Tuesday, July 14, 2009

JTAC Episode 7: Introducing Mrs Doubtfire

OK blame it on the frustrated novelist in me, I just had to leave you in suspense at the end of the last blog. As it turns out when my daughter rang me in the gym to say the Aga had turned itself off she was only half-right: the burner had turned off because the Aga had reached its operating temperature , the pilot light was still going and it has been running smoothly ever since. I have had a pretty big learning curve (when the pasta water boils over my first instinct is to reach for a knob to turn the heat down under it, umm wrong, you have to take the pot away from the heat) and have christened the Aga Mrs Doubtfire - because beneath the lovely warm English accented exterior is an implacable, solidly built, occasionally fiery creature who bites you when you're not paying attention (first on my to-buy list from the Aga shop a really good set of oven mitts!).

An English writer says about cooking on the Aga that you don't set the oven temperature you find it - that you learn where your ovens are hottest and coolest and adjust your cooking habits accordingly. Thus a roast pork with fennel roasted in the very hottest part of the roasting oven ( the top rack) is moved down a couple of rungs after an inital browning to sit at a heat of around 220. Cakes cannot be cooked in the oven on their own, they either have to have a Cold Plain Shelf (a sheet of metal which is kept out of the oven until needed) which shields it from the intense heat of the top and lowers the temperature around the cake to 180, or you cook them at the same time as something is cooking above it.

I've had some great sucesses and failures in the short week Mrs Doubtfire has been operating:
  • Baking is for the most part a delight. Biscuits and muffins are fantastic, but everything cooks in a much shorter time, even using the cold plain shelf, so you really need to set a timer and keep an eye out. I burnt a banana cake which was at the same time uncooked in the very middle by putting a loaf tin too close to one side of the oven and leaving it in too long. The oven top is a fantastic place to prove dough for the bagels I made last Sunday and also for melting chocolate and butter for brownies or crumbles, or anything at all really.
  • I'm struggling so far to work out the best way to do slow braises and casseroles. What is know as the simmering oven (at the bottom) is actually really only a warming oven. The temperature sits at around 90 - 100 degrees, really too cool to keep anything simmering. I discovered this the night before last when I put a traditional bolognese sauce in it to simmer overnight, only to open it the next morning and find it had not simmered at all but just stayed very warm.
  • Cooked Sunday breakfast is fantastic - bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes in a roasting pan near the top of the oven. Eggs are broken directly onto the simmering hot plate (well not directly, but onto a magical material called Bake-o-Glide, a silicon sheet) with the lid closed over the top of them - kind of a cross between fried and baked eggs.
  • The only major disappointment is that the Aga does not pump out as much heat into the kitchen as I had expected. Make no mistake the kitchen is always warm, but the warmth doesn;t spread out much beyond it. This is actually a direct consequence of the Aga's magnificent engineering, it is so well-insulated and thermally efficient that all the heat is retained within the oven itself.

My cat by the way just loves the Aga - he sits directly in front of it, looking slightly bemused - he knows its warm, but he doesn;t know where the warmth is coming from. Usually he positions himself in front of the ducted heating vent and gets a good blow-wave at the same time, but now he gets the same result without having his fur ruffled - magical!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

JTAC episode 6: A Grand Folly?

You may recall a couple of posts back I was writing with much excitement as the Agaman was installing and doing the gas conversion on the Aga. Well after 10 hours of work, at 7pm on a Friday night John finished the job, fired up the Aga, gave me instructions on operating and left. I felt a little like a mother going home with her first-born: Don't leave me alone with this thing! The gas burner was roaring away (and I was imagining the next gas bill) when we went to bed and the mercury was slowly making its way up to the all important sweet spot between two lines on the temperature gauge at which the Aga needs to sit. During the night I got up once and walked into a kitchen warm and toasty, then early in the morning I got up again (I told you it was like having a new baby!) to silence and cold in the kitchen - the burner & the pilot had gone out! Well as they say in the South African classics, lots of 'snot en traane' (snot & tears!) followed as David & Jonathan together tried to relight the pilot & I watched on and gave useless advice. I phoned the Agaman who came early next morning (Sunday) pronounced that some grit had blocked the gas line into the pilot, cleaned it out, relit it and left.

So no Aga breakfast for us, but I made plans for soup once it had got up to operating heat. About 6.30 on Sunday night I started preparing for a roasted pumpkin and sweet potato soup, cheese scones and an apple & blackberry crumble. Everything was going swimmingly: pumpkin and sweet potato were in the hottest spot in the top of the Roasting Oven, cheese scones cooking below them in next to no time, apples were stewed, butter was melting on the Aga top for the crumble when CLICK! the burner turned off and an ominous silence ensued. The bloody thing had gone out again! I rang John, who swore, apologised and promised he'd be there first thing Monday morning. Around about this time there were two things going through my mind: "Oh my God this thing is going to turn into the biggest folly of my life" and "There's still all that stored heat in there - what can I make?" Ignoring the former I commenced baking like a maniac, biscuits, a couple of cakes, by the time I went to bed that night we had had a great dinner and all the biscuit tins and cake tins were full (and the Aga was still warm, damn I should have made meringues!)

Next morning John returned, spent even more time dismantling and cleaning out the burners, told me to pray and that he was leaving on Wednesday to do some Aga work in the country. With trepidation I went to the shop and rang up a couple of times during the day to ask Pippa if it was still on - "Yes Mum it's still on". After closing for the day I went to the gym and was in the change room when my mobile rang and a teary voice said "Mum I think the Aga's gone off again. The burner's not going and it's making a clicking noise". The whole time I was in the gym (luckily it was boxing!) I was on the verge of tears "#$%^ what am I going to do, I've just spent several thousand dollars, and I'm going to end up with nothing". Even worse I knew that John was not going to be able to come in the next day to fix it. You know that horrible sinking feeling you get sometimes when bad things surround you? Well that pretty much sums up my mood as I left the gym.

JTAC Episode 5: elbow grease

Last time I posted I wrote about the Aga being moved into place in my kitchen. The Agaman made a time to come back in ten days to do the conversion, and in the interim I spent almost every spare moment cleaning, repairing and repainting. Carly said that every time she rang I seemed to be doing something with the Aga, and indeed we had one long conversation during which (with the phone wedged under my chin) I gave the top and sides their second coat of paint! Pics below are all before shots, I'm holding back on afters until all the work is done on the surrounds so you can see it in all its glory!

First job was to clean - using lots of very hot water and a bit of Gumption on the baked on food. A bigger job was derusting the ovens - despite my apprehension when it arrived, the Aga is actually very sound, and in fact was only showing the kind of oxidisation you would expect after being outside for a year. After I spent a few hours with a steel brush, David discovered that a wire brush attachment on a drill does a really thorough job, (but makes a BIG mess of the kitchen). Both ovens were then oiled with vegetable oil and looked, if not new, at least 100% better than before. Next we had to attend to the top: what we thought was rust was in fact years of baked-on food and flaking paint, and was removed with LOTS of elbow grease. The sides of the oven did have rust patches ( as you can see in last post's photos) which we treated with a neutraliser and then painted with a gloss enamel. We also repainted the top with a couple of coats of the old-style pot belly paint and then at John's advice I rubbed it over with a little Vaseline - apparently it's what all the 'old birds' used to use.
All this was completed just in time for John's arrival last Friday to install a flue and the gas conversion kit as well as replacing some of the parts which were beyond redemption.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Joining the Aga cult episode 4: D-day (or should that be A-day?)

Last Monday heralded the removal of the Aga from its old home to it's new one in my kitchen. The Aga man, John called me about 2pm and I closed the shop early and scurried home just in time to see them pulling into the drive with my treasure in the trailer. I must admit when I first saw it my heart sank - remember I had only had one viewing of it before buying it - and now I was seeing it in all its imperfections. I couldn't help thinking of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations - once beautiful it was now faded and dirty and neglected, and it seemed to have more rust than I remembered. Well there was no going back now! Pictures speak louder than words so I've posted lots of photos of the process of getting it off the trailer (with a winch) onto our sloping driveway (which posed some problems) and then down our sloping curved pathway (ditto) through 2 doorways into the kitchen. The whole process took around 3 hours - remember it weighs around 400 kgs. Once off the trailer John, his son James and my son Jonathan used a series of metal pipes as runners and lots of manhandling to move it (kind of the way they built the pyramids really!) John had to remove the towel rail from the front to get it through the kitchen door and once inside we discovered that the plinth David built was way to big for the AGA, but once its on there it's not going anywhere so we'll just have to work around it. Any thoughts I had of upgrading to a 4 oven Aga in the future have disappeared: it was difficult enough getting the 2 oven in!

To my son's bemusement I have already assigned the AGA a gender ( it has to be a women really - warm, versatile and nurturing!) and have so far avoided giving her a name. The Aga man tells me most are called Agatha, but I think I can do better than that!

So here are the pics. I'm writing this as John is installing the flue and the new gas burner so another post tomorrow to show it's transformation. I'm SO excited!!