To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world.
~Charles Dudley Warner
This week I lighted my first fire by myself. For many this may be a mundane occurrence, something mastered years ago and now done as handily as tying your shoes. I, however, am a city girl who grew up in a semi-arid desert where fires were not needed, and in fact can be looked at with great suspicion since half the state tends to burn down each year. I’ve been camping and gone to cookouts where fires were lit, I’ve gathered wood and cooked/flamed marshmallows on fires, and I’ve done my share of poking at a wood fire with a good, solid stick. Up until this week, however, I have never started a fire by myself. But now the weather is changing and we need a fire in our basement wood stove.
Since we passed the first official day of fall I’ve noticed our neighbors stocking up on firewood to last through the winter. The piles of neatly stacked logs are quite impressive, and I want to build up our plentiful supply as well. I’ve been teased by the gentle smoke perfuming the chill Fall air, curling out of other chimneys. Our chimney, on the other hand, had no smoke since we had not yet lit a fire in our stove and I wasn’t sure how to fix that situation. Up until now I’ve never had use or need of a wood burning stove and had no idea how to light one.
I also have to admit that I don’t like feeling incompetent. I don’t like having to ask people for help, but I’ve trained myself to do so when I must. And I certainly don’t like being reliant on other people for the basic necessities of life… like fire. So when the weather got colder and all my neighbors started taunting me with their curlicues of smoke, I broke down and asked both Dave and my landlord how to use the wood burning stove. The Farmer gave me a bemused look and said that you light a fire in it, as if this is something that anyone can do, like tying your own shoes. And for many it is that simple, but for me whose most recent experience with lighting a fire literally involved flipping the switch in our room at the resort… Let’s just say that it wasn’t such a simple idea. Dave’s response was not much better. He shrugged his shoulders, said he wasn’t exactly sure (he’s a city kid too) but that we’d need kindling, and then he went on to do something else leaving me without answers and without fire. In Dave’s defense, I think he was acting out of self-preservation. The man is always hot, and has never been able to wear sweaters even in the coldest of Januaries. So anyone with ideas of Christmas presents for Dave that consist of sweaters, save your money. He’ll love them, try one on even, and then break into a dripping sweat and tear the thing off. I think in our current predicament Dave is concerned that the stove might heat up the house too well. I, on the other hand, am more of a lizard. Give me a hot rock and some sunshine (with the appropriate… or excessive… sun protection required) and I’m happy. I wanted that stove lit, and I wanted it lit yesterday.
First, however, we needed to get wood. Out here you can order wood to be delivered to your door or you can do what most people do, which is to cut and split your own. For an insanely reasonable amount of money you can get a permit to harvest lumber from the tops of trees cut down last year by the lumber companies. Then you fill up your truck, cart the logs back home, and get to work. For us, that means a chain saw to cut the logs into serviceable size, and then an ax to split them apart. Our landlord has already made one trip to get timber, and Dave will be joining him on another trip this weekend. Last night Dave went outside to make sure his chainsaw was in functional condition, and ended up portioning all of the logs with our landlord, making short work of the task. Little Man and I went outside to visit the lumberjacks, and I was curious to see where the log splitting would be done since I fully intend on being a part of that. When I asked our landlord about the splitting he eyed my foot gear worriedly. Apparently pink Uggs are not appropriate wood splitting shoes. I’ll have to work on that.
The next day I had just put Little Man down to nap and was in the office typing away when I realized that I wasn’t just cold, but even my nose was freezing. Enough. I was tired of waiting, and yes, I was annoyed at the idea of having to wait on a man to rescue me. I was going to get a fire started in that stove, or burn up all our kindling in the process. There is an anthropologist (who does not deserve to be named here) whose main claim to fame is a theory that men (and I do mean “men,” not the English language’s poor attempt at using a masculine word to define a group of people made up of both men and women) developed bipedalism (the ability to walk on two legs) because of their need to hunt. His theory goes on to literally leave women at home near the empty cook fire, pregnant, hungry, cold and on all fours, waiting for their menfolk to walk home and feed them. Yeeeeesssssss… That is one lonely man… I digress, but the point here is that there was something about the simplicity of fire equalling heat that galled me since I could not produce it. I did not want to wait any longer to be granted the knowledge of how to create fire.
So I went downstairs armed with one of those long barbeque lighters (I wasn’t ready to go full Survivorman… and besides, I don’t think we own a flint striker) and approached the stove like one does a beast that you don’t think will hurt you, but you’re just not quite sure. I opened its maw, put in the log, and then looked at it, trying to remember any tricks about starting a fire from my childhood camping days. I knew that I needed kindling, so I took all of the splinters of wood that Dave had made and tossed them into the stove as well. Anyone who knows anything about starting a fire should be cringing right about now. Then I remembered something that Dave said about using newspaper. So I found a box of wadded up newspaper that had been used as packaging from our hundreds of moving boxes, and stuffed that into the stove as well. Then I sat back on my heels and puzzled at my mess. That couldn’t possibly work. Eventually I figured out that this should be more of a layer cake affair, with wadded up newspaper at the bottom, kindling laid out on top of that and then the log on top of my pyre. All the time I’m messing with this I keep asking myself how many PhDs it takes to light a fire.
Then I lit the newspaper at the base of my pyre, sat back on my heels again and smiled at my accomplishment. That is until the newspaper smoked up, and the smoke started pouring into the room. A quick flail at the damper to open it, and soon the smoke was coursing through the chimney, joining the scented offerings of my neighbors. I sat there for quite some time, enjoying the crackle of the wood and the scent of its burning. Then I heard Little Man stirring upstairs through the monitor and I closed the stove’s door. The effect was instant. I went from having a live, crackling, aromatic fire, to something that looked a lot like the Christmas channel with burning logs but the sound was turned off. All evidence of “fire” disappeared with the sound and scent dampening of the door. However, the heat continued to radiate, and while I missed the sound and the scent it was good to know that the fire was safe inside its home while we were safe inside ours.
I had achieved fire and for one night at least had heated our home. I would later learn that to start my prized fire I had used a king’s ransom of kindling, as I told Dave of my accomplishment and he stared morosely at the pile where all of his lovely kindling had been. The upcoming forecast shows a couple days of higher temperatures, and then we will drop down again. That should give us a chance to restock our supply of combustibles, and I will definitely be more frugal with our supplies.
It never fails that the scent of a wood burning fire makes me yearn for cocoa and flaming marshmallows. One of our neighbors has not only a wood burning stove to heat their home, but also an entire cast iron affair complete with four burners (now I see where that name came from) and an oven all fueled by wood alone. Their stove is gorgeous and I’m fascinated by it. It has me looking at our own modest, but eco-friendly stove, wondering what kind of treats I could whip up using its top as a heat source. A friend recently shared with me that in one of the bad snows a couple of years ago the power had gone out and since she had an electric stove with no electricity she ended up cooking a simple dinner of rice on the top of her wood heating stove. I don’t need to resort to rice cooking on the fireplace yet, but maybe some popcorn… or hot cocoa… or perhaps a gooey cheese dip for a crusty, toasty loaf of bread… I’m going to have to give this some thought. And I would love to hear from any of you, if you have an idea of things to cook on top of a wood burning stove or open flame.
For now, I’m going to content myself with some hot cocoa, and this time at least will make it on our upstairs stove. The wood burning stove in the basement is so efficient that it heats the area quickly, and I think that Dave would boycott. The night of “my fire” I made Dave and I a couple of mugs of this awesome cocoa taught to me by my sister-in-law Erin. Auntie Erin’s cocoa is dairy free, but you will not miss the lack of milk. It tastes like gorgeous dark chocolate, without being overly sweet or thick like some dairy-based cocoas can be. Don’t get me wrong, I love just about all food-products that come from a cow, including milk. This recipe simply doesn’t need it. If, however, you are dead set on a dairy-based cocoa, I have a suggestion for you below. You won’t want to miss it.
Auntie Erin’s Cocoa
The resulting cocoa is rich with dark chocolate, but is not cloyingly sweet like some of the premade mixes can be. You can use regular measuring cups for this recipe, or do what Erin and I do, which is to measure with the mugs that you will be drinking the cocoa from. That means that everyone gets a nice full mug of this deliciously dark, hot cocoa. And please note that this recipe calls for real cocoa powder, not hot cocoa mix. You can use whatever brand of cocoa powder you have on hand, but the better the quality of your cocoa powder the better this drink will be. The main point is to taste your final cocoa before you pour it back into the mugs. If you want it sweeter, add more agave. If you want more chocolate, add more cocoa powder. The first time you make it, try to be sparing in the amount of cocoa and agave you use. It’s easy to add more to the drink, but it cannot be taken back out again. Another trick that I use is after I pour the milks from the mugs into the saucepan, I partially fill the mugs with hot water to keep them warm until the cocoa is done. I want my cocoa hot, not cooled down by a cold mug.s
1 mug of almond milk, unsweetened
1 mug of vanilla rice milk, sweetened is fine
2-3 heaping tbsp. cocoa powder
1-2 tbsp. dark agave syrup
Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the mixture constantly so that it does not scorch and all the cocoa powder is slowly incorporated into the milks. Once the cocoa starts to steam, dip in a spoon and taste for sweetness and amount of chocolate. If you want more chocolate, add a bit more of the cocoa powder. If you want more sweetness, add a bit more of the agave. Pour into mugs and enjoy.
Click here for a printable recipe for Auntie Erins Cocoa.
Now for hot cocoa that uses milk…
Nigella’s Feast Hot Chocolate
For those of you who would like more of a cow-based hit to your drink, the best hot chocolate I’ve had comes from Nigella Lawson’s Feast: Food to Celebrate Life cookbook. This is my favorite cookbook, and if you haven’t checked it out before I highly recommend it. Just about every celebratory meal I’ve had a part in over the last five years has come from this book; from an invitation signing party before the wedding (aka how to get your friends to help you with an impossible task by plying them with food), to a welcome home dinner for my fiancé with a Georgian feast as he came back from the Republic of Georgia, to our housewarming party in Indiana, the list goes on and on.
So let me stop here with the gentle nudge to check out the hot chocolate recipe in Feast for one of those nights when you just want to feel pampered. Nigella’s hot chocolate is flavored with real dark chocolate (save some to nibble on while the milk heats), sweetened with honey and brown sugar, and spiced with a cinnamon stick and vanilla. Cuddle up with a mug of this and a favorite book and you’re good to go. Oh, and did I mention that it is laced with a little dark rum? Silly me for forgetting to mention that… It’s titled Alcoholic Hot Chocolate and is found on page 420. Feel free to leave out the rum if you’d rather, but it’s delicious as is.