When Monica Wiitanen pre-heats her oven, she doesn't turn a knob or punch a button. There's no pilot light.
And once things heat up, anything's possible.
Wiitanen, husband Wayne and son Corey have owned Small Potatoes Farm in Paonia for 20 years and grow and prepare much of their own food. They live simply and are quite resourceful. About three years ago, the Wiitanens installed an outdoor, retained-heat masonry oven – the kind once used by early American colonists and found among the ruins of Pompeii. When they fire it up, as was likely back when, it's a community event as neighbors and friends stop by to taste the latest breads, pizzas and dishes straight from the hearth, to enjoy the food, and to socialize.
A single firing can produce enough heat to feed the household for several days, and can draw friends from miles around.
While learning how best to use the oven has been through trial and error, Wiitanen found a mentor in Yohann Gasparach, a professional bread baker from France who bakes for the Flying Fork restaurant. Gasparach is passionate about food and has traveled the world studying it. He's always there to participate, experimenting with recipes, perfecting sauces, and adding a touch of European flair to the process.
And he knows a little bit about retained-heat ovens.
"It's changed my life to have him come and bake with me," she said.
Monica fires the oven about once a week. A wood fire is lit the evening prior to baking, preferably using fruit wood, which burns hotter than most firewood. As the fire burns, enough heat is retained in the large clay mass surrounding the hearth to bake for 24 hours or more.
In the morning, the spacious hearth is swept out, then swabbed with a wet cloth to keep ash off of the dough. "Some people don't like ash on their bread," she joked. The remaining embers provide a great source of heat for baking foil-wrapped potatoes or salmon.
Because temperatures cannot be adjusted and will drop slowly as the mass cools, timing is everything. Just how quickly or slowly the mass will cool depends on several factors and can be somewhat unpredictable. And when the arch is above 600 degrees, it's tricky, said Wiitanen.
Once the oven is ready, everything else must also be ready.
"It's not a schedule," said Wiitanen one recent morning as she and Gasparach prepared to place eight pizzas and a cast-iron pan of polenta in the oven while loaves of miche and other breads raised in the kitchen. "It's a choreograph. You know, like a dance." Even the process of making the sourdough began more than two weeks earlier in anticipation of this day's firing.
Friends might show up at any time, but one can't just appear with dough or a main dish in hand and expect to pop it in the oven. "Getting dough from different people takes management," said Wiitanen. And the temperatures have to be right for the particular types of food.
Temperatures are carefully taken and recorded before anything is brought out to bake. On this particular morning, the hearth measures above 700 degrees, and the heat mass at 650 degrees. Several minutes later, the first foods to bake, the pizzas, are slid onto the hearth, and are pulled less than 10 minutes later, baked to perfection. Gasparach then brings baskets of risen sourdough from the house to bake while everyone enjoys pizza.
Retained-heat ovens have been in use for centuries, and little has changed from their original design. They were likely first used during the Roman Empire, and similar designs were built by 16th century Spanish settlers in Florida and the first New England colonists. With the advent of indoor gas and electric ovens, the use of outdoor wood-fired ovens declined. Today, they are experiencing a bit of a renaissance, and numerous books and Websites are dedicated to their construction, use and enjoyment.
Once you've tasted food from this oven, it's easy to understand why.
For those who try the food and want an oven of their own (myself included), Wiitanen discourages diving in; rather she encourages people to experience the process, then decide, as Wiitanen was able to do. "The results were so different and so phenomenal," she said, "and I was hooked."
Unlike temperature-controlled ovens, one must constantly monitor oven temperatures, but the benefits are tremendous. Scott Horner, the grower for Small Potatoes, summed up the baking process. "You know," he said, "it's just like farming, and everything's an experiment."
A delicious experiment. Just a taste of Gasparach's pizza, with garlic white sauce, potatoes and buffalo sausage, topped with fresh greens from the farm's hoop house after emerging sizzling from the hearth, would make anyone envious.
"As my son Corey says, 'Everything is better in this oven.' It just cooks everything perfectly," said Wiitanen.
Every session is different, said Wiitanen. Asked what was the most unusual item ever baked in the oven, she recalled making baked Alaska, which requires a very hot oven.
Everyone thought the ice cream was going to melt, she said, but the meringue was browned to perfection and the ice cream remained frozen.
With interest in outdoor ovens growing, Wiitanen sees benefits for the community in the coming years, as more and more turn to local, homemade and homegrown foods and become more acquainted with their neighbors. It's this community aspect, where friends and neighbors come together for a common cause, that makes this more than just a way to cook. In a time when people are isolated in their own kitchens, it's a refreshing and welcoming change to gather around the oven to enjoy phenomenal food and good conversation.blog comments powered by Disqus