Growing up in Massachusetts there was no escaping the ritual fall field trip to Plimoth Plantation, a historic replica of a 17th century English Village populated by role players. Cooling days and the making construction paper hats meant the one-hour bus ride to the coast was not far off. While most of my classmates looked forward to the time away from class, the thing I looked forward to the most wasn't the time away from penmanship and phonics and math but the possibility of eating some so-called "Indian Pudding", a simple corn pudding made from cornmeal, milk, and molasses, or getting to churn butter. I was always a little weird.
I hadn't spent a fall in Massachusetts in almost 10 years after relocating to Chicago. And then a layoff, followed by another layoff, drove me back home to free lodging at the ancestral home. The sky is different here, there's something in the air, an aroma of sweet pine and burning leaves and dew that makes me nostalgic for a time that I don't think ever really existed except in the story books read aloud to first graders in a wooded country elementary school.
Extant or not, these memories made me think about cookery prior to the mid-20th century arrival of mass refrigeration, electricity, and convenience. Since I'd also been doing a lot of barbecuing over the summer and thinking about convection currents in dome-shaped cooking vessels, I thought that it might be fun to build an oven in the backyard. And create a Foodbuzz 24,24,24 event around it.
What was I thinking? Seriously?
I haven't built anything since...ever. And the last time I worked with clay was in 1994. But the drive to cook outside, to use my hands to create a place to bake bread and roast fowl and slow cook pudding overruled common sense.
So I emailed my friend Claudine, a self-described New Hampshire hippie, who, in keeping with her hippie background was also in the Peace Corps and owned a natural food store in rural northern New Hampshire for 10 years, and asked her if she might be interested in helping to build the oven. Not only was she interested, but when my mother, who owns the house I live in, expressed in no uncertain terms that the oven could not be built on our property, Claudine volunteered her own backyard, which was already equipped with an interesting fire pit, an organic garden, and a restless lab named Max.
We had 10 days to build a clay oven so that it would dry in time to be useful for an outdoor dinner on the 24th. There was no time to waste. I went online and ordered 100 lbs of clay from Sheffield Pottery, a 60 year old clay supplier in Western Massachusetts.
The clay didn't arrive for a week.
While we waited for the clay, we built a platform for the oven. We used only items that Claudine had around her house: some old wood posts, broken flagstones, some gravel, polished blue stones, bricks, rocks. We decided that we would only spend money on clay. We would not go to Home Depot or take any shortcuts. We would not use cement.
Once the platform was complete, we began work on framing out the oven. We went into the woods and cut down flexible saplings. We stripped off branches and leaves and set to work bending them into two sets of semi-circles: one set 20 inches in diameter and the other 30 inches in diameter:
Once we had tied the saplings into semi-circles, we left them overnight in a rainwater bath, just to soften them up a bit. I don't really know how well the water bath worked because we kept them tied up until we framed out the oven.
Framing the oven was difficult going.
To make our oven frame, we made an oblong 30" in diameter at its center with a 20" (the measurements were based on a misreading of the oven building guide) opening at the front. We used hemp twine, wool yarn, some wire and rope to hold it together. Only some of it will be toxic (!!!) when we burn off the frame in the first firing. We wove thinner branches and saplings into the frame for strength and structure.
The next day our clay FINALLY arrived. It was the first of several very cold days. A killing frost had taken out Claudine's zucchini and eggplants, and left an icy film on a bucket of rainwater. I wore two black sweatshirts, a very bad idea considering we were working with "Mass White" clay.
Although my hands were cold, I plunged them into a water/clay slip/clay/hay mixture (cob) and combined all the ingredients. It was horrible, but after an hour I got used to it.
I am not wearing gloves. Those are my hands.
We set up a little system. Claudine would roll out clay, I'd use my wet slip hands to seam the clay together. She did the aerobic exercise, I did the self-torture.
We lay clay onto the platform for a flat oven floor. We then placed the farmed oven on top of the clay and started laying clay on top of newspapers on top of the oven. This used up about 50 lbs of clay.
I mixed up as much hay/clay cob as I could - I had only enough for 1/2 of the dome. I ran out of slip and clay. Claudine used the remainder of the clay to make bricks. In this photo you can see the three clay layers - a thin layer over the frame, a cob layer, and a clay brick layer.
And that's as far as we got. We ran out of clay. We used 100 lbs in 3 hours, and could have easily used another 100 lbs. Luckily for us, Claudine's daughter Tahlia was heading back to Western Mass and promised to pick us up another 100 lbs.
We wrapped up the oven in garbage bags and a tarp. The forecast was for rain, and we didn't want the clay getting waterlogged or washing away.
Four days later, the sky a characteristic October blue, the leaves still on the trees despite TWO rainy, snowy Nor'easters since we bundled up the oven, we were finally able to get back to work. Tahlia had gone back to Sheffield but they were out of our special Massachusetts White clay. She found a substitute as well as a few free bags of clay from a friend of hers. The only problem is that our old clay had a shrink factor of 5% and our new clay had a shrink factor of 11%. In short, they were not compatible.The bottom layer would only shrink a little. The second top layer would shrink twice as much. It could be a disaster.
But we didn't have much choice. It was now October 19th and the dinner was supposed to be taking place on the 24th. We crossed our fingers, figured that the clay wouldn't shrink quite as much because we weren't firing it, and began making slip for more cob. We hoped that the new clay wouldn't cause our old clay - and the first layer of clay - to crumble.
Now the 24,24,24 was less than a week away. Fearing this incomplete outcome, I emailed Foodbuzz to tell them it didn't look like dinner would be cooked in time because of the clay issue to make the posting date. Alexa wrote me back:
"We're still interested in your proposal, and we think that maybe a tutorial to the clay oven building process might be interesting, as well as providing maybe a recipe for (future!) clay oven recipes..."
Phew. Whether or not my oven would be included in the 24x3, we were going to finish it. It was just a relief to know that our lack of proper advanced planning and our belief in the internet post we were using as a guide (which caused us to under-order clay) would not prevent us from joining the fun.
At Claudine's house we had an entire gang of helpers. I pulled the clay bricks off the side of the oven and quickly worked them into slip to make more cob. Several member of the under-9 set jumped in to help 'squish' the clay into slip. A few other girls - the over-9 set - eagerly helped me cut the clay with the clay wire. In the process of helping them, however, they inadvertently cut my fingernails to the quick, which I didn't notice until well after I washed my hands off. My fingers were, unfortunately, worse for it.
I made four batches of cob in a very small bowl (see above) and then batch by batch covered the oven with it.
It took three hours start to finish because we had to do everything in small batches.
I returned the next day. Claudine had three hours to spare so we set to work covering the hay/clay layer with a layer of rolled clay. We didn't have enough clay for clay bricks, unfortunately.
Here's how the oven looked from the inside:
Claudine rolled out the clay while I affixed it to the surface.
The view with the chimney reminds me of the back of a whale:
We added more clay and smoothed the surface out with our hands. We used 200 lbs of clay and only managed a layer of about 2.5 inches thick - great for roasting, not so good for bread baking. Bread baking requires retained heat - a thin wall will do a poor job of retaining heat over time, especially in the winter.
Our mistake was in the very beginning - we measured the oven opening from inside the bent saplings instead of from outside. As a result our 20" opening became nearly 25 inches, and our 30 inch center diameter became close to 40 inches, requiring much more clay to cover the surface. Of course we only realized this once we used 200 lbs of clay.
From the back, the oven looks a bit like a large beached whale:
In eight days, if we have dry weather, we will know if the oven has worked. There's a chance there will be cracking. There's a chance the interior clay will flake off. There's a chance that the clay layers on top will crack the interior clay layers, which will shrink less than the outer layers because we had to switch clay types.
I'm hoping, though, that in 8 days, our oven will bake its first loaf of bread. A thin loaf, so it will bake quickly. A loaf that will not mind that the oven walls are only 2.5 inches thick instead of 4-6 inches thick.
And if the oven doesn't work for bread, we can always use it as an elegant roaster.
I'll update the post with news. On the 28th of October, I'll check it to see if we can do the first firing. The first weekend in November will be all about using the oven for the first time and cooking up our first colonial meal.
Over the last three weeks, I've learned a lot about building a clay oven. I'm sure after it dries I'll learn even more. Here are my main takeaways from the experience thus far:
- Never ever ever begin an outdoor clay project if the outdoor daytime temperature is going to be below 50 degrees Fahrenheit unless your fingers are impervious to cold. If you wake up and there is ice or frost on any outdoor surface, be prepared for the chill. And when you do decide to warm up, don't use warm water or your hands will swell.
- If you read instructions on the internet, you either follow them exactly or plan for the worst. Our reference's instructions called for 80 lbs of clay. We ended up using 200 because we deviated so much from their instructions. And 200 lbs was not enough to build a 4-6" thick wall.
- If you live within 2 hours of your clay supplier, call them and pick it up. Do not wait for them to fill your internet order. We ended up waiting a week when we could have gotten started the day after we decided to make the oven. This cost us valuable drying time.
- Order enough clay to more than cover your oven. Because we didn't order enough in advance, the type of clay we needed was unavailable once we ran out of the first batch, and we had to blend two clays with different shrink percentages.
- Check your long-term weather forecast. You need dry weather to get the oven to dry. If you aren't going to have dry weather, make sure your oven is small enough that you can build it inside an enclosed space and then move it to the platform.
- If you are using a wood frame, measure from the outside to the outside of the wood piece, not inside to inside. Your calculations will be horribly and irretrievably botched if you do what we did and measure from inside the arc.
- Read your instructions THOROUGHLY. If you do what we did, and confuse width with height, your oven will end up MUCH bigger than you needed it to be.
- If you are going to build in the fall and you happen to live in New England, make sure your oven will be complete before trees start shedding their leaves. Leaves, pine needles, pine cones, acorns, dead boughs and branches will all ding your drying clay.
- If you are going to build on a no-cement surface, make sure you build on something continuous, seamless, and flat. Our gravel and stone platform settled quite a bit after we built the oven causing the base to spread and promoting cracking of the oven floor. We should have built on a wood base...which was Coco's plan but I overruled it. Ooops!
- Give yourself MUCH more time than you think you'll need to get it done. As they say, the best laid plans....
Want to hear what happened when we finally fired up the oven two weeks later? Read about it here.**** ****** ***** *****
One of the first dishes I'd like to cook in the oven, other than some simple breads and a roast, is the old New England standby, (the poorly named) Indian Pudding (one Maine company even offers it in a can), so named because of its base of maize, a crop indigenous to the new world.
While doing some research on the web for a less 'modern' recipe, I found this wonderful resource for early American cookbooks at Michigan State's online library.
One of the cookbooks they have scanned is one of the first cookbooks to feature American recipes, American Cookery, from 1798. In general, the colonists used English cookbooks published in England or American cookbooks featuring recipes from the British repertoire. This cookbook by Amelia Simmons, apparently not the first published in the states, was the first to feature American recipes for an American audience. With the extremely unwieldy title, "American Cookery or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, ", the cookbook was revolutionary both for its use of pearlash, a chemical leavener derived from wood ash (predating the more pure sodium bicarbonate) and for its use of ingredients indigenous to North America.
There are 3 recipes in American Cookery for Indian Pudding, each a little different from the next. The second recipe is closest to the ones I've made in the past.
American Cookery's A Nice Indian Pudding
No 1: 3 pints scalded milk, 7 spoons Indian meal, stir together while hot, let stand til cooled; add 7 eggs, half-pound raisins, 4 ounces butter, spice and sugar. Bake one-and-a-half hour.
No 2: 3 pints scalded milk to one pint meal, salted; add 2 eggs, 4 ounces butter, sugar or molasses and spice; it will require two and a half hours baking.
No 3: Salt a pint of meal, wet with one quart milk; sweeten and put into a strong cloth or brass bell or metal vessel, stone or earthen pot, secure from wet and boil 12 hours.
I'll post more recipes as soon as I have an oven to cook them in!