook until hard.  
Pour over stiffly beaten egg whites.
Beat until thick.  Drop on waxed paper.

I hope you've all had a joyous time celebrating Jesus' birth.  Things have been very busy and extremely cold here (right now the outdoor thermometer says -24 degrees, but I think it is not quite that cold out), and I'm looking forward to things calming down a bit and being able to enjoy some home time.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Cheating with Your Cookstove: Using the Warming Oven to Make Rice

I have always liked rice.  I can remember it being one of my favorite foods when I was very little, perhaps because Mom started feeding it to me shortly after I was weaned from rice baby cereal.  On Mom's side of the family, both my grandma and Aunt Meme made it.  It was always served as a starch in place of the usual potato, and it was sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.  At school it was served the same way, only they put raisins in it too.  I wonder if this is a regional thing because I remember talking to a lady from Southern California when I was in college, and she thought I was crazy when I told her about putting sugar and cinnamon on rice.  She said that she grew up eating it with salt on it.  Maybe you readers can clear that mystery up for me.

Anyway, with my new schedule permitting me to be home more often for noon dinner, I have sometimes resorted to using instant rice as my staple.  The way I always used to make instant rice was by bringing the designated amount of water to a boil in a saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid.  Then, I would add an equal amount of instant rice, cover the saucepan tightly, remove it from the fire (or slide it as far away from the firebox as possible), and let it stand five minutes.

However, I'm really pleased with my new method.  It takes advantage of both the warming oven and the ever-present teakettle.  The first thing to do is put the teakettle directly over the fire so that the water is boiling.  Then, half fill a clean pint jar with instant rice.

The teakettle boiling directly over the fire with
the instant rice ready in the pint jar in the
warming oven.  A hamburger steak is frying to
the right of the teakettle.
Pour a cup of boiling water over the rice in the pint jar.  Make sure to stir the mixture a little so that all of the rice has been exposed to the water.  Then lay a canning lid over the mouth of the jar, put it into the warming oven and close the door.  (I keep a stash of clean, used canning lids on hand.)

The instant rice and water mixture just after being put in the
warming oven.
Of course, all that is to be done now is to let the rice stand in the warming oven for five minutes.

The finished rice ready to be served.
This method of preparing instant rice has a some advantages:

a) A little time is saved by not having to bring water to a boil in a saucepan (although, if your teakettle is hot, you could save time by pouring boiling water into the saucepan).

b) If your cooktop is small and cluttered with other cooking vessels, your rice at least won't be taking up any precious cooking space.

c) If you don't eat all of the rice, the leftovers are already in a container that can conveniently go in the refrigerator.

d) I think the canning jar is easier to wash than a saucepan.

If you have a warming oven and have occasion to prepare instant rice, give this method a try and let me know how it works for you.  I've classified this as a "cheating with your cookstove" post because instant rice is definitely "cheating" in my book.  Sometime I'll have to share Nancy's and my favorite way to prepare rice.  It is definitely not instant, and the result is much tastier than this, but this does in a pinch.  We all get into cooking pinches due to time constraints sometimes, and I just want to show that a wood cookstove can be the cook's best friend even in one of those pinches.

The pictures you see are from the preparation of my noon dinner today.  Marjorie was very busy since the day was largely spent making different things for Christmas.  My niece Josie came over and we made our traditional recipe for fudge and then tried a vintage recipe for orange fudge, which didn't turn out too well.  I was also boiling cider to make a pork loin for Nancy's family's Christmas. 

In an idle moment, Josie snapped a picture through the kitchen window of my brother's cattle, and she was dead set on me sharing it with you in this post.  Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Using Corn Cobs as Fuel in a Woodburning Cookstove

Harvest is finished here in the Corn Belt, and it seems like this would be a very appropriate time to talk about using corn cobs as fuel in a woodburning cookstove.  Cobs were an extremely popular cooking and heating fuel in the Midwest for a long period of time, but despite the fact that in this day and age more cobs are produced annually than at any other time in history, using them as fuel has become obsolete.

Some Basic Information about Corn Cobs--

First, let me explain what a corn cob is for those who are not familiar with the corn plant--especially since this blog has international readership. What we Americans call corn is really more properly known as maize.  It is considered the most domesticated crop in the world.  Technically classified as a grass, the seeds of the plant grow on something called an "ear."  An ear of corn grows inside of tightly connected leaves called "husks."  The next layer inside the husk is several hairlike strands called the "silk."  The silk is what catches the corn pollen and transports it to the corncob, where the kernel of corn is formed.

An ear of ripe corn complete with husk and silk.

Originally, corn was harvested by picking each ear by hand.  By about 1940, most farmers had gone to mechanical corn pickers that still picked the entire ear.  Corn could either be fed as whole ears to cattle and hogs, or the corn would be "shelled" (removing of the corn kernels from the cob) later and fed to livestock whole or ground, or sold as a cash crop.

In our area, it was around 1970 when most farmers switched from harvesting corn by picking the whole ear to using machines called "combines."  A combine is so named because it combines the processes of picking the ear and shelling the corn all as it travels through the field.  The empty corn cobs are sent out the back end of the combine along with bits of stalk, husk, and leaves to fall roughly where they grew, becoming a part of the "crop residue" that is left in the field to return nutrients to the soil and prevent erosion.  However, compared to the leaves, husks, and stalks of the corn plant, the cob is of little value as crop residue.

The corn cob is rough in texture and lightweight.  It feels a little like a tube of tightly rolled paper.  Because the cob is also fibrous, moisture affects it easily.  Cobs dry quickly, but they also are very absorbent and can quickly become wet even when simply exposed to high humidity.

Because of this light, fibrous structure and rough texture which creates an abundance of surface area, dry corn cobs ignite quickly.  They burn very hot and very fast, leaving only short-lived embers behind.

Historical Use of Corn Cobs as Fuel--

As American settlers moved westward into the plains states, trees were fewer and farther apart, so pioneers began to turn to other fuels besides wood in order to do their heating and cooking.  We've all heard stories of them using "prairie coal," which was a fancy name for buffalo chips or cow chips.  The word "chips" itself is a euphemism for the dried dung of these animals.  I've actually burned some cow chips in my cookstove, and they don't work too badly, but I'd have to admit that the smoke does not have a very pleasant odor.

Settlers would also use dried grass (hay) as fuel by twisting it into bundles called "cats."  Special cooking stoves were even designed in order to facilitate burning hay more efficiently and conveniently.

However, as more and more acres came under corn production, the corn cob became the prairie fuel of choice.  Abundant, cheap, relatively clean to handle, and easy to ignite, the corn cob enjoyed wide use as fuel across the Great Plains for many decades.  This article shows how largely the cookstove and the corn cob affected life here in earlier days.  It is also important to note that before the advent of the chain saw, harvesting firewood was a much more arduous task than it is today, making the corn cob even more desirable fuel because once the corn has been shelled, the cob is ready to be burned.

Historical accounts of life on the Great Plains are replete with stories about burning corn cobs for heating and cooking.  In some research that I did about the Schoolchildren's Blizzard of 1888, many of the memoirs mentioned corn cobs being the only fuel that was used in the farm homes of rural Nebraska.  Some also talked about the fact that their schoolhouses were heated with cobs which the different families in the district took turns furnishing.

This is a Library of Congress photo of a Mrs. Emma
Bettenhausen pouring corn cobs in her kitchen range
 in Nov. 1940.  She lived in McIntosh County,
 North Dakota.

Burning corn cobs in cookstoves became such a common thread in the fabric of rural life that last summer when I met veteran Southwest Iowa radio homemaker Evelyn Birkby, who is still broadcasting on KMA in Shenandoah at the age of 98, the first thing she said upon finding out that I cook on a woodburning range was "Then you know exactly how many corn cobs it takes to bake an angel food cake."

This made me think of my aunt Ellen's mother Dorothy.  As a young girl, it was Dorothy's job to stand by the open firebox door of her mother's wood cookstove and shove one cob into the fire at a time in succession in order to maintain even oven heat while her mother was baking.  (I don't doubt that this story is true, but it does seem to me like keeping the firebox door open constantly would have absolutely ruined the efficiency of the fire because of the spoiled draft.  Perhaps this was the only solution Dorothy's mother had found for a cantankerous stove.)

The fact that corn cobs were so widely used as cooking fuel was not lost on the retail establishments of the day, either.  My copies of vintage Sears catalogs show that as late as the 1920s, corn cobs were listed alongside wood, coal, coke, and rubbish as possible fuels for their ranges.  Some of the earlier catalogs even list "chips" among their fuels.

The architecture of farm buildings was even affected by the use of corn cobs for fuel.  Due to the fact that cobs can take on moisture so easily, it was important to keep cobs sheltered so that they would remain dry for burning.  On our farm, the combination wash house/garage (a wash house was a building separate from but near to the house where the weekly chore of clothes washing was completed) was outfitted so that its second story was used for cob storage.  I'm told that the cobs were delivered to the wash house side of the first floor via a chute that emptied into a bin somewhere near the laundry stove.

A similar setup was built at Nancy's grandparents' farm.  Their wash house was divided into two rooms.  The north room was for cob storage.  Cobs were shoveled into a small door at the top of the north wall.  They were accessed on the wash house side through a people-sized door which was to the right of the stove.  When they broke up housekeeping in 2010, I sifted through quite a few cobs which were still there in order to salvage the anthracite coal which was also stored in that room.

At the house where my maternal grandmother lives, a building called "the cob house" stood just inside the back gate between the driveway and the kitchen.  One side of it was used to store corn cobs, and the other side housed a Delco Light Plant.  The Delco generator was removed with the arrival of Rural Electrification in our area in the 1930s, but the corn cobs remained in use for cooking and water heating for at least another decade.

My paternal grandmother lived on a farm just over the hill from where Nancy and I live, and she told me that their cobs were stored in a lean-to which was attached to their wash house.  She said that somehow or other the corn cobs caught fire, and the whole building was quickly reduced to ashes.  She remembered that the fire was particularly hot because of the corn cobs.

My great-great aunt Meme (born in 1895 and mentioned in the About Me section to the left) never married and remained on the home farm with my great-great grandparents until they moved in order to make room for my newlywed grandparents in 1947.  At sometime during the mid-1920s, the large, beautiful farmhouse that they lived in was equipped with hot running water furnished by a Monarch range in the kitchen, but during hot days in the summer, they had a three burner kerosene stove that they cooked on. She frequently reminisced with me about her early life, and I remember her talking about the fact that after a hot summer's day of outdoor work, she would build a corn cob fire in the green and cream Kalamazoo cookstove in their summer kitchen, heat a teakettle of rainwater, and use that to take a bath in a washtub.  The corncob fire was perfect for this since it was quick to kindle but did not linger after it had served its purpose.

Meme also talked about how she and her brother and sister hated to gather corn cobs.  Of course, if the corn had been shelled to feed to poultry or to sell, those corn cobs were not difficult to collect.  However, ear corn was fed to hogs by just giving them the whole ear.  The hogs would chew the corn off the cob and leave the corn cobs lying about their pen.  It was the kids' job to get into the hog pen and retrieve the scattered cobs, which would often be quite dirty, not to mention the fact that hogs can be pretty ornery, too.

In order to maximize the capacity of a bushel basket (commonly called "cob baskets" when hauling this cargo was their primary function), it was the practice among some farm families to stand cobs vertically in a ring around the outer edge of the basket.

My cob basket filled and stacked in the old fashioned
way.  You'd be amazed at how long it took to pick up
this many cobs in the harvested field.

Cob baskets were often put on the floor next to the firebox side of the stove to make fueling easier.  Unfortunately, this could be a dangerous situation since cobs catch fire so easily.  In antique cookbooks, it is not uncommon to see warnings about keeping the cob basket a safe distance from the range.

I once had to interview my paternal grandparents about life during the Great Depression.  In the course of the conversation, Granny told me that the price for corn dropped so low that her parents began to burn not just corn cobs, but whole ears of corn.  (I don't know why they wouldn't have burned wood instead.)  Gramps agreed that many farmers did that and said that he remembered his folks tried it too, but they found it too depressing.  I can understand that since in those days so much of the work of corn production was done by hand.

How I Use Corn Cobs Today--

Corn cobs burn just as well today as they did in the past, and as I said, there are many more of them available per field than ever before. However, two things have changed which have made them less desirable as fuel for me.  The first is that they are no longer a common by-product of regular barnyard chores.  Thus, in order to collect enough of them to make any size fire, one has to spend a lot of time bent over picking them up off the ground.  The second change is the construction of wood cookstove fireboxes.  The traditional design of a wood cookstove included a firebox depth that was usually less than twelve inches.  This kept the fire very near the cooktop, making the use of corn cobs very efficient.  The depth of the Margin Gem's firebox makes it so that I would have to have a quite a lot of cobs burning in order to raise the temperature of the stovetop sufficiently to do any type of cooking.

Since it is a traditional cookstove, the firebox of the Riverside Bakewell in our summer kitchen is well suited to burning corn cobs.  You can see what a corn cob fire looks like in the Riverside Bakewell in the picture below.

A corn cob fire in the Riverside Bakewell cookstove.  I was
canning brown rice and cooking chicken when this photo was
My favorite use for corn cobs now is for starting the fire.  The addition of a few dry corn cobs to the usual sticks of kindling when lighting a fire insures that the fire will start without any difficulty.  Until this year when she turned ninety, my maternal grandmother would collect all of the stray corn cobs that would find their way into her barnyard on farm machinery and send them to me in boxes, cat food sacks, or milk cartons that she would cut open.  I always appreciated getting them because it was sort of the same as receiving fire-starting insurance from her.

Somehow I doubt that we will ever see widespread use of the corn cob as household fuel again, but I did run across this article about using corn cobs in commercial coal-powered power plants that I thought was very interesting.  The article is almost ten years old, however, and I would like to try to find some follow-up information.  The article also talks about the corn cob harvesting implement that can be attached to the back of a combine in order to save the cobs as well as the grain.  Maybe I'll have to buy one for my brother for Christmas!  (Sorry, Kev.  Way out of our budget.)

Anyway, please use the comments section to share your memories about burning corn cobs in a kitchen range, or--especially if you live outside the Midwest--tell about whether corn cobs were ever used as fuel in your area of the world, or if you still burn cobs, talk about that too!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An Amazing Gift

Sometimes the generosity of others can be astounding, and last week I was completely stunned by an amazing gift given to me by a family friend.

For a couple of years now, I have voluntarily been the head cook at a supper in the church where my wife Nancy grew up.  It is a fun job because all of the ladies who help with the preparations are fabulous cooks themselves, so they are excellent help.  All they need me for is to be the chief.

As a thank you for that service, two of the ladies (a mother-daughter team) decided to give me a gift at the group's Christmas potluck supper last Wednesday evening.  After supper, they placed a very large gift bag in front of me, and when I finally got past all of the tissue paper, I was shocked.  It was a good kind of shock, of course, but it was shock nonetheless.

Inside all of that paper was an antique miniature cookstove.

Since my fascination with woodburning cookstoves originated with a similar stove, and since I know what these are worth, I was totally humbled by the generosity of these ladies.

The left side of the "Pet" cookstove.

With the firebox and oven doors open.  Notice the working
dump grate in the firebox.
 An interesting fact about this particular stove is that someone has built a fire in it at some point.  The inside of the firebox shows black creosote along the walls.

Another interesting feature is that it has a working oven damper.  The lever for the oven damper is best seen in the first picture.  It is located on the front of the stove between the oven door and the reservoir.  In the top picture you can see it in the open position, and in the bottom one it is closed.

A prolonged search of the internet has not yielded information about this particular model of miniature stove, but I suspect that it was made by either the Ideal or Kenton companies around 1900.  The husband/father of the pair of ladies bought it on an auction and was quite pleased with it.  An experienced wood burner himself, he was at our house for a couple of Christmas potlucks and thoroughly enjoyed the Margin Gem cookstove in our kitchen, and I feel quite honored to now have his cookstove as a part of my collection. 

Thank you so much, ladies!

Note on 12/27/17: Further research has uncovered the following link where a similar stove is discussed.