Cooking the old-fashioned way, with wood fires and what’s available
During hearth cooking demonstrations at Historic Deerfield, Cynthia Croteau of Greenfield demonstrates how a reflector oven would be set into the fireplace to roast a chicken during the 1800s. The ovens were very expensive and highly coveted, Croteau said.
(Recorder file/Trish Crapo
DEERFIELD (December 29, 2013) — A freshly baked gingerbread cools in the kitchen of Hall Tavern at Historic Deerfield amid other dishes prepared by senior guide and hearth cook Cynthia Croteau during Sunday's hearth cooking demonstrations. Croteau said she has "always loved hearth cooking," and often makes a holiday meal for her family in her fireplace, the way 17th and 18th century cooks would have done. Recorder/Trish Crapo
DEERFIELD (December 29, 2013) — An 18th century dish, chicken-in-a-pot, rests in a redware bowl in the hearth kitchen at Hall Tavern in Historic Deerfield on Sunday. The chicken was cooked whole in broth with root vegetables. Dumpling dough would be added to the hot broth before serving. Recorder/Trish Crapo
DEERFIELD — Conditions outdoors Sunday lent themselves perfectly to avoiding the outdoors, and Cynthia Croteau’s kitchen may have been the perfect place to shelter from the rain.
The heat from the low fire burning in the hearth was almost palpable, carrying the smells of wood smoke and the gingerbread cooking in a cast iron kettle around the small, low-ceilinged room while rain ran down the windows outside.
Croteau demonstrates the techniques of 18th-century cooking in Historic Deerfield’s Hall Tavern kitchen. Sunday afternoon, a round gingerbread loaf baked in a clay dish inside what today would be called a Dutch oven, while chicken soup waited on the table. The two would have been eaten together.
While it is prepared today around the holidays as a dessert, gingerbread would have been eaten with the meal like any other bread in the 18th century, Croteau said.
A special bread oven built into the brickwork above and to the side of the fire would have been used to cook wheat bread in a labor and fuel-intensive process undertaken once a week.
“So you’d bake a lot of loaves of bread on that one day. And during the week you’d resort to your bake kettle, gingerbread, corn bread, batter bread, because with all the people living in these households you would have gone through bread pretty fast,” Croteau said.
While it might have been a substitute for regular bread, it wasn’t a food of last resort.
“It wouldn’t be considered much of a dessert, although it would be a treat,” Croteau said.
If the treat happened to be eaten on Dec. 25, it would not have been in celebration of Christmas. “They were Puritans and they didn’t believe in it,” Croteau said. “They thought it was disgraceful.
The bread follows a recipe, called a receipt at the time, Croteau said, from a 1796 cookbook. The receipt calls for coriander among the ingredients in the spiced bread but is otherwise similar to modern recipes. Molasses is the key ingredient, with flour, eggs, butter, sugar, coriander, cinnamon and cloves. Baking soda or baking powder would not have been in common use at the time, Croteau said.
The bread cooks in the kettle, standing on three short legs at the edge of the fire,with coals raked under the belly of the pot and onto the flat lid.
In this case, the main dish the bread will accompany is a chicken and dumpling soup made by cooking a whole chicken in a broth of water, herbs, salt and pepper, celery, onions, parsnips, turnips, carrots and any other edibles available in a 1700s root cellar at the start of winter. Dollops of raw biscuit dough — biscuit in the modern American sense and not the archaic or English sense meaning a cookie — would cook on top of the boiling soup, in a kettle above the fire. Garlic would be omitted as it was considered purely medicinal at the time, Croteau said. The other ingredients, whether imported like salt and pepper or grown in the back yard, were included in the recipe, if you had them. “It all depended, because when you were out of things, you were out of things,” Croteau said.
Supermarkets have changed that, and modern ovens are a convenient alternative to raking coals around your cookware, but some of the lessons remain applicable more than 200 years later.
Then known as bake kettles or bake ovens, the flat-lidded cast iron pots used to cook gingerbread are still available, as Dutch ovens, and the same techniques apply.
“A lot of people come to Deerfield very familiar with this way of cooking,” Croteau said. “Campers are very familiar with them.”
For those who aren’t familiar, Sunday was the last day of the winter open hearth cooking demonstrations at Historic Deerfield, but small classes begin Feb. 1 and run through April 5. More information on these can be found at Historic Deerfield’s website, www.historic-deerfield.org, or by contacting Claire Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-775-7217.
Croteau, of Greenfield, has researched and demonstrated hearth cooking for visitors since the program began 25 years ago.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257