If you go out the back door of my kitchen and head down the path towards the homemade Iditarod Trail sign that my husband Carl painted, you’ll find a root cellar carved out of a small natural hillock to the side of the trail.
The cellar is in bad shape at the moment — A bear has ravaged the log door that seals the entrance to the small earthen room lined with wooden shelves. The room stays pretty much at a perfect forty degrees all year round.
For the past 30 years, I have always lived with the benefit of a root cellar in or near my kitchen. In our first home, the root cellar was a trap door in the floor just to the left of the kitchen counter. The entrance to the basement-style root cellar was flush with our homemade cottonwood flooring with only an embedded brass ring to reveal the fact that it was a door. Once the hatch was lifted up, that root cellar had several stairs that led down to an underground chamber where I could keep vegetables cool and dark year round. Shelves were built out of earth to hold potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, and beets from my formidable garden.
I made some mistakes early on. One year, I lovingly lined all my shelves with extra dry sawdust from a project Carl had been working on. The humidity shifted and all my carrots went limp as moisture was drawn out of them into the sawdust. I have since learned to use slightly dampened sawdust to keep good moisture in the air (or have another source of moisture in the room). I prefer earthen floors rather than finished ones to help promote humidity.
It’s important to include good ventilation if you are considering a root cellar. I have two small vent pipes sticking out from the top of my root cellar past the snow. One vent pipe is placed low in the room to move cold air around and one vent pipe is higher to move hot air.
This time of year, the vegetables of choice in my kitchen are mostly winter root varieties. We are roasting beets, braising cabbage, and cooking carrots in buttery chicken stock. I like to fry potatoes in a little duck or goose fat and salt and pepper for morning hash browns.
Not all root vegetables in our kitchen are grown in the garden. When I usually have big boxes of sweet potatoes (which don’t grow in my northern garden) left over from holiday meals, they go into cold storage to be reinvented into festive dishes such as cookies, pies, and breads. Sweet potatoes like to stay at around 55 degrees in temperature – the same as wine. A colder temperature might encourage sweet potatoes to soften. They will last about a year if they are stored properly.
Why did the bear rip off the door of my root cellar? It was filled with stinky French cheese and Red Bull specialty drinks. I wonder which he enjoyed the most.
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 cup cooked sweet potato flesh (To bake sweet potatoes, I prick each with a fork in several places, cover them with foil, and bake at 400 degrees for about an hour)
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup packed light brown sugar
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), melted,
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup whole milk
- ½ cup whole pecans, toasted and chopped
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-1/2 by 4-1/2-by 2-1/2-inch loaf pan or two mini-loaf pans.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the sweet potato flesh, sugar, and brown sugar on medium speed until well combined. Add in the melted butter and mix on low speed until smooth. Add in the eggs, one at a time. Add in the vanilla.
- On low speed, add in some of the flour mixture, then some of the milk. Alternate adding in the remaining flour and milk. Continue to mix for about a minute and add in the nuts. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir through the batter once or twice with a wide rubber spatula.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan (or pans) and bake in the center of the oven for about an hour (less time for mini-loaf pans). A cake-tester (or toothpick) inserted into the center of the loaf should come out clean and dry.
- Let the bread cool in the pan for about ten minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing. This bread is particularly good served with cinnamon butter.