IN SPRING I find myself counting the days till I can leave my modern kitchen behind and head for our summer cottage and its wood stove. In my mind's eye, I see it standing as it has stood for 70 years, dominating the cottage kitchen, its broad black top banded with heavy, dull chrome, its high back-supporting a spacious warming oven, its stove pipe arching high between the rafters.
My senses recall the special sounds -- the clank of the iron lids as they slide into place, the musical "clickety-click" then, "thunk", as an armload of wood pours into the wood box, the smell of burning pine mingling with fragrant stew. There is no fan there to suck the smells away. Instead, the odors rise, blending with the forest air and fill the cottage with their rich aromas.
My first encounter with the stove was on a visit to my grandparents at their summer place in Northern Wisconsin. To my childish eyes the stove was an impressive sight and I watched the cooking operation from a respectful distance. On mornings when the cold night air had settled in the chimney, he fire balked. She rolled newspaper into a wick which she lighted and used to drive the cold air out of the chimney. The fire soon crackled merrily.
As the stove warmed she shifted pots around as if engaged in some gigantic chess game, finding a hotter spot for one, a cooler spot for another. From time to time she added fuel. As she raised the lid, the orange flames licked hungrily at her fingers. Nonetheless, she slipped the logs in place seemingly oblivious of the fiery tongues.
But the part I liked best came after supper when the fire was allowed to quiet to a ruddy glow. We sat around the kitchen table then and I heard one more time the story of Grandma and the wolf in the garden. Even after its cooking work was done, the stove continued to radiate a gentle heat that filled the room with comfort. The memories that I took home that summer seemed to have a warmth of their own that lasted and lasted -- just like the stove.
Many years passed before I returned -- this time with children of my own -- to claim as my inheritance -- the cottage, the forest and the stove. The children examined the stove with curiosity.
"How does it work?" they asked.
"Bring me some wood and I'll show you," I said. I was eager to recreate that bit of my past for my children but the recreating took more doing then I had anticipated.
First, there was the matter of the ashes. Somehow that memory had escaped me and I cooked busily for a week before opening the door beneath the fire box. The ashes had overflowed their bucket and came pouring out onto the floor. After that I checked the ash bucket each day before starting the fire. The only time the ashes were cool enough to dispose of safely was after the stove had been cold all night so that ash removal became, of necessity, a before-breakfast chore.
The ashes were the messy thing about the stove. The neat thing was that all garbage and trash was just extra fuel and went directly into the fire. In a natural recycling their cooled remains went back into the forest to enrich the soil.
Then there was the oven. There was a gauge in the oven door and a damper which when closed, directed the flames to curl around the oven before allowing them to escape up the chimney. When the damper was opened, the oven cooled but often not quickly enough. Sometimes the logs would suddenly "catch", releasing a flood of heat that overwhelmed whatever was in the oven and turned it into a blackened mess.
I got better at working the damper and learned to place delicate items such as souffles or meringues in the oven only after the fire had reached its peak and was ebbing. I found I could hold a steady temperature by adding just one stick of wood at a time. But mainly I learned to adjust myself and my cooking schedule to the stove. The oven was usually perfect for baking right after breakfast so I scheduled my cooking projects for that time. bBread, started then would be ready to bake when the fire was hot at dinner time.
Bread and a wood stove seemed natural go-togethers so, to complete the nostalgia picture, I dug into the old family cookbook for my grandmother's original recipes. The two that won family raves were her molasses oatmeal bread and her raised doughnuts. The molasses loaves have a fragrance that is surpassed only by their flavor and texture while the doughnuts have a sturdy crispness that can stand up to coffee or glasses of cold milk.
Although the original recipes called for the dough to rise overnight, it worked best for me to start the yeast dough right after breakfast. The milk could scald or the water boil for the oatmeal while bacon and eggs were cooking. Meanwhile there were plenty of places in the warming oven or at the far edge of the stove for the butter to soften and the yeast to foam. Even after the fire died, there was enough heat in the warming oven to carry the bread, free of draughts, through its second rising. The final process -- baking for the bread or deep-frying for the doughnuts, could coincide with supper.
The doughnut frying led to a discovery and the gradual evolution of a meal that our teen-agers adore and one which they delight in managing themselves. For want of a better utensil we had heated the oil in an old cast iron pot. Used chiefly for stews, no one had ever thought to use it for anything else. It proved ideal. The heat from the great surface of the stove rose around the sides and bottom of the pot maintaining a steady and perfect temperature.
It was but a single step to "dinner in a pot," a fish fry supper so popular with our young people that we have had to acquire a similar pot for use at home. The dinner has three basic items -- perch, potatoes and apple fritters, but there is room for creativity. The fritters were our youngest daughter's "experiment" with left-over batter and became an instant hit. Each item takes its turn in the pot and each emerges delicate and crispy -- the fritters to be sprinkled with powdered sugar before melting in the mouth.
The supper lends itself to a team effort, from the initial early morning fishing expedition for the perch, to the filleting, slicing, batter-mixing, woodbox filling and final frying. Family teen-agers as well as their young house guests discover that cooking is fun and they eagerly take turns at the stove.
Another item that is wildly popular is onion rings. These, I despair of ever getting to the table as they are invariably consumed by "passersby" as soon as they come out of the pot. Perhaps they were meant to be appetizers after all.
Recently we have been exploring the world of grains, seeking varieties to try, either singly or in combination. Our find last summer was cracked rye. Hot cereals -- the nutty, crunch, whole-grain kind -- develop superlative flavors with the long, slow cooking possible on a wood stove and two years ago they re-entered our family diet via this route.
What began as an exercise in nostalgia coupled with a desire to show off in front of my children has become a yearly adventure in food and fun. In a world where many things we used to cherish have become disposables there is something very satisfying about a piece of equipment which has endured through four generations and which performs its simple functions as well now as when it was new. Long after the cottage is closed for the winter and the vacations are over, the glow of those happy times envelops our family and holds us close. MOLASSES OATMEAL BREAD (2 loaves) 2 cups oatmeal 4 cups boiling water 3 tablespoons butter 2 teaspoons salt 1 cake or envelope yeast 1/4 cup lukewarm water 1 cup molasses 5 to 7 cups flour
Place oatmeal in a large mixing bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Add butter and salt. Stir to melt. Cool. Dissolve yeast in warm water . When lukewarm, add the dissolved yeast and the molasses. Stir in enough flour to make a dough that is just stiff enough to handle. Turn out on a floured board and knead until elastic. Place in a buttered bowl, greasing the top of the dough and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Knead down, form into 2 loaves and allow to rise again in greased bread pans. When doubled in bulk, bake "with a steady fire" at 350 for 40 to 45 minutes. RAISED DOUGHNUTS 1 cup milk 1/2 cup butter 1 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cakes yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup lukewarm water 2 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 4 1/2 cups flour Oil for cooking Powdered sugar (optional)
Scald the milk. Add butter, sugar and salt. Stir to melt the butter and dissolve the sugar. Cool to lukewarm. Add the dissolved yeast together with the beaten eggs. Sift the ginger and nutmeg with half of the flour and stir into the liquid. Continue adding the rest of the flour until the dough is of sufficient body to lift clean out of the bowl. Knead well in the bowl. Coat top with film of softened butter, cover and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled or more in bulk.
Place dough on a floured board. Pat and stretch, or roll carefully out into an oblong, 2 inches thick and 5 inches wide. Slice with a sharp knife into strips 1/2-inch wide. Twist into figure eights. Place board with the twists in a warm place (at the back of the stove) to rise again until light. Cover the bottom of heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of oil. Heat oil to approximately 370 degrees (test with a bit of dough first -- dough should rise to the surface, bubbling vigorously and brown in about 1 minute). Have a pot of boiling water nearby with a separate slotted spoon. Slip the doughnuts two at a time into the oil. Turn to brown the under side. sWhen golden, lift with slotted spoon and drop into boiling water. Using the second spoon immediately remove to paper towels to drain. Place in warm oven till slightly crispy on the outside. Roll in powdered sugar if desired or devour plain. PERCH FILLETS -- POT STYLE (6 servings) 1 1/2 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon paprika 1 egg, beaten 1 1/4 cups milk Oil for cooking Fish fillets for 6 servings
Sift dry ingredients together. Combine egg and milk and stir into flour mixture. Cover bottom of heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of oil. Heat oil to 360 degrees. Dip filets in batter and fry till just golden. Drain on paper towels. POTATOES IN A POT
Use leftover plain boiled potatoes or, the night before, peel and boil medium potatoes until barely tender. Drain, cool and refrigerate uncovered overnight. Cover bottom of a heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of oil. Heat oil to approximately 390 degrees. Cut potatoes into 8ths -- like the sections of an orange. Fry until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Salt to taste. APPLE FRITTERS
Use firm, well-flavored cooking apples. Allow 1 apple per person. Peel, core, cut into 8ths and sprinkle with lemon juce and a little powdered sugar. Let them sit for an hour or so while you prepare the batter. Batter for Fritters 1/3 cup water 1/3 cup milk 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 cup sifted flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons sugar 2 eggs, separated 1 tablespoon melted butter Oil for cooking Powdered sugar (optional)
Combine the liquid ingredients. Re-sift the flour with the salt and sugar and combine with the egg yolks and milk mixture. Fold in the melted butter. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold in.
Dip apples in batter and fry in heavy pot covered with 3 to 4 inches of hot oil. Drain on paper towels. Arrange 5 or 6 fritters on a plate, sprinkle with powdered sugar and head for the nearest hammock! FRENCH FRIED ONION RINGS 3 eggs 2 cups milk 2 cups of flour, or as needed 4 to 6 medium onions, sliced Oil for cooking
Beat eggs, add milk and beat thoroughly. Place flour in a pan. Separate the onion slices. Dip them in egg and milk mixture and then drop into the flour, a few at a time. Be sure each is well-coated. Shake off excess. Cover bottom of heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of oil. Heat oil to 375 degrees and fry a few at a time, separating them with a fork if they cling together. When golden brown, drain on paper towels. Keep warm in oven until all are done. Salt just before serving. OLD-FASHIONED PORRIDGE 1/2 cup cracked rye 1/2 cup cracked wheat 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 cups water
After supper place all ingredients in the top of a double boiler. Boil vigorously for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking. Place over simmering water and allow to cook (at the back of the stove) at least 45 minutes -- the longer the better. Cool and refrigerate.
In the morning reheat over boiling water. Add a little more water if mixture is too thick. Serve with brown sugar and milk.