Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Earthen Oven Breads, Curried Veggies, Beans & More!!!

So, I just had my first experience, ever, really baking...like, really baking: kneading out dough, 'proofing', 'knocking-back,' and all of these other terms I had to Google.  My newly built Earthen Oven in my backyard has sparked a sudden interest in learning to bake artisan breads and other goodies.  So far, we've cooked in our oven using a live fire (like with the pizza) or hot coals burning and 'sizzling' food.  In order to bake artisan breads, you cook in your Earthen Oven in a slightly different manner which allows you to bake over a long period of time.  I decided to start with 3 loaves of bread and then used the (10 hours) of remaining retained heat to cook dinner which consisted of curried vegetables and rice.  I then followed this up with a pot of beans to slow-cook over night, much to my surprise and amazement.....the Earthen Oven strikes again with perfectly cooked, non-mushy beans! I removed these the next morning.  I'd like to share my experiences baking breads and other delicious foods in my earth oven as I experiment and eat. I'll post a few of my recipes along the way too!

Fresh Baked Hearth Bread

I used the recipe on the back of the bread flour bag left over from the pizza party.  I tripled the recipe because I figure if you're going to light up the oven, you might as well use it to it's full capacity.  Thanks to this lady on You Tube, I took my turn at kneading out the dough (she made it look a lot easier than it was).  Several sloppy attempts later, I placed the 3 balls of dough in my bowls to rise, and about an hour later I 'knocked them back' and let them rise again.  

dough after kneading
letting dough rise
At this point I went ahead and lit the fire since I knew I'd need to let it burn for 1-2 hours before having enough retained heat to bake for a while.  You're going to want to get your fire burning really HOT, to where the flames are actually shooting out of the door!  Keep stoking this fire.  I kept mine going until my dough was just about ready to go in, which ended up being about 1hr. 45 min. and it seemed to do the trick. 

dough ready to go into oven
heating up oven
hot coals spread across hearth floor
first peek at the bread!
While the oven was heating up, I 'shaped' the dough into round balls and cut an 'X' into the tops. At this point the fire was SUPER hot and I was running out of wood anyways.  I tried to hold my arm in the oven for an '8 Mississippi count', but I think I got to about 2 or 3 (arm hairs are still in tact).  At this point, I let the fire burn down to coals, and then I spread the coals out evenly over the hearth and let it sit for about 10 min.  I then used a hoe to scrape the coals out into a wheelbarrow...be careful of hot coals if you have bare feet!  Once the coals were out, I wet a cotton rag and wiped the hearth down to clean the surface.  I then put the oven door on to 'wash' the oven.  This period of time helps the hearth floor become an even temperature all over and helps regulate the temperatures inside of the oven as a whole. I decided to test the temperature to see if it was ready for breads and I threw in a handful of wheat flour.  I had read that if it browns in 10-20sec. then it's good for bread, and if it burns up fast, the oven is too hot and you should let it sit.  My flour looked good so I gave it a go!  After flouring the bakers peel and putting the first loaf on, I sprayed the top of the bread with water to add steam in the oven. (this might be unnecessary).  I popped the first loaf in, closed the door tight, and sat back and crossed my fingers.  About 20 min. later I could smell it cooking from indoors and I just couldn't take the suspense any longer.  Much to my surprise, this golden brown, beautiful round loaf was staring me in the face! I quickly got it out, as it maybe looked a little too brown, and put it on racks to cool.  I prepped the other 2 loaves and threw those in at the same time for the second round of bread baking.  I decided on this batch to turn them 180 degrees after 10 min. It seemed that the oven was not quite as hot on this go 'round, so I rotated them and decided to leave these for another 20 min.  After a total cook time of 30 min. I pulled out two lightly golden brown perfect loaves!  I waited 45 min. or so before cutting into the first loaf...crispy crunchy outside, warm soft inside. Delish!
letting bread cool

hot damn those are some golden buns!

I'll go ahead and share my bread recipe with you and then tell you how I decided to use the remaining heat in the oven.

Hearth Bread Recipe

3 1/3 cups bread flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/3 cups water
1 teaspoon honey

Mix flours, salt, and yeast in large bowl. 
Stir in water and honey.
Knead dough for 8-10 min.
Place dough in oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit in warm place until dough doubles in size.  Place dough on floured surface and gently flatten dough.  Shape into round ball.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size.  Place dough on baker's peel (floured) and slice 'X' into top of loaf.  Once oven is ready, transfer dough into oven, close door, and wait 20-30 min, or until golden brown.  Rotate 180 once half way through cooking.  Spraying dough with water prior to inserting in oven may increase steam production.

Earthen Oven Veggies, Rice & Beans...Oh My!

What to do with all of this remaining heat you ask?  Well just keep on cookin'!!!  Practically anything you have in your fridge or cabinets you can cook in the earthen oven and this will provide you with good eats for the remainder of the week.  I decided to throw together a curried vegetable dish in the cast iron pan and some rice with coconut milk.  The veggies cooked up beautifully in only about 25 min with one stirring.  The rice however, I think I'll need to keep experimenting with because it was still very watery after the 25 min.; I decided to finish it up on the stove top because I was starving!  The oven was still so hot, but being that we haven't been to the grocery store in a while, I was having trouble finding other things to cook. I ran across a bag of dried beans, which I had heard you could slow-cook in the ovens, but didn't quite buy it.  I tossed the beans in a metal pot, covered them with water, put the lid on, and then stuck it in the oven. I closed the door and decided to forget about it until the morning, completely thinking I'd wake up to either hard beans and water, or pure mush.  Around 8am the next morning, I pulled the oven door off (still hot) and pulled out the most perfectly cooked beans I'd ever seen!!! Not mushy! But crispy and well-cooked!  Looks like dinner for tonight!
curried vegetables
slow-cooked beans overnight
 So all in all....in one firing of 1 hr. 45 min. and a small bucket of scrap wood, I cooked 3 loaves of delicious bread, curried vegetables, and a pot of beans!!!  Not bad for my first try. I think next time I'll have even more dishes lined up to cook up!  Good (and healthy) eats!!!

Unlike my baking recipes, when I cook, I measure nothing.  Here's my recipe for curried vegetables:

Earthen Oven Curried Vegetables

1/2 sweet potato sliced
1 small onion sliced
4 cloves of garlic minced
3 tablespoons of ghee (indian clarified butter)
1 bunch of kale chopped
2 dried red peppers chopped
1 tablespoon of red curry paste
a pinch of sea salt
a few large shakes of curry powder
a dollop of honey

Combine all ingredients in a cast-iron pan except for the kale.  Mix.
Place in oven and close door.
Stir after approximately 15 min.
Add kale. Cook for another 10 min. or until veggies look tender and done.
Serve over coconut milk rice.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Earth Oven Pizza

Ever wonder what's better than pizza? EARTH OVEN PIZZA!!!
Fresh made dough, cooked in a clay oven, next to a live fire is just about one of the tastiest foods you could ever put in your mouth.  There is just so much satisfaction in eating pizza that you rolled out with your own hands and then cooked in an oven which is also made with your own two hands.   It just tastes better this way!
I recently completed an Earthen Oven in my backyard in preparation for a workshop I would be teaching later.  (my building process will be outlined in future posts) 
Shortly after completing the insulation layer, we had my 31st Birthday Pizza Party and tested out these Earth Oven Pizzas I'd read so much about.  I'd like to share our recipe for the dough (which turned out really well) and the process for cooking them.


First off, get your fire going hot.
Start by using small kindling up near the oven opening and once it's burning well, push the fire back farther into the oven and continue to feed it.  Continue this process until you have a clean, well-burning fire burning towards the rear of the oven; you will start to see the flames actually curling up out of the opening.  Watch out!!!  I melted the back of my jacket while trying to warm my bum. (not cool) Keep feeding the fire for the next 45 min. - 1hr.

Once the oven is so hot inside that you can't hold your hand inside of the oven for more than a couple of seconds, and you have a nice bed of hot coals around the perimeter of the oven, you're ready to cook!

Roll out a small handful of dough on a non-stick surface.  We had an old piece of granite in our backyard which worked well for dough rolling.  Sprinkle some flour or cornmeal down to prevent sticking.  The dough should only be 1/8" - 1/4" thick once rolled out and a 10" - 12" circle makes for a good personal size pizza and easy to handle once in the oven.

Arrange your sauce, toppings, and cheese on the pizza.
Transfer the pizza onto a pizza peel; be sure to sprinkle the peel with flour or cornmeal to prevent sticking.
Stoke the fire again prior to cooking pizza; be sure you have a well-burning, hot fire going.
Slide the pizza in with the peel.  With a quick 'jab,' the pizza will slip right off of the peel and on to the hot firebrick hearth. (custom pizza peels as seen in the below picture by my partner, Matt McQueen of Handcrafted, LLC)

Instantly, you will start to see the cheese bubbling, the dough curling up, and that wonderful aroma starts to hit you in the nose!
After approx. 1 min, rotate the pizza around 180 degrees.  You could use your peel, but we found a long handle spatula or long handle tongs worked well for this rotation.
Let the pizza cook for another 1-2 min. and once it looks evenly browned around the edges and browned on top, use your spatula or peel to remove pizza from the oven. (notice in the picture below how the coals and the fire spread around the full perimeter of the oven interior vs. burning only in one spot)

Now dig in!!! Please realize that you will never think of pizza in the same way again.  :-)
You should be able to cook 3 or 4 pizzas before having to re-stoke the fire.  Continue to stoke the fire and keep a live fire going as long as you want to keep cooking.
The pizzas were a huge hit at the party and we easily fed around 35 people with no problems.
Cooking around the oven outside made for a great atmosphere and everyone fully enjoyed the experience, so much so that we had a second round of hungry pizza lovers later in the night!  Being that the oven was still so hot, we were able to add more wood and simply blow (with a narrow tube) oxygen into the rear of the oven and it lit back up instantly!

Stay tuned for more back yard oven recipes!
Send me comments or recipes of your own.


Here is the recipe we used for the pizza dough:

2 teaspoons of active dry yeast
2 1/4 cup warm water
2 teaspoons of sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
5 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water and let stand for 5 min.
Add sugar, oil, and flour and stir. Add salt last and stir.
Kneed dough until soft, smooth, and elastic (about 8-10 min).
Transfer the dough into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
Wait until the dough doubles in side and then punch down.
Cover and refrigerate or use instantly.
Remove from refrigerator about 1 hr. before using; allow to become room temperature.
(this recipe will make approx. ten personal size, thin crust pizzas)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Can You Build?

Natural Building techniques can be applied to everything from a decorative finish to a full scale house.  The following are examples of Natural Building applications:  Interior and Exterior Earthen Plasters, Earthen Floors, Earthen Benches, Earthen Ovens & Cook Tops, Fireplaces & Heaters, parts of Structures or full Structures.  Natural Building techniques and applications can work in conjunction with new conventional buildings as well as renovations of existing conventional buildings.  Aesthetically, the sculptural and curving qualities of the clay create richness in color and overall ‘warmth’ which is often missing from conventional construction materials.

What Materials Can You Use?

The materials common in Natural Building are clay and sand which vary in quality and availability depending on geographic location. When mixed with water and, usually, straw or another fiber, the mixture may form cob or adobe (clay blocks). Other materials commonly used in Natural Building are: earth (as rammed earth or earth bag), wood (cordwood or timber frame/post-and-beam), straw bale, rice-hulls, bamboo and rock. A wide variety of reused or recycled materials are common in Natural Building, including urbanite (salvaged chunks of used concrete), tires, tire bales, discarded bottles and other recycled glass.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What is Natural Building?

The construction industry as a whole is the largest contributor of landfill waste, contributing 40% of the total waste each year.  New home construction comes at a tremendous expense to the planet. Building 1.7 million homes with traditional wood, steel and concrete frames consumes the same amount of energy as heating and cooling 10 million houses each year. The environmental costs stem largely from the manufacture of materials. Using natural materials that require minimal processing and refining substantially reduces environmental impacts.­

Natural building, not to be confused with ‘Green Building’ and sometimes referred to as ‘Alternative Building Methods,’ offers a way to construct a home (as well as a multitude of other items) with renewable, naturally occurring and locally available materials with a low-embodied energy, as opposed to industrial or man-made products. Many of these materials are available throughout the world and are often recycled or salvaged materials, so the costs and pollution associated with the transportation of these materials across the country falls. As a bonus, many Natural Building methods are energy efficient, inexpensive and easy to build with little technical construction knowledge. Natural building relies on human labor vs. technology, which encourages community and personal involvement during the building process.  As a result, participants gain knowledge through direct experience, participate in their community, and leave feeling empowered by designing and creating with their own two hands.  Natural Building is available to everyone, regardless of income or credit status.