Last summer, one of the crew building Underhill House asked if we would like to build a cob oven. Brad pointed out that we had all the materials on hand.
- stone left over from the slipform stone wall (see my blog post Creating a Cob Oven )
- plenty of clay and sand occurring naturally and sitting about in mounds after excavation,
- lose straw from the straw bales walls
- sawdust – we have mountains of that from the portable mill that turned the trees we culled from our woods into useful lumber.
Brad has built cob structures before and offered to head up our cob oven team of three.
Since then, we’ve been working on it when we have spare time, and finally finished. Brad burned a few prep fires to check it out. It worked well. The air flow in and out through the door worked great.
Monday we fired it up for real and had a pizza party lunch with the crew.
Brad brought the pizza dough, caramelized onions, fresh mozzarella cheese and other tasty toppings. One of our carpenters, Prairie, brought his home-made Chunky Dunk tomato sauce. I brought some olives and my brand new, stainless steel peel.
We slid them in, one by one, into the oven and watched the crust rise up before our eyes in puffy perfection. The second one in didn’t have quite enough flour under it and instead of sliding in smoothly, crumpled into an oval shape. It cooked up anyway, and went down easy.
It was a strange December 3 – warm and foggy – breaking the all time record for warmth for our area. That made it easy to run from the basement prep station to the oven and back with the pizzas. But we could just as easily have done it in the snow, and I suspect we often will.
After a number of combos of sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and other tasty toppings, Brad switched over to dessert pizzas.
The first round was topped with sliced pears, caramelized onions and blue cheese. They were heavenly! I had something similar in the cafeteria of the Chicago Art Institute last year and have been dreaming of them since.
Then we switched to pizzas topped with paper-thin slices of orange and lemon, sprinkled with chunks of ginger and drizzled with honey instead of the olive oil that had topped the earlier pies.
I am now convinced that there is nothing that is taboo for pizza. With an open-air cob oven, the sky is the limit. The citrus rinds cooked just enough to be soft and zesty.
Pizza baked in a wood-fire oven cooks very fast. Just a few minutes from in to out. The crust crisps differently than other pizzas – puffy and crispy. The edges are thick to make sure none of the topping gets on the fire brick – that would be a sticky mess. The center of the crust tends to be as thin as you can make it without breaking through – that helps cook the toppings completely and quickly.
And the toppings also feel and taste different. You can’t pile on too much, or it won’t make the slide from peel to fire brick and back very well. There is usually less cheese on it.
It’s more about a simple piece of bread with a few ingredients.
Brad said that if we had some bread dough, we could have baked some peasant loaves after the oven cooled down for a few hours. For that we would have pulled out the burned wood and placed the wooden door in the oven’s opening. I’m looking forward to trying that next time.
When the door is open and the fire is crackling, the air flows in low and streams out high through the door. Brad warned not to forget that very hot air is coming out the top of a cob oven making pizza. Leaning in too closely to watch the pizza cook can result in singed hair. (Having burned off my bangs blowing out my 6th birthday cake – I’m going to keep that in mind.)
I think pizza parties are going to become a regular part of building the rest of Underhill House. We are so grateful that Brad looked at all the materials and made the suggestion. I love baking bread and crackers, and roasting vegetables.
What seemed like a lark is going to become a regular way to cook.