As my dad used to say, “Call Walter Cronkite!” Almost a year later, it looks like my earth oven might finally be dry.
I fired it up last weekend and lo and behold, it actually got hot. So hot, in fact, that I burned the bottoms of the loaves because I haven’t exactly got the temperature-gauging thing down yet. But after that layer of carbonized crust was lopped off, the bread was actually quite good. Maybe I can do this.
After another weekend of scooping, packing, stomping, dumping, shoveling, squishing, reaching, lugging, bending, blending, pressing, aching, groaning, and getting yelled at by my daughter for tracking dirt into the house, I’m happy to say my earth oven can now sleep a little better at night. Or maybe it’s I who can sleep better, knowing that the oven is wrapped in a snug blanket, aka its insulation layer.
The theory behind this layer of sawdust (or other insulating material) mixed with just enough mud to hold it together is simple: it keeps the heat where you want it (i.e., in the inner, dense thermal layer of the oven, where it can radiate to the baking bread) and away from where you don’t want it (i.e., yourself and other surrounding burn-able objects).
If I’ve been deafeningly silent about my earth oven lately, it’s because there has been literally nothing cooking with it. Six weeks after I finished building the thermal mud layer, it is still not completely dry. I attribute this to 1) a coastal climate that sees thick damp fog roll in almost every evening and hang around until, often, midmorning or later, and 2) the fact that my oven does not live with me (or more accurately, I do not live with it) full time, and I keep it covered when I am away to protect it from rain (rare this time of year, but potentially disastrous to an uncured oven if it were to strike).
My impatience aside, this slow drying has not been a terrible thing. My mason friend assures me this is the best way to minimize the cracks that Kiko Denzer says are virtually inevitable (but usually cosmetic), and it’s true that cracks haven’t been an issue. But good grief, I can’t hold my impatience at bay forever! And if I don’t get the second (insulating) layer on soon, before the rains get down to serious business in another month or two, I may really be sorry.
Have you ever watched mud dry? I can tell you it happens excruciatingly slowly. I know this because for ten days I have been monitoring the progress of a four-inch-thick, three-foot-diameter beehive-shaped shell as it transforms from a mixture of soil, sand, and water into a solid, heat-retaining, bread-baking wonder (I hope).
At last report, I had a hearth and a doorway arch. From there, progress was apace for a while. First I packed the spaces between the arch bricks with mud. The following morning, my sister and my niece helped me create the dome-shaped sand form.
After way too much fretting that the corners of the firebricks for my oven hearth aren’t perfectly square (and how many things in life are perfectly square?), there was only one thing to do: get over it and get on with it. So task number one yesterday was to lay the hearth no matter what. It’s a little gappy at those pesky corners, but it will do.
I can’t figure myself out sometimes.
The smallest of tasks, such as hanging pictures, can get me so bogged down in analysis paralysis that they often languish for months or even years on my to-do list, while I try to decide the position of everything to the last sixteenth of an inch, and just what size nail would be perfect for each one.
And yet I’m apt to dive into more involved projects with only the barest hint of an idea of what the hell I am doing. For example, I now find myself muddling through in a fairly clueless sort of way, here at my home-away-from-home, the construction of a wood-fired mud oven.
Not that I’m flying completely blind here. I do have both inspiration and direction from the definitive book on the subject, Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer, and from very helpful photos and advice from several oven builders around the internet.
But have I ever built anything? Not unless you count my toothpick model of Plymouth Plantation in fifth grade. Am I strong enough to be hauling 50-pound buckets of dirt around? Barely. Have I ever even baked bread in a wood-fired oven? Well, now that you mention it, that would be a no. Am I completely stupid? Quite possibly.