Monday, December 27, 2010

Snow Bread

For a lot of us today in the northeast, today is the day to make this bread.
New York Times

            Of all the breads I’ve made, snow bread really requires more feel than science. The nature of snow necessitates an artful approach. A cup of water is a cup of water, and a cup of snow is a cup of snow, but really, what kind of snow are we talking about? Is it old, new, dry, or is it wet? And how do we get the snow into a cup? Do we press and pack, or sift and blow?
From Scientific American 1879
Somebody thinks he has discovered that snow, when incorporated with dough, performs the same office as baking powder or yeast. "I have this morning for breakfast," says a writer in the English Mechanic, "partaken of a snow-raised bread cake, made last evening as follows: The cake when baked weighed about three quarters of a pound. A large tablespoonful of fine, dry, clean snow was intimately stirred with a spoon into the dry flour, and to this was added a tablespoonful of caraways and a little butter and salt. Then sufficient cold water was added to make the dough of the proper usual consistence (simply stirred with the spoon, not kneaded by the warm hands), and it was immediately put into a quick oven and baked three quarters of an hour. It turned out both light and palatable. The reason," adds the writer, "appears to be this: the light mass of interlaced snow crystals hold imprisoned a large quantity of condensed atmospheric air, which, when the snow is warmed by thawing very rapidly in the dough, expands enormously and acts the part of the carbonic acid gas in either baking powder or yeast. I take the precise action to be, then, not due in any way to the snow itself, but simply to the expansion of the fixed air lodged between the interstices of the snow crystals by application of heat. This theory, if carefully followed out, may perchance give a clew to a simple and perfectly innocuous method of raising bread and pastry." And stop the discussion as to whether alum in baking powders is deleterious to health or otherwise.
            After I first heard about snow bread, I couldn’t wait to try it, but I didn’t have any guidelines and there wasn’t any snow. However, I was intrigued by the idea that I could use snow as a leavening agent.
            Finally it snowed. Then, by chance, I was looking through a Girl Scout Manual and noticed a corn bread recipe made with snow. Going against my best judgment, I decided to follow the recipe. The recipe was so far off I’ll probably never look through the manual again. But in fairness I had to ask myself if the recipe really was off, or if my snow was a lot different than the snow the girl scouts used. I think the answer is yes to both questions.
            I finally was able to make a satisfactory snow bread, and with real maple syrup poured over a slice we have something very American indeed. Make this bread with kids.

YIELD: 1 corn bread

1 cup cold, fresh cornmeal
1 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 cups (approximately) freshly packed, powdery snow

            On a snowy day, into your cold bowl, add the flour and cornmeal that you have kept in the freezer. Stir in the salt.
            Dash outside, stuff about 6 cups of ultra-clean snow into the bowl. Too much snow is better than not enough. Using a large spoon, thoroughly mix the ingredients with the snow. Work quickly. You are trying to suspend everything in the fresh snow, which replaces the leavening agent.
            Oil an 8” iron skillet and dump the mixture into it. The snow and ingredients will probably come up high on the skillet sides, but by the time it all melts down and bakes, your corn bread may be very small indeed.
Bake in your wood-fired oven with high heat because everything needs to happen quickly. You may allow the fire to burn because the corn bread will be protected by the iron sides of the skillet. When it looks done, plunge a fork into the center. If it comes out clean, it’s done, No, I won’t even try to tell you how long to bake the bread for, but don’t over-bake the corn bread unless you want only the pigeons to appreciate it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peter Schumann Rye Bread

            Although potentially heavy as lead and tough as 16-penny nails, this bread is addictively delicious to eat, though not particularly easy to make. Schumann rye should be eaten after it has thoroughly cooled. Slice it thinly, and consider wearing gloves to protect your hands if you have a lot of slicing to do. Store your loaf at room temperature in a paper bag, and it will keep for days. Those who acquire a taste for sour rye often consider it their favorite bread, although it will, without doubt, precipitate tired jaw syndrome (TJS).
YIELD: 2 small round loaves
2 cups warm water 105-115° F
2 cups rye flour
 Peter Schumann at the sourdough trough

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, thoroughly stir the rye flour into the warm water. Cover the bowl with a plate, and leave in a warm place (70-80ºF). The souring process should be under way. Give it a stir everyday.
Approximately 3 days later you need:
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4  cups rye flour

After about 3 days the rye mixture should have a sour aroma, and it should be bubbling. It might take only 2 days or it could take as long as 5 days. Room temperature determines the length of time necessary. The warmer the environment, the more quickly the rye will sour. If mold forms on the top, as it has on mine, Peter says not to worry about. I did worry about it, but scraped the mold off as he said to, and I’m still healthy.
            When the rye has reached the level of sourness that seems right to you (trust your instincts here), stir in the salt and about 1 1/4 cups of rye flour. The amount of flour can vary considerably with this recipe, but this shouldn’t daunt you because you are by now well aware of the many variables in bread baking. The rye mixture should be quite dense. Cover and let ferment overnight.
The next day, turn out the dough on a heavily floured surface. Expect the dough to remain sticky. It’s rye we’re working with. Divide the dough in two, fold and place on your floured peel. The dough should not be taller than 1” or it might burn before it bakes through. You’ve fired your oven, removed the ashes and cleaned the floor. Bake in a medium oven until done. Slice thinly and dip in extra virgin olive oil in which you’ve crushed some fresh garlic.

If any of you bread bakers or oven builders have images or words to share, email them to me, and I might put them up on the blog.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

WWII POW Camp Oven

Many years after making the movie Dead River Rough Cut with Richard Searls,
I made a pilgrimage back to the area where we did the filming. Getting to the area where we spent a great deal of time with the two woodsmen who were featured in the movie was not such a simple matter. The whole landscape had changed. There were new logging roads, and the remnants of the WWII prisoner of war camp had finally moldered into the forest. I had returned to marvel at the wood-fired bake oven that the Germans had built while they were interred deep in the Maine woods. The irony of my visit was that when I arrived, two bear hunters were unloading Wonder Bread from their pickup truck to bait bear. This was right next to the oven. I know I've shown this photo before, but since the oven is so beautiful and the setting so filled with memories, I wanted to share it with those of you who have not seen it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winter Construction

With determination, it's quite possible to build a wood-fired oven in the northeast, in the winter.
Construct a tent over the work-site, and there's no need to wait until spring.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Intimate Contact

When placing firebricks on your concrete slab, you're really looking for intimate contact between the bricks and the slab for maximum heat transference, and that means a hotter floor. Here's how Pat Manley puts it "Firebrick laid dry on the sub hearth is fine if everything is perfectly
flat, so that there is total contact for perfect heat transfer.
But, that is not usually the case.
I use a thin paste of pure clay to assure 100% heat transfer to and from
the sub hearth."
I haven't done this yet, but on my next oven I will.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Surface Bonding Cement

You really can't trust surface bonding cement to completely protect your oven from the elements. If you cover your dome with sbc, then be sure you have a brick arch at the opening. Without the brick arch, water will find its way in through the opening and weaken or destroy your mud arch. Look at the pile of mud on the floor of this mini-oven. A heavy rain was the culprit.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Keeping The Oven Dry

If you've made an earth oven, then you need to keep it absolutely dry. If you don't, then the oven will revert to its primal state. Mud. Even brick ovens should also be kept dry.
But it's not a simple matter in deciding how to protect your oven. The small oven in the photo has been stuccoed with surface bonding cement. This seems to protect the dome well enough, but the interior surface of the opening gets quite soft when it rains. Probably a brick arch would have helped. Perhaps a better arrangement would be metal roofing, as shown, but since the metal is draped over the dome, I keep wondering if the metal might melt when bombarded by the flames. Trying to always remain vigilant about pushing the fire to the back makes me more than a little anxious. Ideally, the roofing should be quite a bit higher, framed out, above the oven.
An earth oven extremely well protected

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Brick and Mud Oven

Many of you already know how to make a brick arch to protect the opening to your mud oven. Following the same process, if you link three arches together and brick up the back wall,  you'll have a brick oven.
 Making your layout

 Assembling wooden form

 First arch in place. Stones hold bricks apart

 Three arches complete with mud filling all the spaces

Fired up

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Dry Stack Brick Oven

 Dave S. Cargo (Escargo) demonstrates the dry stack brick oven technique. Though weighty and somewhat cumbersome, these ovens can be assembled with few prior skills. The only dry stacked brick oven I've built had angle irons supporting the top so maybe it wasn't a true dry stacked brick oven, but nevertheless, works splendidly. Soon I hope to construct an oven like the ones seen below.

 The Dry Stack Brick Oven.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Earth Oven Cracks

 If you're going to build an earth oven, you can expect some cracks. 
Generally, but not always, cracks do not have an impact on the integrity of the oven. Nobody, however, really likes to look at a cracked oven, but after you insulate and then apply stucco, the cracks may be hidden from view. 
Consider making a mini-oven (photos on this blog) before you make the "real thing." Spend some time experimenting with your clay to sand ratio, remembering that too much water in the mix will make the walls slump. Not enough water in the mix will prevent the clay and sand from fusing, and your oven can fall apart. Too much clay is really asking for severe cracking, but not enough clay could cause your oven to fall apart.Too much sand, and your oven can also fall apart. It's not so simple, regardless of what anyone tells you.
Try two parts sand to one part clay, using just enough water to make it all cohesive. 
I like to cut the opening right after the dome is complete, lighting a small fire to dry it out slowly.
You could patch the cracks with clay slip or temporarily with bread dough.
You might prefer, however, to drape a metal roof over the oven and simply forget about it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I really love this painting by Jean-Francois Millet [French Realist Painter, 1814-1875], and I wanted to share it with you. Note the glow coming from the oven and the enormous proofing baskets. You can see the peel's long handle bending under the weight of the dough going into the oven. There's a pitch fork leaning up against the oven, probably for organizing the fuel that might have been dried stalks of some sort from the fields. Bundled brush and twigs were also used to fire the oven. The colors are somber, helping to create a very atmospheric painting.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bread Oven Discovery

Although not much to go on, if you have any thoughts about this discovery, Sebastian would really appreciate hearing from you. He can be reached here: 

I am an interior architect in London currently working on a project in the village of Stonesfield near to the historic town of Oxford.
The owner of an old cottage has asked us to do some minor renovation work and yesterday whilst surveying we accidently broke through an interior wall at low level and discovered what we think is the inside of an old bread oven. Very exciting. We understand that the building itself is one of the oldest in the village and dates to 1690 or there abouts.
We found your blog and think its amazing!
I´ve attached a photo of what we found.. it was difficult to get a camera through the hole we made. It would be really helpful if you could give us your thoughts - maybe you can post something on your blog if it turns out to be a true find!

Best wishes


Sebastian Klawiter

Monday, September 27, 2010

Portable Wood-Fired Ovens

From this humble, human drawn portable
to this dazzling beauty from Maine Wood Heat
there is a whole wealth of portable ovens to choose from or you can even build your own.

This portable produced an incredible number of wood-fired pizzas for hungry folks at Maine's Common Ground Fair this past weekend. A number of people have asked me if I thought it was a good idea to get into this type of business, and the answer is not a simple one. When I have more time, I hope to fully deal with this question.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Back to the Kneading Conference

This video was just released from the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, Maine, and here's a short clip from the earth oven workshop. 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Danish Dough whisk

I never thought I'd retire my trusted wooden stirring spoon, but after using the Danish dough whisk just once, I knew that the wooden spoon would soon be collecting dust.
The whisk is the best thing I've found for incorporating dough ingredients in a bowl. My Danish dough whisk is made in Poland perhaps by folks who used to live in Uzbekistan. I bought the whisk at Breadtopia, which incidentally is an excellent place to shop.

Danish Dough Whisk

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Can't Wait

One big problem is that it's difficult to be spontaneous when it comes to bread baking. To make the best breads mandates that you shouldn't rush the process. Generally, you prepare your dough on day #1, and you bake on day #2. Fortunately, there is a way around this dilemma.
Jim Lahey talks about how to hasten the process.

The dough for these breads was mixed at at 9:30 this morning, and they came out of my earth oven at 1:48 this afternoon.
I have nothing to complain about