Washington Cooks: Backyard baking

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 11:38 AM

The infrared gun registers 900 degrees just a few feet away from Tish Hall's face on a brutal July morning, but the Silver Spring homemaker hasn't broken a sweat.

She is in the zone, tending the wood-fired oven she built in her back yard. Its outside domed walls are barely warm to the touch. On the work table nearby, her proofed and slashed loaves are lined up on floured wooden boards, awaiting their turn to rise and crisp on the oven floor.

As the 51-year-old surveys her orderly yeasted universe - you can almost hear her checking off a mental to-do list - her gaze turns to a large Lexan container filled with a living thing, a cornmeal-white dough of her own recipe.

"This one always does what I want it to do," she says.

It seems fitting that the self-taught bread baker would be drawn to the notion of a cob oven, made of found materials. That is what she settled on in 2009, after years of baking in a conventional oven, after much research and after input from her dad, Robert, an 81-year-old who lives in La Plata and is so all-around handy that he has been dubbed the Human Swiss Army Knife.

Tish Hall grew up in Oxon Hill watching her mother make bread: "I learned from her," she says. But because Hall is methodical and a voracious reader, over the years she picked up more techniques and theories: from Fine Cooking, on the properties of salt. From Harold McGee, on yeast. She baked loaves or rolls three times a week for three years.

"I killed a lot of starters," she says.

Then Hall happened upon a book called "The Bread Builders," by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, which taught her about ratios, and her bread rose to new heights. After that, she read Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and says she had to relearn much of what she thought she knew.

When the time came for Hall to get serious about getting her own wood-fired oven, her dad turned her on to cob, a mixture of clay, sand and straw. It can be processed to the right consistency by vigorous foot stomping, and that sounded like fun. She bought a DIY book and was hooked. Estimated cost of the project: $200.

With plenty of raw material from her dad's 12-acre property, his expertise with pouring concrete, the bricks he had salvaged from a 1976 Bicentennial exhibit on the Mall, and various helping hands (and feet), Hall's cob oven came together.

They built a prototype at her dad's and learned "what not to do," she says, especially when it came to creating layers of insulation. At her family's home in Kemp Mill Estates, her sons, Liam 16, and Conor, 14, and neighbors pitched in; her husband, Gavin Brennan, worked in support mode. Before the cob dried, she etched "Le Fou du Pain" over the oven door. (Hall says it means "the bread hearth" in an old Jersey French dialect.)

Because cob can be compromised by wet weather, her dad built a charmingly rustic gazebo to protect the oven. Hall acquired essential equipment, such as a scuffle for mopping ash off the oven floor, a wooden peel made by Liam for retrieving baked goods, a sturdy bucket for water and the infrared gun for measuring the temperature within. Her boys learned how to tend the fire.

Hall's baking days start at 8 a.m. It takes about four hours to build the right-size fire. There is a good supply of wood to be foraged in her neighborhood and dead-fall kindling in her yard, but sometimes her dad supplements the pile.

"We go through a lot of it," she says. "I go from being covered in flour to being covered in soot."

While the oven heats up, she gets various doughs underway in her kitchen upstairs, where the scene is somewhat less orderly. "I'd rather bake than work on the house," she admits.

Her KitchenAid mixer is almost two decades old and is used almost daily, for breads and for the many cake and cookie recipes, lodged between plastic sleeves of a huge spiral notebook, that come to fruition in her kitchen oven. She uses the baker's classic windowpane test (stretching a small amount of dough to the point of translucence) to check on the developing gluten.

When the temperature of the cob oven's back wall reaches 900 degrees or so, the countdown begins. Like other wood-fired oven cooks, Hall follows the order of the heat: Pita breads made from her cornmeal white bread recipe go in first. A three-ounce ball of dough puffs and bakes in 65 to 75 seconds. When her family or a friendly crowd is on hand, Hall will transfer the hot, chewy pillows to a carving board on the table with a dish of butter nearby. The pitas' undersides have bits of char; nobody can eat just one.

Flatbread pizzas and calzones go in next. They take less than two minutes to bake. "I'm not a tomato sauce person," she says, preferring to adorn them with homemade mozzarella, fresh basil and a sparse application of tomato slices, or the olives and mushrooms that Conor prefers.

When the oven floor is at 600 degrees, it's time for the lined-up loaves of bread. She has mastered the tuck and roll of a well-crafted loaf and prefers to bake them without molds or pans. Olive bread, chocolate bread and a cheddar, chive and onion bread are standouts. Less-dense loaves of white bread go in first and take 10 or 15 minutes.

Then she pops the fitted wooden door on the oven to give the interior a "heat soak," letting hot spots even out. In the late afternoon, she puts in a peach cobbler and roasts vegetablesfor tomato sauce or chicken backs for homemade stock.

As the heat wanes, Hall places a bone-in pork butt in a Dutch oven with a quarter-cup of cider vinegar, a quarter-cup of liquid smoke flavoring and a generous helping of salt and black pepper, and slides it into the cob oven. In the morning she pulls out the bones, pulls the meat into shreds and adds more vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

"Barbecue purists will hate that I do it that way," she says. "But it's easy and really good."

Hall has managed to organize requests for her breads into something of a limited neighborhood business, which she calls Dances With Loaves, and sells 10 to 15 loaves one day a week. People place orders, and the price structure is designed to cover her expenses. Next-door neighbors Arlene Gottschalk and daughters Reyna Cook, 12, and Eliya Cook, 14, are regular customers who worked on the oven.

"We order bread every week," Gottschalk says. "During the school year, when we get it on a Friday, it might not last till Monday."

The breadmaking Hall is drawn to is connected to old foodways, and it's obvious that this pleases the student who earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Maryland at College Park in 2003.

As devoted to baking as she is, Hall has passions beyond it, such as smoking meats, supporting her sons' theater projects and singing in the choir at the Paint Branch Unitarian Church. She's famous for creating meals inspired by great literature for church or school auctions. Her independently playful streak is on display whenever she paints a swath of purple or pink or blue dye into her soft brown hair.

"I don't bother to act my age," she says. "That's the good thing about being my age."

And when she is baking, her T-shirt of choice says it all: Peace. Love. Bake.


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