- Carole Conn
Cooking on the Hearth
There is something so romantic about the notion of cooking a meal in the fireplace. I'm sure that it was nothing but a big pain in the 18th century when you had no choice. But today it's fun to try it, especially if the results aren't terribly important in terms of palatablilty.
You don't need a big walk-in fireplace like the ones you see in 18th century homes to cook in a fireplace. It can really be any size.
Unfortunately, fireplaces don't come with a temp control. That's the biggest issue when you are trying to cook over the fire. You can't control the heat.
If you are lucky enough to have a beehive oven you can bake pies! However, it's a lot harder than it looks. You have to build a fire in the beehive oven, close the door and let the bricks get really hot. They retain their heat for a long time. Once you get to the desired temperature you take the burning embers out and ~waa-laa~ you have a hot oven. Shove your pie in there with a long handled peel and then hope it bakes evenly, turning it every so often.
Probably the easiest thing to cook over a fire is a big pot of stew. The key is to get a good fire going, and then let it simmer down to a nice slow fire, hang the pot over, but not directly over the flames, and let it go for hours, adding just enough wood to keep the fire low. The smoky flavors are incredible.
You have to have a crane or some other means of hanging a heavy pot. A strong trivet with legs long enough to place hot coals under it will work, or you can build a grill surface by placing 2 stacks of bricks on the hearth and placing a grill grid on them. This works just fine. I've tried it!
I've had success baking corn bread in the fireplace. I take a cast iron skillet, well greased, put the dough in it, cover it with a cast iron or aluminum sheet pan, and then turn it over half way through . You raise this up off the floor of the fireplace about 6-10 inches by using a long legged trivit, and put hot coals under it, turning it often until it's done. If you don't have a trivit, build one of bricks - place two sets of bricks on the hearth and put a heavy grate across them. Here is my recipe:
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 T sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk, or substitute whole milk and one tablespoon of white vinegar to equal one cup
1/3 cup butter
Use a 10" iron skillet. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter into it and swirl it around to cover the sides. Mix all the batter ingredients together in a bowl until just moistened, and pour into the skillet. Cover the skillet with a cast iron sheet or aluminum sheet, well greased, and place it on a trivet over hot embers. Cook for about 10 minutes. Holding the cover over the skillet, invert it and place the cover with the skillet on top on the trivet. Bake for another 10 minutes. You can see if it's done by lifting the skillet. If you make the layer of dough thin enough you won't have to flip it, but I would cover it for cooking, and reduce the time.
Since you can't really control the heat, this is a hit or miss kind of thing. But it tastes too good to be true when it's done. (The photo above is one I found on the internet for illustration - mine never looks this perfect).
The colonists made special tools for hearth cooking which you can still find in the marketplace today. This clever thing to the left is a toaster. The top part holds several slices of bread and whirls around for even toasting. And it works pretty well if you don't get too close to the flame.
Whirling broilers were similar, but with a flat grid attached to the feet. This is a little one, (on the right), but you can find really big ones, too.
And if you want a hot cup of tea, cast iron teapots could be hung on the crane by using a clever iron holder - tipper device - a pot tilter, rare and hard to find, very clever:
They also made ovens that could be set up in front of the flames called "tin kitchens". They had spits in them that could be turned, so you could put a roast on them. The grease falls to the curved bottom. Look for tin kitchens with a spout at the bottom end to pour off the fat.
Other types of ovens were also made - for roasting foul, etc.
Pots on 3 legs, were called posnets. Sometimes the legs are long enough to set them down over hot coals. And frying pans with very long handles were used to keep back from the fire, but oh boy, are they heavy if you have to hold them. Spiders are skillets on legs.
The crane was attached to the side wall of the fireplace in iron pins so that it could swivel out. All kinds of hooks, trammels, and hangers were created for the crane so that pots and kettles could be hung on it over the fire at varying levels.
Those of us who are incurable collectors tend to jam our fireplaces with all kinds of antique cooking stuff, but it was likely that the colonial cooking fireplace had far fewer items in it.
But even if you don't have a working fireplace, a room always looks cozier with a mantle with antique cooking spoons and forks hung from it. Trammels are handy for hanging lots of things, with the added advantage that they are adjustible.
I'm really glad I have a nice stainless stove which actually regulates the temperature of the ovens, and with burners that I can turn up or down. I love to cook, but I think the romance of cooking in the fireplace would be short lived even for me.
But on a chilly day, when you have some time, why not try it? Let me know how it comes out!
On September 1, 2017, I received this charming post from Paula Bennett:
After reading Carole’s informative blog on hearth cooking (March, 2017), I thought I might share one of my favorite recipes from my book on my experiences living in an 18th century home in Maine.
A popular breakfast dish for the colonists of New England was a cornmeal pancake known as johnnycake- delicious served with maple syrup or the more traditional molasses.
2 cups johnnycake meal (The meal can be obtained online from Kenyon’s Grist Mill)
1½ tsp salt
2 cups very vigorously boiling water**
¼ cup heavy cream plus additional cream and/or milk
Bacon fat or other fat with high smoking point
Mix the salt and johnnycake meal. When the water is at a really vigorous boil add it to the meal and stir. Let this rest for 15 minutes. Add the cream and stir until batter is smooth. Rest again for 30 minutes.
Now add another ¼ cup of the cream and as much milk as you need to obtain a mixture that is fairly loose, just a bit thicker than a standard pancake batter.
Heat a pan, preferably cast iron, on a trivet set over hot coals. Melt your fat and then ladle in 1/3 cup of batter per cake. Do not crowd the pan.
Once the first side is golden brown, flip, flattening slightly. When second side is golden, flip again, and keep flipping until the cakes are quite brown. This could take up to a half hour, depending on how hot the coals are.
Serve with maple syrup or molasses and additional butter if desired.
Yield: 10-12 cakes
** The water needs to be bubbling so the cornmeal will cook through and any bitter aftertaste can be avoided.
For more recipes plus history and décor, here is the link to the book Imagining Ichabod My Journey into Eighteenth Century America Through History Food and a Georgian Home: https://www.amazon.com/Imagining-Ichabod-Journey-18th-Century-Georgian/dp/0983863245/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463065606&sr=1-1&keywords=imagining+ichabod.