Signs of Spring

It's been a brutal winter, with snow, sleet and winds like never before. We've had frost every night for the last week and I had been starting to wonder if spring was going to pass us by this year. But the daffodils are finally up, the favas have survived the chill and the garlic is hale and hearty.

Wood-fired Oven: Part 3 - Firing the Oven

The key to using a wood-fired oven to its best advantage is good planning. While there's nothing wrong with firing the oven just to make pizza or bread, somehow I feel guilty if I waste any of that wonderful heat. At the very least, I'll bake pizza and bread and I usually try to fire-roast a few vegetables, bake some sweet bread, roast some meat or vegetables, and cook a pot of beans or chili in the dying heat of the oven.

A small fire is started near the mouth of the oven with cedar kindling. A couple of larger pieces of wood are then added. Once the fire is well established it is pushed back about half way into the oven and another five or six pieces of wood are added.

At this point the fire can be left alone for awhile. Now is the time to get some vegetables or meat together for live-fire roasting, assemble pizza ingredients, and shape the loaves that will be baked after the pizza.

We will often fire-roast vegetables to top the pizza or roast eggplant and garlic for a wonderfully smoky baba ganoush.

Once the dome has turned completely white, the wood has burned down to coals, and the temperature has reached about 1000 degrees we spread the coals out and let the oven "soak" for about half an hour.

At this point the temperature has dropped to 800 degrees and the coals are banked to one side to start baking pita...

...or pizza. If we're baking more than one or two pizzas we add an extra piece or two of wood (no larger than 4 inches in diameter) to the coals banked on the side. If the hearth cools down we simply transfer the coals to the other side.

The coals are spread out over the oven floor to help equalize the temperature and then removed with a long-handled shovel. The deck is swabbed with a damp mop. When the temperature drops to around 550 the hearth breads can be baked.

After the bread is baked (if we fire the oven briefly the night before we can do two loads of hearth bread) a batch of cinnamon buns, sweet bread, or some meat or vegetables goes in (shown here: peppers stuffed with garlic, capers, olives and cherry tomatoes).