For breakfast here at One Girl Cookies we bake a few loaves a day of an awesome country sourdough loaf. Even though it’s not a big part of our daily production, I have a special place in my heart for these loaves. The recipe has evolved a lot in the past 3 years, and I love my sourdough starter to a possibly unhealthy level. Baking bread has always been just as important to me as baking cookies.
So, when my friend Hans told me about his backyard wood burning oven and asked if I wanted to fire it up, I jumped at the chance. I have baked a lot of bread in a lot of different ovens over my career, but never an outdoor oven. Hans is a photographer and wanted to chronicle the bread baking on film and video, so the whole thing sounded like it would be really exciting.
I didn’t want to show up without any idea what I was getting myself into, so I reached out to my friend Dave, owner and head pizza man from Pizza Moto for a few tips. He loves bread and has a great understanding of fire and dough. Over iced coffees, he helped me understand the concept behind outdoor ovens and how to best use the intense heat that they create.
On the appointed day I showed up at Hans’ with a trunk full of flour and dough and we got down to business. In general, good bread is all about time. You need give bread time to develop the flavor of the dough, so I brought some bread we could bake right away, and some that needed a couple more hours before they would be ready to shape into loaves and bake.
It was an amazing experience. We set up a small work table where we could shape the dough and prepare it for baking. It was pretty idyllic; standing in an herb garden, shaping loaves and tending to a hot oven.
The backyard oven had a fierce heat that is much different from a conventional oven. There’s also a lot of strategy to where you place the loaves. This means lots of sticking your face in the door and shuffling around loaves and pans. Pretty exciting when the oven is 700 degrees.
In general, I bake bread in a cast iron pot. (Thanks, Jim Lahey!) This allows you to control the way the loaf rises, as well as the formation of the crust. I used this method in the backyard oven, and loved the results. It took me awhile to get into a good rhythm of getting the loaves into and out of the pots, rotating the pots inside the oven, and searching for hot or cool spots.
Just for fun we also took some of the dough and made flatbread out of it, making little pizzas and topping them with oil, cheese, and herbs. We even made a dessert pizza with Hans’ homemade rhubarb jam and strawberries. My favorite version had just oil and salt. When bread comes right out of the oven, it doesn’t need much else.
I did struggle a little bit with controlling the heat, and I had a few flatbreads that did not work out. It also rained a little bit, but it sort of gave us a mountain man feel to the experience.
By the end of the day, I was pretty wiped out and I had eaten far more bread than I should have. Next time Hans asks me to bake bread, I may be even more excited. I’ll also bring a few different types of bread, and maybe a few more cold beers.
Photos by: Hans Gissinger