Monday, February 20, 2023

Homemade English Muffins on the Wood Cookstove

My dad and I have always enjoyed English muffins.  I remember Dad making English muffins from scratch a couple of times when I was young. I remember one time particularly well because we invited my paternal grandparents (and also our next door neighbors) down for supper so they could enjoy them with us.  We ate Dad's English muffins hot off the griddle, slathered with butter and homemade black raspberry jelly.

Years ago, I made English muffins using the same recipe that my dad used, and while they were delicious, they were dense and a bit on the rubbery side.  I remember that an engaged couple came to the house while I was making them.  I was going to be the organist at their wedding, and they had come to choose the music.  The muffins were ready to be baked as they were leaving, and I mentioned to them that I was disappointed in the texture.  The bride-to-be, in what appeared to me like an exaggerated attempt to impress her future husband, was telling me that I needed to have beaten the batter very hard for quite a while so as to get air into it.  She was sure that I would then have the nooks and crannies in the English muffins that I desired.

Well, fast forward nearly twenty years.  I've done a great deal more baking with yeast doughs, and I can tell you that the advice the young lady gave me would have worked for cake batter, but not English muffins.  With yeast doughs, to get nooks and crannies is an entirely different matter.  First, you don't want to work the dough for a long time because that activates the gluten in the flour, which will create a finer crumb texture.  Secondly, you want a very soft dough so that large bubbles can easily form; and finally, you want the dough to rise as quickly as possible because that will create bigger bubbles of gas too.

Thus, when I came across a recipe which was such a soft dough that the muffins had to be dropped rather than rolled and cut out, I knew I was getting closer to my desired result.  I've tweaked the recipe that I found and gotten the results I desired.  Now, when I buy English muffins in the grocery store, it will be for the sake of convenience, not because I can't make an equally desirable product.  What's more, for reasons that will be obvious in a moment, this is recipe that takes full advantage of a wood cookstove.  Here is what you do:

Into a large mixing bowl, pour one cup of warm water.  To it, add 2 tsp. of yeast, 1 tsp. of sugar, and a 1/2 tsp. of salt.

You can see that Granny's ugly avocado green Sunbeam Mixmaster
that I inherited 28 years ago and was going to "use until it quit" 
still hasn't quit.  In the picture above, it is outfitted with Sunbeam's
answer to the Kitchenaid dough hook.

While the yeast is proofing, put a tablespoon of butter in the measuring cup you used for the water and put it into the warming oven of the cookstove to melt.

By the time the butter is melted, the yeast and water mixture should be foamy.  Add the melted butter to it.

To the liquid mixture, add 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour.  Mix just until dough is stringy.

Scrape the dough from the edges so that it is shaped into a ball in the middle of the bowl.

Cover with a plate and put in a very warm place to rise.  This is key to getting the big nooks and crannies. Usually, I think the warming oven of the Margin Gem is a little too warm for yeast doughs to rise there, but it is perfect for this because you want this dough to rise quickly to achieve those big bubbles.

Let use until double in size.  It will be EXTREMELY soft dough.

Sprinkle cornmeal lightly on a jelly roll pan.  Using a greased ice cream scoop (I sprayed mine with Pam), drop the muffins onto the cornmeal in the size you desire.

Sprinkle the tops of each muffin with a little more cornmeal and return them to the warming oven door to rise quickly again.  This is why a wood cookstove is the perfect tool to make English muffins.

Just a little before you think the muffins will be ready to bake, preheat a griddle and melt a tablespoon of butter on it.  

Depending on how hot your fire is burning at this point, you may need to do this directly over the fire or slightly away from it.  Initially, my fire was quite hot, so my griddle started to the right of the fire.  However, just before baking, I put a couple of large split pieces on the fire that didn't take right away and cooled the stovetop a little.  That is why you will see my griddle move in the pictures below.

When you are ready to bake the English muffins, quickly slide a pancake turner under them to pick them up, using the cornmeal as the means to slide them onto the turner without deflating them.  Place them on the hot buttered griddle and bake until the bottoms are nicely browned and set enough that they can be turned.

Turn them when you can and continue baking on the other side until as brown as the first side.  You want to be sure to bake these for quite a while to get as much moisture out of them as possible, and they can become quite brown without being burnt.  Just watch them carefully.

When done, remove to a cooling rack to cool completely.

When the muffins are completely cool, you can split them and they are ready for toasting.  To toast them on the wood cookstove, I lightly butter the inside of the muffin and place them buttered side down on a small griddle directly over the fire. 

An English muffin half, toasting buttered side down.

The same English muffin turned so that the outside
is toasting and the toasted, buttered side is now up.

I slathered a dab of my homemade strawberry preserves on the buttered side, and it was wonderfully tasty!  These keep well in a plastic bag on the countertop until you are ready to toast them.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Meals out of a Ham

Since there are only two of us in our household, when we bake a ham, there is a lot of leftover meat.  Nancy doesn't like leftovers as a general rule, but she doesn't mind having leftover ham because we turn it into so many other very different dishes as we work to finish it.

The first thing she always asks for is a ham pot pie.  I've never heard of anyone else making one of these, so maybe they are a creation that is unique to us.  The process for making this pie is almost identical to what I do to make a chicken pot pie, which I have written about in this previous post.  I make gravy out of the drippings from the bottom of the roaster, adding some heavy cream and mixed vegetables.  Nancy cuts a few slices of ham into chunks, and everything goes into the meat pie pastry that I blogged in the other post.  The only real difference other than the type of meat and the color of the gravy is that we like to cover the top of the meat filling with Swiss cheese before adding the top crust.  Also, because of the salt that is already in the ham and the cheese, we add no additional seasoning to the gravy.

The Swiss cheese (two different kinds) on top of the
meat filling, waiting for the top crust to be added.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of taking a flaky
meat pie out of the oven of a woodburning cookstove. 
Loaves of golden brown bread and meat pies just make
a woodburning cookstove cook's heart sing.

The finished potpie removed from the oven to the
countertop for serving.

Ham pot pie.  Delectable!

The next meal might be something really fast.  One of the things I like is ham and sweet potatoes.  In the picture below, I had just used a can of sweet potatoes, some pecan syrup leftover from sweet rolls, and a couple of slices of ham placed on top.  I covered it and let it boil until all was hot. Some leftover green beans were warming in the small saucepan up next to the stovepipe.

Nancy's other usual request is ham and scalloped potatoes.  For years, I would occasionally attempt homemade ham and scalloped potatoes with no good results.  Then, a couple of years ago, I ran onto a video from Brenda Hall of the Youtube channel Appalachian Cooking with Brenda.  I now make scalloped potatoes and ham just the way she teaches in this video.    

If you've ever made scalloped potatoes, you know that they take a long time in the oven to get the potatoes cooked through.  Brenda starts her potatoes on the stovetop to shave some of that oven time.  This is a particularly efficient thing to do on a wood cookstove because while the oven is coming up to temperature, you can use the hot cooktop to get the meal jump started.

The pot of homegrown potatoes beginning to cook
in milk on top of the cookstove.  The secret here (as
Brenda continually reminds you in her video) is to 
keep them moving so they don't scorch.

You can see that this boiled over in the oven.  This was the first
time that I've had a really smoky boil-over in the oven of a
wood cookstove.  I shouldn't have filled the dish so full!  After
I saw what was happening, I added the foil and the pie tin to
catch any further spills.

After cutting the ham for the scalloped potatoes, there was not much meat left on the bone, so the hambone and its remains went into the soup kettle that was about half full of water.  I brought it to a good quick boil while the scalloped potatoes were in the oven.  Then, I let it simmer and reduce on the back of the range overnight.  This resulted in about an inch or so of some intense ham broth that was perfect for ham and bean soup--the final dish that came out of this particular ham.

The hambone boiling on the back of the range with the scalloped potatoes
resting on the open door to the warming oven.

Now, I don't know about the rest of the world, but in my particular area of Iowa, ham and bean soup is made with ham broth, Navy or Great Northern Beans, a paltry little bit of onion, carrot, and celery, and a whatever morsels of ham were left on the bone.  I've made that soup before, and I'm told that mine was pretty good, but to me it tastes like dirty water.  By that I mean that it has a distinct lack of flavor and doesn't do justice to the ham, the beans, or the vegetables.

You can see from the photo below, that my version of ham and bean soup is totally different.  I used all of the traditional ingredients, but my beans came in the form of two cans of Van Camp's Pork and Beans, some ketchup, some potatoes (sometime I'm going to try adding pasta instead of the potatoes), and pearl barley. This, for me, is much more satisfying and delicious!  Again, the ham and its broth along with the canned beans and ketchup are salty enough that I added no further seasoning of any kind.

Now, there is one other dish that we love to make with leftover ham, and that is ham balls.  These are a favorite dish in the southern two tiers of counties in Iowa, but an "immigrant" from Mount Ayr brought these up to our area fifty years ago, and they remain a family favorite.  They really deserve their own blog post, though, so you'll have to look for that in the future.

In these days of high food costs, I think a ham is money well spent because of the number of different meals that can be made from it--even the bone was a source of joy to our dog after we had picked it clean of the meat that we could use.  Further, each of these dishes is extremely easy to make on a wood cookstove since no specific times and temperatures are needed for any of them.

Please use the comments section below to let me know what you do with leftover ham.

May your kitchen cookstove fire be burning brightly!