Brick Oven Baking .... and explosions

Thursday, April 29, 2010


    Burnt waxed paper smells like birthdays.  At least, that was the memory my sense of smell triggered, until my brain took over and I connected the flames on the waxed paper with the flames on wax candles in cakes. 
    I had rolled out each ball of dough into a see-through circle, then stacked them between squares of deli paper to move them.  Even though each individual piece was fragile, thinner than pie crust, more like strudel dough, together they formed a decent bulk, heavy enough to set on the picnic table and leave while I turned to the oven. 
    The fire hissed as I used the paddle to break it apart and move it away from the opening.  The logs cracked, the sparks made popping sounds.
    I sponged off the front stones with a wet rag, while the coals that had been pushed to the back sat stacked up on each other, glaring pale orange in the black of the ashes and flickering into an occasional flame.  The first tortilla I tried to frisbee closer to the flames, but instead of sliding through the air, it wrinkled over itself and instantly began to blister with small pockets of air, then bubble with larger pockets.  The smell of warm flour rose off of the stones, mixed in with the smokiness of the disturbed fire.  That's about all tortillas smell like, warm flour, but it's a comforting smell, a smell that makes you hungry.  I reached into the oven and adjusted it, now that it had formed a crust and risen off of the floor somewhat.  Several small jerks, in and out of the oven, and the wrinkle was smoothed out.  There wasn't really a fire anymore and I had just used cold water to clean off the gray of the powered logs, but the sheer heat of the air made my hand feel like it was burning if I held it in there for more a few seconds. 
    I began leaving the waxed paper on the tortillas, to better position them on the stones, then pulling it off carefully, as the dough crisped and began to separate.  With each piece I put in, the far edges turned a deep brown and kept the scent of hot wax in the air.  The color of the dough changed from pale yellow to white with darker circles and went from flat to expanding into gorgeous bubbles. 
    I had kneaded the tortilla dough, before portioning out the individual disks.  Fold and turn and fold and turn.  One hand pressing on the other, the heel of my palms pushing the dough apart, my fingers gathering it back on top of itself.  I love the rhythms of kneading.  You can feel the structure of the dough change under your hands, from soft and weak to firm and elastic, bouncing back to its original shape almost before you are ready. 
    Touch.  Smell.  Sight.  Taste.  Hearing.   A person can be deaf or blind.  They can have little to no sense of taste or smell.  But does anyone ever lose the sense of touch, of feeling?  Each of the other four are so centralized.  Only two ears, only two eyes.  One nose, one tongue.   And each of these so exposed, right out in the open.  Touch, though is everywhere.  You stand out on the rocks in front of the oven and you feel their edges under your feet.   You walk through a doorway too quickly and feel its edge on your shoulder.  You knead bread and feel it form with your hands. 
    Is touch more important than the other senses?  In the dark, you can find your way by touch.  If you are blind, you can learn a person's face by touch.  If you cannot taste, you can still identify foods by texture, shape, size.   Sometimes, blocking out some of your senses opens up the others.  You close your eyes and become instantly more aware of sounds, and feelings.  We have discovered ways to compensate for lack of four of our senses.  Braille, lip reading, sign-language.  Would we find a way to compensate for loss of feeling as well? 
    What would happen to wordless messages, passed through a touch on the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek, a hug to welcome or say goodbye?  Strange, that that one sense so outnumbers the others.  Perhaps we should be using it more.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Vanilla bean, brick oven, kitchen torch, creme brulee

My mother had been asking me to make creme brulee since December, when she received four ramekins as a Christmas present.  My father had been asking me since December to use the kitchen torch that he gave her along with the dishes.

My afternoon today was more open than normal, a math test earlier this week leading to no math homework today.  I spent the afternoon working with the oven, beginning with carrying pine logs from the woodpile near the lawn-mower shed over to the raised-bed that sits beside the oven.  The weather was beautiful, sun, birds, green grass, all the cliches of a summer day.  Each time I stepped outside to check on the fire, I passed through the greenhouse and was surrounded by the scent of warm potting soil that the black plastic pots of seedlings were giving off.  The old dented metal bowl that my mother has mixed soil in as far back as I can remember is sitting on the curved cement work table that my father built her just a few summers ago, a project that followed directly on the heels of the pizza oven.

I took my time today, working on building up the heat in the oven slowly, following advice that I've been given the past three weeks, each time my results were smoky, burnt, or otherwise unsatisfactory.  Be more patient, my mother said.  It works better if you plan ahead, my father said.

When the oven was pushing waves of constant heat out into the already warm air and the stones had been sitting under the fire for two hours, with the creme brulee sitting in the ramekins inside on the counter, I unwound the hose and scraped the still glowing coals out, through the ash hole until they were scattered under the oven.  I sprayed them over thoroughly, not wanting anything that shouldn't catch fire to catch fire.  Barefoot on the stone, when I tried to step closer, a wayward coal became trapped under my foot, searing my toe. 

I was patient with the custards, setting each ramekin carefully into a larger metal pan and filling it halfway with water, a water bath, supposed to control their cooking rate so that they came out smooth and creamy.  I checked them after an hour.  Still wobbly.  After two hours.  Their centers jiggled.  After three hours.  They were deep yellow, smelled of rich cream and vanilla, and they were still not set.  Spanish class rapidly approaching, I pulled them out of the brick oven and carried them to the inside oven.  It felt like cheating, but I was getting worried about the eggs, sitting out there in the warmth, but not quite cooking.

Once inside one of the smooth white convection ovens set into our kitchen wall, the custards set up quickly.  I ate dinner, pulled them out of the water bath to better cool, found my books and keys, wrapped the cremes brulee and set them in the refrigerator and drove to class.  By the time I made it home, I was tired, but I wanted to see this project through to the end.  I called my mother into the kitchen.

Together, we located the raw sugar and the kitchen torch.  Neither of us knew how it worked.  I can operate the foot long torch that we use for creme brulee at work, but I didn't want to break this one by fiddling with it.  My father came to the rescue, showing us how to obtain flame.  I took the first custard, gave it a thin layer of sugar, then passed the torch slowly across its top, in circular patterns, as the sugar rose up, bubbled unhappily, then turned to a dark golden brown and subsided.  Another layer of sugar, then I repeated my actions.  When the sugar was all dissolved into a crust across the top of the ramekin, I passed the torch to my mother.  My father hung over her shoulder a bit.  "You can hold it closer," he advised, as she maneuvered the flame.  She achieved her desired result, retiring to her desk with one of the ramekins.  I offered the third custard to my father and he put his advice to action, passing the torch so quickly and closely across the surface that some of the sugar blackened.

We shattered one of the sugar crusts, spooning into the deep cream-yellow underneath.  No smoke flavor.  My father commented on this and I smiled.  My parents have their wishes fulfilled, creme brulee and kitchen torch, I have mine fulfilled, no smoke flavor in this dessert.  I have taken their advice and things have come out better.

I stayed in the kitchen a bit longer, putting away clean dishes, washing up some of the dirty ones.  My father, quietly retired to the couch in the living room, my mother stayed at her computer, though I knew she would join him in a few minutes.

And I know that yes, my father built the oven and my mother taught me how to follow a recipe.  But this evening is built on things deeper than that.  I know that whenever I need advice, they will give it and it will be good advice.  I know that even when I make smoky pineapple baklava that we have to throw out because no-one can stomach it, they will encourage me.  I know that they will send me to bed, shortly, so that I can get up in the morning and go to math class.  And I think that this is what family was meant to be like.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


    I arrived home from my last class over an hour ago, with nothing left on my to-do list for the day except writing a blog.  Since then, I have checked facebook, read through e-mails, listened to a podcast, and considered writing for a forum that has nothing to do with brick ovens.  I have procrastinated. 
    This morning, sitting in my morning classes, it occurred to me that I needed to do something with the oven, in order to actually have a subject for a blog post.  Quick sounded good, easy sounded nice.  My last few efforts having been lowered in quality due to smoke flavor, I brainstormed for something quick and easy that would not be harmed by smoke flavor.  The obvious choice, at least to my mind, this morning, was s'mores.  Not gourmet, not historical, not something that actually needs an oven, I couldn't actually convince myself that s'mores were something I ought to be making.  But the very idea of them was so enjoyable, that I stopped at an Albertson's on my drive home and picked up chocolate bars and a bag of huge marshmallows. 
    I could have taken another route, reminding myself that the smoke flavor was being caused by baking with the fire still burning in the back of the oven.  And the reason I had to leave it there was due to not planning ahead far enough to heat the bricks through, allow the fire to die, clean the oven out, and then do my baking.  It would be, will be, character building, I am sure, when I force myself to exercise patience and planning in conjunction with my blogging homework.  Today, though, the idea of s'mores was too good to pass up.
    I poured marshmallows into a plastic bowl, broke the chocolate into squares in another, and laid graham crackers in a third.  As I carried them out through the greenhouse sliding door, the sun gave out enough warmth to cause the faint smell of potting soil to permeate the air.  There was a tiny breeze, but lighting this fire, with dry, rattling wood and no blustering wind forcing itself through the door to blow out my flames, was delightfully easy. 
    My younger siblings took a break from their studies to join me.  We slid the marshmallows onto roasting sticks and poked them inside the oven, the narrow door making it so only one or two people could roast at once. 
    Second to youngest sister quickly finished her s'more, but couldn't resist coming back outside with the camera.  Ian, our Taiwanese exchange student, had stuck his first marshmallow directly into the flame, and as I pulled the ashy sugar off of his stick, the camera wielder directed me to turn and smile. 
    "You've got marshmallow on your cheek." 
    I licked it off.
    "Now you've got marshmallow on the other side."
    I tried again.
    "Maybe you should just use your hands."
    I did as instructed, then posed with the black marshmallow, as more s'mores were constructed behind my back. 
    The sun was just warm enough the melt the milk chocolate squares in the bowl, making the edges of the bricks pool into softer curves.  Our dog wandered about under the table, hoping some random accident would flip it over so that she could ruin her teeth forever with the sugar.   We roasted the marshmallows, breaking the toasty crust to let the warm goo inside ooze out over the chocolate and graham crackers. 
    It was one of those moments when you realize why words like halcyon  and blissful exist in the English language.  We weren't done with our work for the day.  I was, perhaps, putting off math homework for a little while longer.  But taking the time to get marshmallow on my face and discuss with my brother the merits of a golden brown roast versus a dark brown roast was advantageous as well.  Certainly, taking breaks from constant study will help the mind relax and refresh.  This type of break, though, is different from the one I was taking a few minutes ago.  Reading e-mails and browsing web-sites is relaxing enough that it can make me fall asleep, but it has never been something I would term halcyon.  Halcyon was more than a sugar-rush or a job accomplished, even though those may have been part my experience today.  It was more than doing the unexpected and making s'mores in a place that was perhaps more inconvenient than useful for the task.  Halcyon was some of this and some of the strange comments,
    "The best part of s'mores is the sweet part."
    "The principles of marshmallow expansion"
    "I want to burn my own marshmallow off."
Some of this and some of the intangible.  Something that can't be recreated, even though it was not the best or worst of its time.  A halcyon moment, in the warm air that said spring might finally be barefoot, blossoming weather.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


      I can feel a drop of water, barely moving downwards on my cheek.  My hair is wet and I am waiting my turn for a haircut.  A squeak-hum of bicycle wheels is coming from the next room, where my father is using up energy before bed.  Close to me, the metallic sounding snip of scissors, as my mother finishes with my brother's hair.  It is so dark now that when I try to look out of the window, I only see my reflection.  The ambient sounds, the hour of the night, everything has meshed into a feeling of contentment.
    I had been happy all day, but not this deep sense of everything being exactly as it should. This afternoon, browsing the books section at Costco, while waiting for tires to be changed on my car, I opened up a cookbook and, suddenly, I needed to bake something. 
    There is a reason that I am majoring in Culinary Arts.  I am nearly always ready to mix up some baked good or help put dinner together.  This was a different feeling though, beyond wanting to work in the kitchen or being willing to do so.  When it comes, like it did in the Costco aisle today, I feel as though if I don't get into the kitchen soon, something will break.  Energy, pressure, builds up at the thought of mixing batter or kneading dough.   I think of all the things I have ever wanted to bake, all the things I have recently been planning to bake.  I want to stay in the kitchen for hours and days, mixing, mixing, and mixing. 
    I didn't explode in the store, or in the car, either.  But as soon as we arrived home, I pulled the log of frozen puff pastry, left from my mother's birthday dinner nearly a week past, in the refrigerator to thaw.  I left my math homework out of sight inside my bag and stepped into the backyard.  The wind was blowing wildly, but the sun was still shining and I left off shoes in favor allowing my feet to feel the rough rocks that paved the area around the oven.  The wind blew my fire out.  I lit it again and the wind blew it out again.  We repeated the pattern a few more times, until, in a lull, I managed to get it lit and block the wind out with the door.  Then, inside, I took the puff pastry, melted butter, cinnamon and sugar, and a rolling pin.  I rolled out the pastry, brushed it with butter, gave it a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar, folded it up into a log, and sliced it lengthwise.  I placed each nascent cookie on a sheet and gently pressed them flat.  Then, the urge was gone.  I was still enjoying myself, but it was a relaxed enjoyment.  I finished heating the oven and baked off the cookies.  I ate one, fed one to my mother, two to my sister and left the rest for grabs on the tray.  And I took out my math homework. 
    I don’t have any idea, really, why I work the way I do.  Why, if I go too long without playing with food in some way or another, a feeling of unease grows.  It never has to be complicated, I just have to touch it, feel it, and manipulate it in some way.  Everyone can’t be like this, because not everyone likes to cook.  But perhaps some people needed to be created with this urge to cook that is so strong it is almost like being forced to do so.  Perhaps, in order to feed those people like my father, who will exercise every day of the week and more, and my brother, who lives in a state of perpetual motion, and my mother who always has something on her to-do list, there need to be people like me, who will bake every day of the week and more.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


This past Saturday, we had a party.  There were people downstairs, people upstairs.  Sisters playing the piano, brothers playing ping-pong.  The kitchen teemed with visitors, guests who sat around the kitchen table and chatted while waiting their turn to wind around the island, assembling their dinner.  Outside, in the almost spring-like weather, the men stood and sat around the oven, my father standing at the front, others coming and going.  Some, who had never seen the oven in action before would watch and marvel as the raw pizzas that they had assembled slid into the oven to come out a few minutes later, the cheese brown and melted, and the entire pie sending up aromas that had the dog sniffing the ground eagerly, pausing at each twig in the hopes that it would transform into a slice of pepperoni. 

    Our cookie jar, a brown bear clutching a huge version of a Hershey's kiss, nearly always has chocolate chip cookies in it.  I have the recipe memorized.  Sugar, brown sugar, butter, eggs.  Flour, baking powder, salt.  If you do it right, you can make them with one half cup measure, one half teaspoon measure, one bowl and one spoon.  They are the essence of simplicity.  And although my father and I have a standing debate over whether or not they can be called cookies when I omit the nuts, they are always basically the same.  We mix the dough and mom gets a spoonful.  That step is now written into the recipe.  We bake off a sheet and eat them warm from the oven, on folded squares of white paper towels.  The rest, cooled and hardened, are slipped into the cookie jar to disappear gradually over the next few days. 
    We have had pizza parties before.  This one follow the pattern. Because only three or four pizzas fit into the oven at a time, there is never a time when everyone is sitting down and eating.  Mom spends the afternoon standing at the inside counter, hands covered in flour, cutting off pieces of dough, forming them, stretching them and teasing the next person into line.  Making sure that everyone has a chance to eat before sending people through again for seconds.  Dad stands out by his oven, hands gloved, so that they don't burn on the handle of the door or singe in the heat of the air.  He holds a metal spatula in one hand, sometimes a slice of pizza finds its way to the other, left behind when it didn't quite fit on a plate, but for the most part, he waits.  At the ends of the afternoon, when everyone has found their way through the line, my mother brings out her pizza.  There aren't many people eating at this point.  Most of the kids are playing a version of football further out in the yard, adults sit around one of the tables set out on the lawn.  Mom slides into a chair, off her feet at last.  She says something serious, insightful.  But before things get too dull, she makes a comment about the hard lemonade she is drinking, sending everyone off into laughter. 

    I could sit here and type out the recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  I could sit here and type out the form for every pizza party we have had.  They have small variations every time.  Maybe we use macadamia nuts instead of walnuts, maybe we have five people over instead of twenty.  But the essence doesn't change.  They are still chocolate chip cookies.  It is still not about the pizza, it is still about the fellowship, the joy of the gathering with those of like mind.  But somehow, we take these objects and through repetition, instill in them some of the joy of a moment.  Chocolate chip cookies are home and family, the oven is community and sharing.  And the knowledge that we will do it again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

450 words before midnight

    I need to have 450 words written by midnight.  If I write at a speed of approximately four words per minute, my goal will be accomplished, but the empty space behind my eyes, where I am used to finding thoughts, might mean that the 450 will be nothing but gibberish and that will not do.  The oven, supposedly my inspiration, is sitting in the dark and the cold, I know the stars above it are easily visible in the clear sky tonight, but my desire for thoughts is not great enough to move me off of my couch.
      I want to write more history, but the facts all feel dry tonight.  Where are the stories?  The history of the people who built the ovens and used them is what I really want to read, not the paragraphs on the development from round bowls to hive shaped mounds, to extensions from the back of the house until ovens were a metal fixture to blend neatly into the squares and rectangles of modern kitchen walls.  Besides being dry, the facts here are tersely stated, mentioning no variation from the average standard.   
    I tuck my thumbs through the holes I have worn in my sweatshirt sleeves, turning them into comfortable gloves, to keep my fingers warm as I type here in the basement.  With the gas fire turned off for the night, the air gets chilly quickly. 
    According to the encyclopedia, Greek bakers would build bowls of clay and heat them in the ground, then place their bread dough inside the bowl to bake.  As knowledge of yeast developed, so did covered ovens, to provide the surrounding heat necessary to bake these new types of dough.  The oven and bread have revolved around each other since earliest histories.  In Rome, under the Emperor Trajan, a college for bakers was established.  Our oven is of Roman design, a design that has persisted through time and across oceans.  Metal ovens did not begin to appear until the end of the 18th century.  From Trajan until then, 1500 years, ovens where you heated bricks, cleaned out the ashes and baked your bread on hot rocks were normal. 
    I suppose that it’s no surprise that people were eager to transition from masonry to metal, to our modern digital, self cleaning, self regulating ovens.  There are many things that would be much more difficult in those wood-burning ovens.  And no matter how you look at it, I have to admit that our kitchen ovens are much more time efficient than the outside oven.  They always turn on, even if it has rained recently.  Howling winds don’t effect them, or me, when I can stay safe inside the warm house.   They are appealing in their own way, smooth polished curves, a gleaming whiteness set into the wall of the kitchen.      The masonry oven, which is in reality just a carefully arranged pile of rocks, is oddly exotic next to these bits of normalcy.  It is part of the romanticized past, a part of those stories that we cannot reach and therefore invent out of recorded fragments, making the past exciting, depressing, the best time in the world or the worst time in the world.  ‘The grass is always greener’, is the saying.  Are we always looking to another place or time for comfort?  I am content to be able to sit here in comfortable laziness and speculate about the past, I know I would not want to switch times with anyone.  I think there are plenty of people who feel the same way, who realize how much easier day to day tasks are in our modern world.  But the simple contrast in realities is not quite disillusioning.  There is always something ethereal about the past.  No matter how many terrible hardships are put into words, no matter how many glorious triumphs are recorded.  Perhaps, as we try so hard to articulate the abstract, even for others in our own times, you forget that you can only know what you have lived. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010


    My parents moved to Taiwan a year and a half ago.  With my uncle and his family moving in to take care of our house, animals, and garden, and me moving to share a small apartment with my sister for a shorter trip to school, many of the things from my bookshelves were boxed up, then crated up, then stacked with other crates in a storage shed.  There is a hat rack, a rug, a basket, on top of the crates, a bike in front of them, a peddle boat for summers on the lake beside them.  And inside, somewhere, is a white 3-ring binder, the sheet protectors filled with wallet-sized photos.
    When my father began building his oven, he dubbed me the 'photojournalist'.  I took pictures of holes in the ground, of re-bar and cement, of the nearly weightless red rock that my siblings and I use to draw on the driveway with and call 'lava rock'.  Inside that notebook are pictures of things I have forgotten, steps in the construction that I was not aware enough of to remember.  There are pages of blue-lined paper sitting alongside the pictures.  Once, I began to write the story of the oven, describing the process one picture at a time.  Pencil graphite on a few of the pages shows exactly when I halted, stuffed the notebook into a box, let the box be stacked in a crate.     
    'Our oven', I call it, at times.  Sometimes I am more accurate and call it 'my father's oven'.  Because it is my father who read the books, who learned the history and the secrets of managing this edifice that has been erected in our backyard.  But his books sit on the shelves, free for the reading, so I reach for one and open it.  I read.
    Horizontal ovens date to the Roman era, the wood burnt on the same bricks you bake on.  The massive hump of oven I saw when visiting Valley Forge, extending from the kitchen in the house George Washington slept in, was also an oven of this type, though I should apparently be calling it a beehive oven.  The ovens could be small, large, for a family, for a community, for a business.  And I am not as enterprising I would like to think myself, for the ovens were not used solely for bread.  That they would be used for meat and perhaps the occasional dessert had occurred to me, but I read that they were used for drying and preserving fruits, for sterilizing pillows.  The image of thrusting one of my mother's feather pillows into the maw of the oven flashes through my head.  To these people, for centuries, from the Romans to colonial Americans, in Italy and in France, a freestanding oven was day-to-day life, a tool to be used in any way that was useful. 
    For me, sitting here on the green leather couch, my pillows clean of ticks, needing no sterilization, the brick oven is an oddity.  A 'pizza oven', used perhaps for bread, occasionally a roast.  I had thought I was branching and I find that others have been here before me, heating the oven bricks, using every last drop of heat, pulling out the ashes to use as fertilizer, making sure no resource was wasted.   And each time I slide something between the blackened bricks, onto the smooth surface of the interior, there is a line of people standing behind me, who have made the same motions throughout time.

Note:  The Bread Builders by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, (c) 1999, was used as a resource for this post.