Washington Cooks: Backyard baking

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.

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