Friday, January 26, 2018

Why a Woodburning Cookstove?

My sister-in-law and her husband are serving as the American "parents" of a twenty-year-old Iowa State University college student from Vietnam.  He originally was a high school foreign exchange student in the town where my sister-in-law is a schoolteacher, so they have known him for a period of almost four years now.  I first met him when he was an All-State speech participant, and I enjoy him very much.  (I also enjoy watching Susan be a parent to a young adult.)

I was not privy to the conversation, but I understand that Susan explained to "Bill" that I cook on a woodburning cookstove, and Bill could not understand why any American "would want to live like the people in Vietnam."  While in Iowa, Bill also saw some Amish riding in a horse-drawn buggy, and again, his question was simply "Why?"

Making wild plum jelly on the Margin Gem last
week.  I had frozen the juice during the summer
because standing and stirring a pot over a raging
fire is a lot more comfortable in the dead of winter.
Bill's question has stuck with me.  I've been cooking over wood for over twenty years now, and for some reason, no one has asked me why for a very long time.  Furthermore, since it has become such a normal part of my life, I no longer think about the "why" of it much either.  It does seem, though, that it is a question that is worthy of an answer (and a blog post).

What I have written below are my "whys" for cooking on a woodburning cookstove.  They are not listed in order of importance, but rather in the order that they occurred to me.  I suspect that these will be similar to many other people's reasons for cooking on a wood cookstove, but please utilize the comments section to either concur or add any other reasons that I do not include.

1. Increased Self-Sufficiency

We are by no means an island, and never will be.  We have, by today's standards, a great deal of family nearby, and we are quite interdependent upon them.  We are fairly active in our community, and even though we live on an Iowa Century Farm, we are right on the beaten path.  In fact, our road is so busy and our house so close to it that sometimes it sounds as if the grain trucks are barreling through our living room.  Furthermore, we are only minutes away from downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

However, we do enjoy a modicum of self-sufficiency.  It is a rare event that we have a meal made of entirely store-bought foods, and why shouldn't the farm that produces so much of what we eat also produce much of the fuel needed to cook and preserve that food, too?  When cooking with electricity or propane, we are dependent on business entities to provide that ability (sure, once our propane tank is full, we can cook for a long time, but not indefinitely).  With the woodburning cookstove, we are able to cook as long as we are able to procure fuel--something we can do without being dependent on others.

Making supper on the wood cookstove.  Potatoes
were baking in the regular oven, but its temperature
was higher than what I wanted to bake our fish, so
I baked the fish in the stovetop oven which you see
over the firebox.  It worked really well.

2. Economics

It is true that the Margin Gem cookstove is expensive, especially when you buy the hot water heating set up that we have.  When we purchased ours, my brother-in-law asked me if it was the Cadillac of new wood cookstoves on the market today.  "No," I said in self-deprecation, "but it is the Lincoln."  Even at that, though, when you put pencil to paper, the Margin Gem has paid for itself already, and we are only in the sixth heating season with it.  Now, every time we use the cookstove for cooking, heating, or water heating, we are money ahead, and the stove and water heating setup have decades of service ahead of them.

3. Disaster Preparedness

I don't consider myself a prepper, but I am perhaps a little more prepared for disaster than some people.  In the course of my lifetime, we have had only about five power outages that lasted more than a few hours, but before having a woodburning cookstove they were much more disruptive than they are now.

Truthfully, I think this point deserves a whole blog post of its own.  You can see that here.

4.  Aesthetics

When I was growing up, my mom subscribed to Ideals magazine.  Long before I became an English teacher and could appreciate the poetry and short prose pieces in this magazine, I would search each new copy for the utopian pictures of historic kitchens.  They always prominently featured ornate antique cookstoves.

This image is from the 1966 Thanksgiving
issue of Ideals magazine.  This one was
before my time, but lots of similar pictures
passed through my hands as a youngster.
I was also raised on a steady diet of Michael Landon's Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy television shows, both of which offered viewers memorable views of wood cookstoves in set dressers' versions of old fashioned kitchens.

Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls in front of a cookstove.
At about that same time, my aunt Ellen subscribed to Country Living magazine, and then we eventually had our own subscription.  Wood cookstoves frequently appeared as both functional or decorator items in those magazines, and they were a frequent topic of discussion.

All this is to say that I grew up with plenty of visual influences that made it seem as if a woodburning cookstove made a kitchen complete.

5. It is Old-Fashioned

This is probably silly, but I like cooking on a wood cookstove because it is old-fashioned.  I have always been fascinated with the old ways of doing things--a fact which I attribute to my great-great aunt Meme, who was a huge influence on me growing up.  She would be the first to deny that she had romanticized life in the late 1800s and early 1900s while she reminisced with me on her knee.  However, I think, just as our minds so often do, her memory only recalled the good things about life on an Iowa farm in the olden days.  Without meaning to, she helped create in me a longing for a time I never knew.  I'd wax poetic and say that it was a simpler time, but I don't know that I'm convinced it really was.  Either way, my penchant toward old-fashioned living has caused me to be frequently accused of having been born in the wrong decade.

6. Efficiency

I find that my cooking style changes in the non-wood cookstove months largely because I tend to not be willing to "waste" the extra electricity or propane that it takes to make that finishing touch or special little thing, and I certainly try to avoid the dishes that have long cooking times.  I also find that I do more experimental cooking when I'm using the wood cookstove because I don't feel bad about the wasted energy if the product is a flop.

The other thing about the wood cookstove is that rather than having one fire cook only one vessel of food, the same fire heats all of the pots, whatever is in the oven, and the water to wash the dishes after the meal.  I think that is very efficient.

7. It Just Feels Right

I don't know how to explain this one any better.  I just know that feeling the heat radiating from the cookstove while I'm standing over it stirring something seems somehow right.  When I'm cooking over an electric stove or a gas stove, it just doesn't feel quite like I'm really cooking.  I don't know how to describe it any other way.

That's all I can think of at the moment.  Wood cookstove using readers, fill up the comments please!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Baking Apple Crisp in a Woodburning Cookstove

As the new year begins and much of the nation is experiencing cold weather--and since some people have undoubtedly received new wood cookstoves for Christmas :)--I thought there might be quite a few people who are learning how to bake in their wood cookstoves right now.

If you are new to baking in a woodburning cookstove, there are two different treats that I would suggest baking first to get a feel for how your oven works.  The first would be a batch of cookies.  The reason I suggest cookies is because you will be able to determine where your oven's hot spots are by examining the various doneness of the cookies on each sheet.  You can also determine if the bottom of the oven is cooler or hotter than the top by noting whether each individual cookie is cooked evenly on its top or bottom.  Obviously, you should not bake chocolate cookies for this test because you will not be able to see the browning sufficiently to learn anything.

Baking cookies will help you to figure out whether you will need to rotate foods midway through their baking time to ensure even cooking and browning.

Of course, you may discover, as I did, that your oven bakes very evenly.  If so, all the better!

This was the first sheet of cookies baked in the
Margin Gem back in 2012.  You can see that
they are very evenly browned.  Hmm--I wonder
where those missing three cookies went!
The second thing I would suggest baking is an apple crisp.  The reason I would suggest this particular dish is because it is very forgiving of uneven oven temperatures, so you will be able to practice maintaining an even oven temperature without having to worry about ruining your finished product.  (One time, I baked an apple crisp in a Dutch oven using coals from a wiener roast fire.  It had been years since I had baked in this manner, and I got a little over-zealous with the coals.  I pretty much burned the apple crisp, but my sister carefully scraped the top off and ate it anyway, declaring that it was still good.)

1. As always, the first thing to do is build your fire in such a way that you will have a moderate oven when you are ready to bake your apple crisp.

2. Choose your baking dish and butter the bottom and sides.  If I am using purchased butter, I like to just unwrap one end of the stick of butter that I will be using in the topping and rub it on the pan.  This way, I save unwrapping an extra stick of butter just for greasing the dish, and I don't get my fingers messy, either.  When we are milking, this is also a great recipe for using homemade butter.

A word about choosing your dish: I like to use a glass or ceramic baking dish for apple crisp due to the fact that the acid in the apples will not react with it, thus increasing the shelf-life of the finished product.  If you are new to baking apple crisp, I would suggest using a clear glass pan if you have one because it will allow you to easily see how the apples are cooking.

3. Next, make your topping.  The recipe that I use is for either a 9 x 9 or 7 x 11 inch pan.  (Double this for a 9 x 13.)

1/2 cup butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar

You can vary this in lots of different ways:  

a) You can use stick margarine if you prefer, but I never think it is as good.
b) Instead of 1 cup of all-purpose flour, use 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and a 1/2 cup all-purpose.
c) Instead of 1 cup of all-purpose flour, use 1/2 cup oatmeal and a 1/2 cup flour.
d) Instead of 1 cup of white sugar, use 1/2 cup brown sugar and a 1/2 cup white sugar.

This could go on forever, but you get the idea.  Keep the same proportions, just vary the ingredients to suit your taste.

Cut the butter into the sugar and flour until well blended and crumbly.  I like to use a pastry blender for this, but I've seen my grandma just use her fingers.

The prepared apple crips topping.  This was a combination of
whole wheat flour, oatmeal, and brown sugar.  It was quite good.
4. Now you are ready to peel, core, and slice the apples.  Since we always do this with homegrown apples of various size and quality, I couldn't give you a certain number of apples to use.  Just cut up enough apples to fill your dish 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to the top.  Use whatever apples you like to bake with.  My preference is the Jonathans that grow in the southeast corner of our orchard.  They are firm fleshed and have a flavor that is second to none.

5. This step is optional.  I like to spread just a little bit of white or brown sugar over the apples.  I do this because the sugar draws the juice out of the apples and causes them to cook better.  I don't put so much sugar on them that I notice a difference in the flavor.  My mom has baked hundreds of very delicious apple crisps and does not do this, however.  My grandma would sprinkle a little cinnamon on the apples at this time, too.  Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't.

6. Spread the topping crumbs on top of the apples.

The assembled apple crips ready to go in the oven.
7. Slide the assembled apple crisp into a moderate oven.

The apple crisp in the oven of the Margin Gem cookstove.
8. Bake as long as you like.  I've seen recipes that say as little as 35 minutes, but I like my apples to be thoroughly cooked, so I generally leave it in for at least 50 minutes.  Of course, as in all baking in a wood cookstove, you have to watch the food and the oven temperature and adjust baking times accordingly.  I suggested a clear glass pan above because I don't think an apple crisp is any good until the apples are bubbling quite a bit.  You can see that I didn't use a clear pan to bake the crisp in the picture, though.

9. When done, remove from the oven and cool for a little while before serving warm with whipped cream or ice cream.  You could serve it plain, but what is the fun in that?

The finished apple crisp.  I think this one is a little too dark on top,
but it tasted very good anyway.
There you have it.  You'd have to work pretty hard to ruin this one badly enough that you couldn't eat it, and you'll have the rewarding experience of pulling a delicious dessert out of the oven of your wood cookstove.  Enjoy!