‘What have I gotten myself into?’
That was the thought process running through my head in the weeks before I left Victoria for OrcaLab. I was brought on to be the cook for the station this summer, a job normally carried out by Helena on top of all her other responsibilities. Food has always been a passion of mine and I was excited to have the opportunity to explore and expand my skills in a professional setting. Apart from hosting the occasional dinner party, I’d never cooked for a large group but I was still fairly confident in my abilities in that regard. More worrisome was the remoteness of the location; cooking for this many people without easy access to a grocery store would require high levels of organization. But even my anxieties about that paled in comparison to the prospect of cooking on the Queen, the station’s wood cook stove.
When I applied for the position I knew I’d be relying on a wood stove. I did my homework and searched the Internet for tips, tricks and recipes. From that I learned my pieces of wood should be small but little else. I asked Helena for advice and was told not to worry, I would be able to figure it out once I got there. I tried to take her advice to heart but I was still nervous. We agreed I would come out a little bit before the rest of the volunteers so I could get some practice with the Queen.
My last week in Victoria was a whirlwind. I debated which cookbooks to bring, how many sweaters to pack and if I really needed to bring my favourite rubber spatula. Finally though, I set off for my summer adventures. The knots that my stomach had been tying all the way up island instantly disappeared the moment I saw the smiling faces of Paul and Helena in Alert Bay. After introductory hugs and a quick trip to the grocery store we set off to Hanson Island.
When I finally met the Queen I knew we’d get along. She was forged in Sackville, New Brunswick, a small town I’d lived in while attending Mt. Allison University. Despite this connection, cooking on a wood stove has a fairly steep learning curve. I adapted quickly enough to cooking for a crowd and I actually enjoyed the organization required for ordering food but I still found the Queen challenging. Before I figured out my wood management, baking times could be triple what the recipe recommended. I relied heavily on cedar (it burned so easily compared to the fir) and I never quite had the firebox full enough for fear of smothering the fire.
Nearly two months later and I can’t even begin to contemplate returning to cooking on an electric range. I love the slow, constant heat of the fire. The moist heat of the oven does wonders for bread. I’ve even come to enjoy the sometimes intense warmth of the kitchen. What I appreciate most of all though, is the engagement required by the wood stove. I’m constantly tending to the fire, adding fir when it’s needed or the occasional piece of cedar. A big milestone for me was when I finally started to use the damper to help manage the heat. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve mastered the Queen I have certainly come along way in the brief time I’ve been here.
I thought it might be fun to include a recipe with this post. After nearly six weeks without a repeat meal it was difficult to pick just what to share. Ultimately I decided to go with this cookie recipe, which was inspired by a jar of jam a previous assistant gave as a gift. They are a simple and forgiving cookie, important factors when using a wood stove.
Walnut Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen
3/4 cup butter, softened
2 tbs maple syrup
1/2 cup sugar (white or coconut)
1 heaping cup walnuts
1tsp baking powder
2 1/4 cups flour
jam of choice
Start by finely chopping the walnuts. Alternatively you could give them a couple of pulses in a food processor if you have the technology, the goal is a coarse meal.
Once you have prepared the walnuts, cream together the butter with the sugar and maple syrup. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix in the walnut meal, flour and baking powder, stirring until just combined. The mixture will be dry but you should be able to form it into a ball.
Roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball. Flatten into a disc and press your thumb into the dough to make a little depression. Fill the depression with your jam of choice, just shy of a teaspoon usually. I had a lovely fig, walnut jam (thanks Elizabeth!), which went quite nicely with the cookie base. Raspberry jam also works well or even a chocolate ganache if you’re feeling ambitious.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, keeping the firebox full (about 375F in a regular oven). The cookies should be lightly browned on the bottoms. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
By Chris Adams
August 24 2013