COZY COOKIN’

An Aga saga in Negaunee

 

Story and photos by Katherine Larson
The Aga is right there on page one of Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, and in books by Rosamund Pilcher and Joanna Trollope and Elizabeth Goudge. Stage directions for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger specify it. Most readers of 20th-century British fiction have encountered an Aga, simmering or purring away in the book’s kitchen.
Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary of New Words (1997) defines “Aga saga” as “a saga of family life set against a comfortable background typified by possession of a kitchen with an Aga stove…and representing a sustained cosiness.”
But what, actually, is an Aga?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Oh Dear! In the print edition of our December issue, a draft containing suggested edits to Katherine Larson’s At The Table article, which was about preparing Christmas breakfast, accidentally made it to the printed pages. Those familiar with Katherine’s exceptional writing surely knew something was amiss. We apologize to Katherine for this unfortunate mistake, and to our readers who were likely confused by some of the odd results! The correct version has been posted on this website.

Jean Carlson of Negaunee read those books and wondered just that. Then, in 2000, she and husband Wayne decided to redo their kitchen. Jean “fell in love” with the Aga and they ordered one from England, becoming one of only about four U.P. families with Agas. Life has not been the same since.

The Aga is a heat-storage unit designed for cooking. Built of cast iron and heavily insulated, it is intended to stay on all the time, reflecting a gentle heat into the kitchen. Behind its insulated doors lie four compact ovens and under insulated covers sit two cooking plates. The Aga is configured so that each oven and each plate maintains its own prescribed temperature, from very hot (the boiling plate and the roasting oven) to quite gentle (the simmering plate and the warming oven), with a couple more ovens (baking and simmering) in between. But everything is so well insulated that it takes relatively little fuel to maintain these temperatures.

Thus, instead of being a prescription for environmental disaster, the Aga is surprisingly efficient so long as those insulated covers and doors remain shut. In fact, when the Carlsons installed theirs, their gas bill went down.

Jean explained how it works. If, say, she wants to make spaghetti, she quickly gets the water hot on the boiling plate. Then she puts the pot of boiling water and spaghetti in the roasting oven while the sauce gently cooks in the simmering oven. In general, most cooking happens in the ovens, with an occasional blast of heat from a cooking plate.

Our conversation was to be punctuated by demonstrations of the Aga in action, so Jean put a kettle on the boiling plate to make tea. Sure enough, just two minutes later the whole kettle-full was boiling. As we sipped our first mugs, the teapot stayed cozy on the Aga.

Tea is always delightful, but even more delightful with something to munch. So out from the baking oven came the cranberry-cardamom muffins that Jean had tucked in before I arrived. “The recipe came from my friend Judy Altobello,” Jean said. “But I like to sprinkle a little rapea raesokeri [little chunks of sugar, about the size of a rice grain] before baking. I get rapea raesokeri so I don’t have to bash sugar cubes with the back of a spoon like my grandma did.”

Cardamom and rapea raesokeri… Did I detect Finnish heritage?

You betcha. Jean is half Finnish and half Cornish, while Wayne is half Finnish and half Swedish. But “we both resonate with the Finnish parts.”

The muffins themselves were superb: light, not too sweet, the fresh cranberries melting into the perfect texture of the cake and the cardamom’s subtle warmth infusing each bite.

Basset hound Barney came by to see if either of us was offering tidbits. No luck. So he heaved a sigh and went to drape himself on the floor in front of the Aga, his favorite place.

When the Aga entered the Carlson house five of their six children were still at home, and “on cold days, I’d laugh—everyone would be lined up in front of the Aga, enjoying the warmth. It’s still true. The children stand there with their morning coffee, and the grandchildren are on the floor with the dogs, who need to be where everyone else is.”

That first Christmas with the new cooking unit, Jean approached it with considerable trepidation. The instructions had said it could accommodate a 31-pound turkey but, looking at it, that seemed impossible. “Wayne wanted to test it, so he got the biggest turkey he could find, 31 or 32 pounds. It just barely fit into the roasting oven, not on a rack but in a pan on the bottom of the oven. The top of the turkey didn’t quite touch the top of the oven and the sides of the turkey didn’t quite touch the sides. We left it there for an hour, then moved it to the simmering oven where it stayed for the next 16 hours. I didn’t baste it even once! And it came out perfect, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.”

How did they know to use this two-oven technique? “We read about it in Mary Berry’s The Aga Book.” That’s Mary Berry of “The Great British Baking Show” fame. Her book is apparently the bible for Aga lovers; it provides detailed instructions on how best to use the various ovens—and the multiple levels within each oven—for optimal cooking.

So, with Mary Berry’s assistance, the Carlsons were well launched.

Chili. Stew. Pork tenderloin. Prime rib. Roast chicken. Pot roast. Potatoes. Jam…

Jam?

Jean said, “I noticed just this summer that an old untended bush in the corner of garden was bearing fruit. It was the first time; we’d never paid it any attention. So I looked it up in my gardening book and realized oh my! I have gooseberries! And I saw the recipe in Mary Berry’s book, so I had to make gooseberry jam.”

She weighed her fresh gooseberries, then measured out sugar weighing three-quarters of that amount. Then she put gooseberries in a pan with a bit of water, brought it to a boil, and put the pan in the simmering oven for about an hour. After mashing the fruit well she stirred in sugar and boiled the mixture in the roasting oven for about 10 minutes.

Jean brought out a jar of this delectable confection so we could try it. The Aga works as a toaster: a round rack holding up to four pieces of bread fits on the boiling plate, and half a minute per side produces a beautiful slice of toast which served as the perfect vehicle for the jam. Wow. Superb.

But toast and jam is not especially Finnish, so Jean had to show me how the Aga handles pannukakku, using a recipe from Wayne’s grandmother. “The Finns, or at least the Finnish-Americans I know, eat it for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. Or as a dessert, topped with berries and whipped cream. Or dusted with cinnamon sugar, or maple syrup.”

Jean put a 9-by-12-inch pan on the simmering plate so the stick of butter she had placed in it would melt. “The recipe doesn’t have to be super fussy, so I sort of eyeball the quantities.” In a mixing bowl, she whipped up four eggs, 2/3 cup flour, 1/3 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt. Then, slowly, she added two cups of milk, and beat the whole thing up until it was frothy.

By now the butter was melted and she poured batter into the pan, stirred it around gently, then put the pan into the roasting oven. (If she were using a conventional oven, she would have preheated it to 400°F.) After about 25 minutes the concoction had puffed up, all golden brown and fragrant.

Jean sprinkled a bit of cinnamon sugar on top, then opened the simmering oven to reveal a small pot that had been sitting there since my arrival. It contained wild blueberries (“Wayne and I picked about 11 gallons this summer”), a drop of vanilla, a squeeze of lemon, a tad of salt, and a bit of sugar, which after a few hours in the simmering oven had combined to form a delectable sauce.

With pannukakku and wild blueberry sauce, I too was ready to embrace my inner Finn. The combination was extraordinary—again not too sweet, but richly flavored and mouthwateringly good.

Wayne does much of the baking in the Carlson house, while Jean generally prefers to focus on savory dishes. “We make a good team,” she said. At Christmas, however, both swing into action to make the famous Carlson cardamom bread. “Wayne makes about 60 loaves, and I make another 15 or 20. We give most of it away, but we love eating it too.”

They set bread to rise in the gentle heat next to the Aga, and then bake it in the roasting oven (for most loaves) or the baking oven (for cardamom bread, because of its higher fat content). The Aga’s top also provides the ideal warmth for making yogurt.

The ideal warmth for non-food uses, too. “It’s a great drying rack—in winter there’s such a line-up of mittens and hats hanging above the cooker. I dry tea towels and fine washables on the insulated cover above the boiling plate. The Aga is also great for airing sheets and towels.” One could heat a non-electric flatiron on the unit. And even when the power goes out “it stays warm for a day; you can still cook for quite a while if you’re careful.”

How about in summer? “Mostly it’s great. This past summer, with that hot spell, it did get a bit warm, so I had a fan going. But it was still cooler to use the ovens than to go outside and grill, where it was even hotter. Up here in the U.P., thankfully, that doesn’t happen often.”

What about cleaning those ovens? Jean beamed. “That’s one of the best things about the Aga. With the continuous heat, if there’s a spill it self-cleans, and I don’t have to do anything. I love to make bacon in the roasting oven, where I don’t have to deal with mess. Steak, too, on a cast-iron skillet in that oven. It gets a beautiful crust, and it’s tender inside, and there’s no mess.”

“The kitchen is the heart of our home, and the Aga is the heart of the kitchen,” Jean said. “I like food. I like feeding people. Wayne also loves everything to do with cooking and feeding people. Our family celebrations always seem to center on food.”

She added, “As a child, our family always ate meals together. And I observed other families, and saw that some people seemed to have a gift of hospitality—it wasn’t fussy, but everything was so delicious, and there was always plenty of food, and they always made you feel welcome. I thought, ‘I’d like to be that way.’”

She is. Thank you, Jean.

 

 

Recipe: Cranberry-Cardamom Muffins

In the Carlson kitchen, the crumples and spots on a card in their friend Judy Altobello’s handwriting proclaims how much her recipe is loved. Here it is, as written:

 

3-1/2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1-3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cardamom ← I use more.

1-1/2 cups fresh cranberries

4 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups sour cream [or yogurt]

1/2 cup melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

 

In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cardamom. Add cranberries, stir to coat. In a small bowl, combine eggs, sour cream, butter, and vanilla; mix well. Add to flour mixture, stir just until moistened. Fill greased muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake at 375° for 15-20 minutes or until muffins test done. Remove from pans. Serve warm. About 1 dozen large or 2 dozen small.

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