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Home is where the hearth is 

When the writer couldn't find good bread, he built his own oven.

The fall and rise of good bread:

  • Home is where the hearth is
  • As bread has improved, so have bread books
  • A master bakes success at Cary's La Farm Bakery
  • Building bread, ovens and community at Weaver Street Market
  • Bread and politics in downtown Durham
  • How a cinnamon bun became a taste of heaven
  • I started making bread in self-defense. The offense that provoked my defense was the closing of the Polish bakery in Cambridge, Mass. The elderly couple running it, disdainful of my needs, decided to retire to Arizona. Or maybe it was Australia. What did I care? They were removing my last connection to decent bread. This was 1972 and, although I cooked a lot, I didn't make bread; bread, I believed, wasn't the sort of thing you made at home.

    The author scores a loaf of pain au levain (aka sourdough) with a razor blade before putting it into his backyard oven - PHOTO BY KATHLEEN CONNELLEY
    • Photo by Kathleen Connelley
    • The author scores a loaf of pain au levain (aka sourdough) with a razor blade before putting it into his backyard oven

    After all, I had grown up in the Bronx—that borough of ethnic enclaves and great bread. My earliest solo shopping involved crossing one street, traversing two half-blocks, taking a number, and waiting for that number, inscribed in black on a large white tab, to clack into view overhead, behind the counter. Then, waving my paper numeral, I would push to the counter, the sea of adults reluctantly parting, and emerge a bit later with a loaf of Russian rye and a half-dozen seeded rolls.

    Pasted to each loaf was a small flimsy paper stamp, with perforated edges—the union label. Every now and again the bakers would strike, and bread would disappear from our apartment—instant Passover, with non-union, stampless chumetz outlawed.

    Excepting strikes and Passover, good bread was a daily occurrence and supermarket bread was the novelty item. As I grew up, good bread would become a novelty. Neighborhood bakers, neighborhood butchers, neighborhood grocers, neighborhood pharmacies—all blown away by urban renewal and mass marketing.

    And some years later, there I was in Cambridge, mourning the loss of a bakery only half as good as the one I grew up with. What to do? Permanent Passover was not my idea of a good time.

    The most efficient thing to do would have been to move to Europe. Or maybe to apprentice at one of the remaining good ethnic bakeries. I didn't do that until a decade later. So I bought a book. Unfortunately, bread books were in even worse shape than bakeries. My first book, many home bread bakers' first book, was Beard on Bread.

    Sure, I learned something from it. Sure, some edible bread ensued. But it was full of errors and bad technique, most of which it shared with almost every other bread book from then to recently. Briefly, Beard's book and its ilk were committed to too much yeast, too much kneading and too much sweetening. They almost always included a "sourdough" technique that had nothing to do with sourdough.

    Much of it was in the American tradition of bread—pan breads with shortening, sweeteners and multiple ingredients; breads for which the flavors of fermentation and wheat were tertiary matters at best. The United States inherited its dedication to pan breads from the British, not the best tutors in culinary matters. I was interested in hearth breads, where fermentation supplied flavor, not just loft. But it was not to be. Yet.

    Later, about 1980, I was living in North Carolina and Bernard Clayton's The Breads of France provided inspiration and a little guidance. The travelogue part of it, visits to real bakeries in various regions of France, was inspiring. The fact that the recipes bore only a passing resemblance to the techniques and ingredients of those bakeries only slowly dawned on me. And again, sourdough (aka pain au levain) was merely simulated with an overnight pre-ferment of commercial yeast. Clayton's book did do some good—I started playing with pre-ferments and baking hearth breads. (It was well into the 1990s before bread books became accurate and truly useful; see "As bread has improved, so have bread books" for information on some of them and on France's own experience with the decline of bread.)

    A finished loaf of pain au levain - PHOTO BY DAVID AUERBACH

    To make hearth breads, I needed a hearth. I found a kiln shelf that fit into my oven; that got me somewhat practiced in the skills of slashing the tops of loaves and of sliding loaves off a wooden paddle (the peel) onto the hot "stone."

    My breads were looking great. They tasted good—better than what I could buy, but really only OK.

    Then stuff happened. In the mid-'80s I found myself in Paris. To my enormous disappointment, the bread in Paris was bad. Baguettes were limp, with whiter than white crumb, no flavor and, often, clear signs of having been baked-off from frozen dough. Other breads, the country rounds, the multi-grains, could look great, but they tasted like sugar-free cotton candy.

    Fortunately, my landlady had left a list of recommended local butchers, bakers and fishmongers. I finally made my way to L'Autre Boulange, ready for more disappointment. I bought a loaf, broke into it halfway down the block, chewed, mulled, turned around and bought a lot more. The breads were superb.

    But my real luck was that the L'Autre Boulange's owners, Michel and Christiane Cousin, were used to strange Americans and were also very nice people. I got to do a mini-apprenticeship (well, micro-). I learned a lot. For example, I learned that I wouldn't like working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., except as an amateur's lark. I learned how to work with dough of all sorts and in large quantities, mostly particularly how to form various shapes of hearth loaves. (Michel could go from slab of dough to shaped baguette resting in its canvas couch in about 10 seconds. At my best I could manage a few in a row at 20 seconds each; although, when they came out of the oven, Michel could always identify mine.) I learned it was possible for two people, even handicapped by a linguistically (and otherwise) challenged apprentice, to make a thousand pounds of bread of a dozen varieties in one night. Every night. I learned how to "peel" multiple loaves of bread at a time into the very hot, 3-meter-by-3-meter, wood-fired oven. I learned how to really, really want a wood-fired masonry oven.

    So I built one.

    I pause to explain why a wood-fired masonry oven is a good thing.

    It isn't the wood-fired part (though that's nice). It's about the physics of heat. Home ovens transmit heat into things (like bread dough) mostly by convection. There's some radiation of heat from the sides of the oven and some conduction from whatever vessel the food is in or on. Putting a heavy pizza stone into the oven supplies another heat source and increases the proportion of heat transmitted by radiation and conduction. Bread likes that. Masonry bread ovens take this proportional shift even further, with radiation and conduction taking over almost completely. Bread really, really likes that.

    Bread baked in a masonry oven achieves crust to die for.

    Now, when I say I built one, I mean I built two. The first, built in an under-researched flush of enthusiasm, never made good bread. Because it was ad-libbed and uninsulated, it would either cool too fast and the bread would be a pale leaden doorstop, or I would get charred dough. That oven mostly lives in memory as the site of the famous, flaming Thanksgiving turkeys. (An 800-degree degree oven plus turkeys draped with oil-soaked cheesecloth is an object lesson in the notion of flashpoint.)

    For the second attempt I went to a proven design, Alan Scott's. Alan Scott has been building bread ovens, both large commercial and backyarders, for decades. He has perfected a design, based on the traditional designs of village ovens. (See The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, www.ovencrafters.net, www.deltabluesfestival.net/pizza_oven.htm.)

    Scott's design, and the style of oven I was after, is a retained-heat oven. You fire it for a while; then the fire is gone but the heat remains. I'll do a typical firing in the evening: pile kindling into the oven, light it, put in logs, wait until they catch, then pile in more wood until the oven is full. Early the next morning, the fire has died down to coals and ashes, which I rake out. Then I wait another four hours for the oven to equilibrate and the temperature to get below 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Then a batch of bread can be shoveled in and the door closed.

    The heat is stored in a large mass of well-insulated masonry—in my case, about five tons. So when you're baking, there is no fire, just a dark cavity radiating a few days' worth of heat. You put the pale and the raw into that dark, undramatic cavity, wait, and pull out the crusty, the brown, the cooked. To the technologically privileged, primitive techniques look like magic.

    Of course, ovens are not made by design alone, and I certainly wasn't going to trust the low bidder (me) to build it. Fortunately, Mike Perry, a local mason, was interested in learning bread-oven design. Some of you may know Mike from the Carrboro Farmers' Market; he and Cathy Jones own Perry-winkle Farm. Alan's design wouldn't have done me much good without a skilled mason to do most of skilled work. (I did have a bucket brigade of friends move a lot of concrete.)

    Although it is a bread oven, a 3-by-3-foot hearth that stays hot for days can cook a lot of things. Here's what's possible: Put in 20 pounds of bread. Remove it when done. Do that again. Now some meat roasts. Pans of roast vegetables. Next day, stews. Next day, meringues. You could even, during the time when the oven is too hot for bread, use it as a pizza oven, achieving the four-minute pizza.

    That whole sequence doesn't happen very often (or at all, really—it's the meringues that undo the idea). But it's a goal I like to keep in mind—achievable with a little help. And on Thanksgiving, we get good use out of the oven. It's handy having an oven that holds three turkeys, two large pans of root vegetables, and various other odds and ends. And these days, no turkey flambé. But I do miss the union labels.

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