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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A serious enough kettle

The wood stove in the Little Country School was a two-part affair, with a post welded on top of the fire chamber to which was affixed a sheet-iron oven that could be swung away for faster room heating or swung back to add more slow radiant heat -- or even for baking.

It seemed like a good idea when the salesman was explaining it. But this oven was just too slow, really -- between the fire and bread or beans was a layer of iron, then air, then iron again, plus the baking dish. A wood stove is just not a terrific wood cook stove, which has a very different design, and while the cooktop on the main unit did years of yeoman duty, the heavy little oven found itself kicking around the barn until the place was sold.

The current wood stove at Stony Run, which came with the house, occupies a corner of the dining room, but heats the house tolerably well, especially with its fan running. It was designed for use in moblile homes, and with its insulated back is safe to use in its corner. As it's not in the middle of the "parlor" where the nice Near Eastern rug lives with the easy chairs, Risa feels comfortable cluttering up the corner with pots and utensils, thus saving on electricity.

We have always included this stove in our kitchen routines -- for almost two decades now -- but mostly simple things: providing low heat for assorted projects in sauce pans, warming dishes, drying skillets, making tea water or dish water or bath water in the big stock pots. But every now and then we try something new.

This year, Risa has been cooking up, over wood heat, winter squash for dinner or pumpkin for poultry, or baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, or dry beans in the iron kettle. Finding moderate success, she's moved on to soups, cornbread, and whole-wheat bread. Things take longer -- more planning is involved -- but most of the ideas are working out. It helps to be a homemaker, though, and not a full-time "working wife," should you want to take on such schemes.

The kettle was sold as a Dutch oven, which, to Risa, is what it would be if it had a lid with a raised lip (instead of the sloping lid that came with it), for piling on coals from a campfire or fireplace. She would expect to find three legs on its bottom, as well, and where she grew up such an oven would be called a spider by the old-timers. But it's a serious enough kettle for 'a that. It's very heavy and has a large flat bottom that picks up heat well from the stove.

Too well for bread! If it's baked right in the bottom of the kettle she gets a loaf with a charcoal bottom and, due to condensation from the lid, a soppy crust on top. Some modification is necessary.

There are very three very nice trivets on the stove top, and they are quite handy and in constant use. But used underneath the kettle, a trivet puts the iron bottom too far away from the stove and it won't bake. Put inside the kettle underneath a cake pan (with the loaf in the pan) it still seems to leave too much air beneath the loaf. So she takes three ordinary steel washers, puts them underneath the cake pan, and there you have a small air space. Bake from one to two hours (fires are variable and she has to watch her loaf with occasional peeks) and for the last bit, leave off the lid so the upper crust may have a chance to dry out.

This bread seems a bit more difficult to bring off than in the kitchen's electric oven, but it's good enough for any long emergency.

Here you have a folk classic, the ultimate gift for friends with a country house, and a pot not to be discounted for use at beach parties and in the fireplace during power failures. If you are willing to maintain it, to dry and oil it carefully after every use, you will find this a pot that heats and maintains its heat better than one of enameled iron or steel. In other words, it is not a cute tourist item; it is a real kettle for cooking real food in generous quantities. -- Beard, et al., The Cooks' Catalogue


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