I’m sat writing this post whilst a pot merrily bubbles away on my Aga. It’s a lovely copper pot from a set bagged in one of those brilliant Aldi sales. A bargain set that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to justify buying and one that looks gorgeous in our kitchen.
We didn’t have the Aga when we first moved to this house. We had an old Rayburn that was an antique. It heated the hot water and could also manage to warm a croissant on a good day! There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but whilst pregnant with my second child this Rayburn as stoic and quaint as it was had to be turned off. The faint smell of kerosene which normally I wouldn’t have even detected turned my stomach on a regular basis, as well as almost everything else, from tea, to pizza to the herbs in the garden. I was bilious for the entire 9 months.
Fast forward to the arrival of our bouncing baby boy and the onset of Winter and I had started to regret my slightly rash decision. My family were visiting and the cold had firmly set in in our rambling old farmhouse. The olive oil was going solid in the kitchen, (first World problem I know)! The following week my generous and practical step father called and declared that he had a deal for me. He had the old Aga from when I was a child stashed in a barn back on the farm in Herefordshire. He said that our kitchen could do with the warmth and he would be happy to have it reconditioned and installed. All I had to do was talk my Aga-phobic husband into accepting this jaw dropping gift and choose a colour.
Cue begging and pleading to said husband. It wouldn’t cost that much in oil surely. I would cook amazing meals I promised. It’s beautiful. It’s an heir loom! I wanted to be reunited with the stove I used to warm my school uniform on as a child. I chose white. It was game on.
Sometime later the swap was made. My Rayburn was part exchanged and went on to a new life to be reconditioned and installed elsewhere and my childhood friend arrived. Now in shiny white (it was black). I used to have a Rangemaster at my old house. A huge range full of gadgets and wizardry with a slide out grill and induction top. I loved the Rangemaster don’t get me wrong. But it did make me wonder in comparing it to the new Aga. The Aga was reconditioned from solid fuel when it was installed in the house I grew up in. This was (well) over thirty years ago. It’s now been reconditioned again, so much of it is new, but in terms of what it does it is pure simplicity. How would it compare to modern technology? I have one burner on the top which is really hot. One which is not quite as hot. Then I have one blisteringly hot oven and one gentle simmering oven. Using various techniques in these four spaces you can cook anything and no modern technology is required. The best thing is that what you cook turns out epic pretty much all the time (aside from cakes, but we can get to that topic)!
That being said it took a while to get going. Sometime after the Aga was installed my neighbour enquired how it was going and asked what I had cooked so far. I had to be honest…. Oven chips I replied! She laughed. But it’s been in a while now and I have managed to conjure up a little more than chips. I sometimes think about all the gadgets you can have in a kitchen cluttering up worktops. When we eventually had a new kitchen fitted I only unpacked about half of the boxes I had packed away and the rest are still in an outbuilding here ready to go to the charity shop. It transpires that I didn’t use half of what I had. My kettle boils on the Aga. I make toast on the Aga. I make paninis and toasties on the Aga in Bake-O-Glide under the lid. I use the simmering oven as a slow cooker. We cook pizzas on the floor of the roasting oven. I really do love how one very simple and very old fashioned tool can do everything and without any gadgetry. It’s not even plugged in. These days, that’s brilliant. I don’t think there are any wires in it and it genuinely does make a purring sound. I like to sit with my back to it on a cold morning and massage knots in my muscles against the door hinges. I also smile about the fact that it is pretty much self-cleaning. If you leave anything in the Aga ovens for long enough they turn to dust and I’ve already found a few forgotten morsels languishing in the oven, transformed to black soot version of themselves. I definitely don’t miss that strange smell you get on the filament of a modern oven that eventually makes your food taste of burnt Cif.
Before I go on… a confession… I’m not a great cook. I’m OK. I’m usually frantic and unwashed. I have two small children. I’m making excuses I know. But from an ordinary Mum who has been getting to know her Aga for a year now I can give you the highlights. Maybe you have moved into a house that already has an Aga and are thinking what I am going to do with this? Or maybe you are thinking of getting one (I highly recommend a reconditioned Aga like mine). But here is a crib list of busy Mum cooking.
My favourite Crosta and Mollica flatbreads stuffed with anything and folded then wrap in Bake-O-Glide and toast under the lid of the cooler hot plate. This method works for toasties as well and just about anything that can be squashed and toasted.
My husband is impossible to buy gifts for. One year I was very smug as I found this nifty kit that converts a regular kettle BBQ (think one of those round Weber jobs) into a pizza oven. It really works and is super simple so bonus points there for brilliance. We get it out in the Summer and the whole family loves pizza nights. It came with a pizza paddle which we now use with the Aga. I bought a job lot of bacoglide. I use the round shapes to fashion a pizza on top of then use the paddle to slide the whole lot onto the base of the roasting oven. Minutes later the pizza has a lovely crispy base. Then I use the paddle to transfer it to the top rail to crisp off the topping. The whole family makes pizza including our two-year-old son (very messy). We have a bread machine bought as a wedding present years ago that we use to make pizza dough, although I am sure it is very easy to make without one.
This is all there is to it. Grab yourself a cast iron pot. Make a “spag’ bol” up the way you normally would, then sling it in the simmering oven. Then apply that same method to practically any kind of hot pot / slow cooker recipe, chilli, curry. Anything! The other day I made a lovely recipe with chicken, tarragon and white wine. I had friends coming to stay. There were kids, pony rides, general craziness and I was thinking I could at least get dinner done and out of the way. It took minutes to pan fry the chicken so it was golden, then sling all of the rest of the ingredients in. Then into the simmering oven it went for so many hours I lost count and started to worry there would be nothing left but a hard baked cow pat style crust. By the time we had managed to get all the kids bathed and into bed and were ready to attack our ‘grown-up’ dinner it was quite late, however it was glorious and I’ve already made it again.
I thought I was imagining it until family friends came to stay. Their eldest daughter quietly nodded whilst munching and said you are right; Aga toast does taste better.
My husband was horrified that we no longer owned an oven with a conventional grill. He lamented about bacon many times. In fact I found that if I put a tray with Bake-O-Glide at the top of the roasting oven it ‘grilled’ the bacon just fine. I since referred to my little book and have started putting it on the floor of the roasting oven, same tray, same Bake-O-Glide and this also works a treat.
Of course, don’t forget to ditch your electric kettle and get a stove top kettle with a whistle. Yes, it might take a little longer time to boil, but it’s not that bad, just don’t fill it to the top! My stove top kettle will boil hot water for a cuppa or two in about a minute.
This is admittedly annoying as it costs money and has to be organised. Another diary date to squeeze into the general muddle of life. Basically you have to treat your Aga like a boiler. Which reminds me, I need to get the boiler serviced!!! Luckily the chap that comes to service our Aga is absolutely lovely and from near my home town (village), so I genuinely look forward to seeing him. A service is about £100 and roughly every six months. We switch it of the night before and by morning it is lukewarm and cold enough to be serviced by late morning when he arrives. My Aga tells me when it needs servicing as it slowly drops temperature until it struggles to cook a tray of fish fingers. As soon as the service is done it rages back into life!
We now find that the kitchen is a sad cold place when the Aga is switched off for servicing. It’s warmth seeps into the rest of the house and we reach for the central heating less often.
The Dreaded Cost
As I mentioned before this Aga is a reconditioned antique. It runs on oil, as does our boiler. We are rural. I was slightly nervous that this new piece of kit would drain our whopping 2,250 litre oil tank in a matter of weeks, but this hasn’t been the case. I think we reach for the thermostat to pop the central heating on less often since it arrived as it’s ambient heat reaches through much of the busy living spaces of the house. Obviously it costs something to run because it is sipping away at our oil, but I genuinely haven’t noticed how much because it hasn’t been a shocking amount more. My sister bought a beautiful new electric Aga for their two bedroom cottage and the electric bill rocketed. Although my old Aga doesn’t have some of the modern gadgets of a new Aga, I can’t say I feel that I need them. We kept the Aga on throughout last Summer which was a giddy 30 degrees and didn’t feel too baked in the kitchen. In fact we made the bold move of having the Aga as the only cooker in the house. I’ve never regretted this decision. I simply wouldn’t use another oven if I did install one.
A final word on cakes and such like
For the first year I’ve had the Aga I’ve marvelled at its flexibility and how easy it was to use…. And then I tried to bake a cake. Or rather cremate a cake. Then I cremated another one. A couple of times we’ve done biscuits (also cremated). I took to whipping them out almost as soon as I put them in to avoid them being singed to a crisp. My Aga is ferocious when it comes to baked goods. I had to turn to a little book my sister gave me to read up on how to get around this. This is how I tackle a cake now and we’ve finally managed to produce some edible baked goods. We quite often mash up brown bananas to save wasting them and cook a quick banana bread.
- Put in your baking shelf (or cold shelf) into the Aga before you start to mix everything up. The baking shelf is a big flat sheet of metal that deflects the heat. I used to put it at the very top of the roasting oven, but now I put it directly above the cake.
- When the cake / loaf is ready to go into the oven put it on a shelf directly below the baking shelf and keep your eye on it!! For the banana bread I leave it in for around twenty minutes.
- At this point the top looks done, but the cake will still be raw inside. Transfer the cake / loaf to the simmering oven putting it on top of the hot baking sheet on one of the rails. Cook it for almost the rest of the time, but probably not quite! It cooks rapidly.
The recipe I use for the banana bread says 1 hour to 1 ¼ hours in the oven at 180. I do twenty minutes in the roaster with the baking sheet then about thirty minutes in the simmerer on the baking sheet and that usually does the trick.
I would hate to go back to my old Rangemaster now. I love the Aga so much. My sister has also moved house and although her electric bills are far more palatable, I know she misses her Aga and plans to get another one as soon as they can afford it.