Saturday, April 30, 2016

Restaurant Brick Oven- Part Six

The dome is done.  A thin shell of reinforced refractory concrete covers the dome and allows me to sign it, caveman style, with my handprint.  This adds a continuous shell as well as some additional mass.

The flue top is also complete and ready to receive the custom damper that goes on all the indoor installations.

Next, I will place the granite hearth on the front and stone up the face.  Blanket insulation and a stainless steel chimney will be added and the oven will be ready for the first firing.
The face brick will be covered with the stone arch and the hearth
will be set level with the oven floor.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Restaurant Oven Build- Part Five

The face of the oven creates the flue.  The flue and chimney is in front of the oven chamber in all wood-fired ovens.  Some ovens, like cob built ones and ancient mud ovens, don't have a flue at all but vent the smoke directly in front of the mouth, blackening the front.

If someone tries to put the chimney in the middle of the dome or vault, your oven will not heat as this creates something akin to fireplace, but with poor qualities at best.

A second arch allows for the space for a flue.  I have designed the front arch wider and a couple of inches higher than the mouth arch so that good visibility and working space is available to the baker.
In indoor installations I create two combustion air (or makeup air) channels on either side of the arch.

Before I mix mortar, I precut and pre-set most of the bricks.

The arch form is shimmed and the top of the form is covered with thin aluminum or steel to create a smooth surface and catch extra mortar.

The form can be removed soon after placing the keystone as gravity, and the small amount of mortar are holding it all together.

The brick sides are buttresses that will maintain the compression sufficient to hold the arch.  In this case the arch is nearly full which means that the force of the bricks is primarily on the base.

A level is an important tool that keeps the masonry true.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Restaurant Brick Oven- Part Four

The dome is going up.
This involves splicing the arch of the mouth to the curve of the dome, a time-consuming and technical process.
Once past this splice, the rings (known as chains) of bricks continue evenly until the keystone is ready to be placed, closing the dome and locking the entire structure into a durable whole.

As I've said in past blog posts, I don't use forms.  The bricks are cut accurately so that they form the desired shape.  Also, having a form-free interior allows me to clean the excess mortar from the inside of the dome as I build.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bread in a Hurry

I've listened to the Passover story for the past sixty years.  The mythology around matzah is this:  The  Jews, in a hurry to leave Egypt, didn't have time for their bread to rise and thus we eat unleavened bread, or matzah at Passover.

Last fall I got a call from a man in the Chicago area who wanted me to build a brick oven for making shmura matzah, a round matzah made under strict guidelines.  From the time the water and flour are combined to the removal of the matzah from the oven cannot exceed eighteen minutes.  This is because after eighteen minutes, natural yeasts begin to work in the dough.

This would suggest that the Jews in Egypt had eighteen minutes notice in order to leave Egypt, or they had eighteen minutes after all the rest of their stuff was loaded onto carts, and the kids, both human and goats, were rounded up for the journey.

It is rare for us to have such a precise window into a historical moment.

So, I take the story as allegorical.  Some Jews made their bread in eighteen minutes, some in less, and God forbid, some (the slow ones or the ones who had packed the night before) had bread that rose, just a little bit.

Much of the Passover Seder (the meal commemorating the Exodus) is meant to be simultaneously allegorical and factual.  For non-Jews, matzah can seem a bit...thin.  But for Jews, it is symbolic, as are the drops of grape juice or wine, let fall to represent the plagues of Egypt that led to Pharaoh's concession and immediate retraction.  Concessions and immediate retractions usually lead to hurried exits.


Here are the links to past blogs and a Youtube of a matzah factory in Brooklyn, NY.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Restaurant Brick Oven Build- Part Three

The mouth of the brick oven needs certain proportions in order to both keep the heat of the fire within the oven and provide convenient access when baking.

A wooden form is used to support the arch bricks during fitting and assembly but can be removed within minutes of completion due to the supporting strength of the mortared buttresses on either side.

Cleaning up mortar with a sponge and water follows the mortaring process.  Mortar joints here and elsewhere on the oven need not be more than one tenth of an inch.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Restaurant Brick Oven- Part Two

All bricks for floor and dome are staged for the oven build
The second part of building a large oven involves laying out the floor, first on the concrete slab, then the insulating slab, and lastly the herringbone pattern of the floor itself.

The forms have been stripped.

The mouth of these ovens scribe a tangent on the interior diameter.  Laying out the lines on the concrete slab allows for adjustments and for placing the flue directly under where the chimney will be built.

4" Foamglas block insulation covers the concrete and the lines for the floor bricks are scratched into the surface.

lines indicated the outer edges of bricks needed cutting

Bricks trimmed, ready for dome to be built

Addicted to Brick Domes

Addiction is not a pretty thing...usually.

The longer I build brick oven domes, the more I appreciate the geometry of the structure.

There is something alchemical about taking a rectangular brick and cutting it precisely so that in combination with approximately 400 other cut bricks, it forms a perfect dome.

Cutting hundreds of bricks can be arduous.  The return on this work comes when the dome is mortared and the keystone is fitted at the crown.

On larger domes, I then slide inside the dome to check and finish any places that need pointing.

Then, a week later I'm back for more... cutting, fitting, and numbering.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Meet the Chef Me

Each year at the North New England Home and Garden Show I allow other chefs to use my portable brick oven for their specialty dishes.

Last fall, Karla Ficker, the show's producer recorded a cooking session with me at my place in Maine with that same oven.  Here it is:
I don't claim to be a chef, a title reserved for people trained in the intricacies of food prep and with both a repertoire and flair for cooking.
However, having cooked a lot of food in my life and my expertise in using brick ovens, I can say I'm a 'foodie'.  I will happily try making and eating almost all the types of food in the world.

Brick Oven Week-long Fire

The coincidence of a perfect Spring weekend and my being near my brick oven resulted in the first meal cooked outside.

As I will be in Maine for the next week, I wanted to keep the oven 'live'.  This is easily done with a few (four) big chunks of wood that otherwise would not have been burned.  These knurly knots where branches diverged are usually consigned to this purpose.

By sliding a couple in against the coals and shutting the door, they burn slowly.  Twenty four hours later they are only half gone and two days later I have coals for the next fire and an oven halfway to 500F.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Restaurant Brick Oven Build- Part One

The alcove
bottom blocks
I've just begun building a brick oven for a campground restaurant in Naples, Maine.  The building was intentionally designed to house the oven at one end.

Stacked blocks with center support

Every other core filled and rebar inserted

Forms and support for slab pour

Pour begins
Rebar placed

Wire mesh

The photos here show the first steps.  When the series showing this build is done, the set of progress photos will go on the 'Featured Project' button on my website.
Finished slab

It all starts with lots of heavy materials: Concrete block, concrete, more concrete, rebar, and then some more concrete.  Fortunately, it's been great early Spring weather in New England.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Path and Living the Good Life

Today I listened with great interest to Diane Rehm's interview with the authors of:
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

Fifty years ago I read with equal interest, Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life.

Are these authors separated by time, two alive and two now dead, talking about the same Good Life?

The Nearing's book told of their lives in Vermont on a piece of land where with the help of friends, the fifty-year old Scott and his wife Helen, twenty-one years younger, built stone buildings, maple sugared, and gardened in what was described as a subsistence lifestyle with leisure afternoons discussing life and politics.

This sounded just great to young people of the early seventies and precipitated a back-to-the-land movement that lasted fifteen years.

The Nearing's model of work and community struck a major chord with children of the sixties.  Intentional communities were springing up in many rural places.  There was one catch for those young people, I among them.

Where the Nearings had Scott's pension from Columbia and Helen's resources of an estimated inherited of one million dollars, most other 'homesteaders' struggled with mixed success to pay off their land purchases and worked long hours to be self-sufficient.

I stopped in at their Harborside, Maine home in the late seventies when Scott was in his late nineties.  I could not help but be awed by the stone buildings, stone-walled garden and greenhouse they created very late in life.  If Living the Good Life inspired me to build a stone and log house, work sixteen hour days growing food, and shovel chicken manure for a neighbor farmer to pay for the land, their activity late in life let me know they didn't have the 'Easy Life'.

The 'accusation' aired occasionally, that Helen's wealth made it all possible is disingenuous.  Do we chide people with intellectual wealth spent well?  Physical strength used well? People with surplus enthusiasm?  None of the places Scott and Helen lived were close to what most middle class people would 'tolerate'.  In total, they did far more good than their contemporaries.

In retrospect, the message was perhaps, 'Find social and political truth on the land'.

Fast forward to now.  I'm 64.  I'm building brick ovens and stone structures.  Yeah, I'm getting older... not 100 yet, but not 22.

The house I built myself in 2007 with the help of friends.
Three ponds were dug by excavator associate.
The Path, is a book about personal engagement in everyday activities that make world change person-to-person, moment to moment.  I agree.  It is closer to what I have tried to do in this brick oven work, as narrow a niche as it seems (and is); in my past work as a storyteller, and in general.  I hope that tone comes through.

In pursuit of my MFA degree, I wrote an essay called Super-Local Activism.  Stay tuned for that essay.

Friday, April 15, 2016


This is not a review of Little Ceasar's, whose trademarked slogan is 'Pizza Pizza'.  This is a post about the popularity of brick ovens and the misconception that brick ovens, especially wood-fired brick ovens, are intended primarily for PIZZA.

Americans have a way of appropriating bits of foreign culture.  The term 'Melting Pot' is a food metaphor and is just as apt when used for food.  We melt something from another culture until is molded into an American thing.  This is not necessarily negative and has its causes.

Because we are a country of highly diverse people, a purely ethnic dish might not gain national popularity if kept pure.  The twelve inch spare and delicious pizza found in Orvieto or Napoli Italy needed to be brought up to American standards of heft.  Thus we make pizzas that are 16" in diameter and load them with a ton of toppings.  It's lasagna on crust!  And less sloppy.

So when it comes to the popularity of brick ovens, we infer Pizza.  But wait.  Truly, you will tire of  pizza, even the much-improved kind you can make in your own brick oven.  Then it's time to turn to other dishes.

My favorite book on cooking Italian in a wood-fired oven is

The Art of Wood-Fired Cooking: Andrea Mugnaini 

If you wonder what these ovens can do, this is the book.  Mugnaini brought wood-fired oven cooking to America in 1989, and although her line of ovens are cast refractory, they are high quality AND she doesn't claim that they are brick ovens, but wood-fired.  

The ancient lines between Greece and Italy are blurry and pizza is evidence that food has a long history of being hijacked.  The word pizza, comes from the Greek word pita.