Building an Outdoor Bread Oven – Part Two

outdoor bread oven

In some ways this is really Part One, because although Bill’s set of instructions for  building your own wood burning oven is  thorough enough, the inspirational ovens of his childhood got only fleeting mention when he wrote it.

Now, thanks to the comments section, the story has its start. A simple query (from a fellow Lithuanian) has summoned those missing memories: of the outdoor brick ovens built by the southern Italians on Bill’s mother’s side, and of his apprenticeship with Willie Orban, his Lithuanian Godfather, who ran “the largest and the best bakery in town.”

First, the (abbreviated) query:

Hi Bill… I have a winter place in south west Florida where I plan to build an oven, however the clay belts are in the panhandle!!! Are you aware of an alternative to raw clay? I was thinking of using clay bricks which I can get readily get for free. I think baking bread is in the genetic code of all Lithuanians. Thanks much, Stan.

Next there should be a thanks to Stan from me, because here is Bill’s reply:

Hi Stan,

Well free is the way to go, isn’t it?  Although father’s side of the family, and hence my name, is Lithuanian, it was from my mother’s southern Italian side that I learned about home made bread ovens. There were several in our neighborhood (in Washington Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh) and all were made from clay brick.

As I recall, and as old Angelo de Francesco described it to my uncle, the process consists largely of laying in a circular course of brick, leaving room for the door, and raising this course for a foot or so.

Then begins a gradual reduction in the diameter of the circle, by setting the successive courses not directly on top of the previous course, but somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the brick width inward. This process is carried on until the constriction of the wall meets at the top. I think this is called a corbelled vault in brick-laying parlance.

The bricks must be laid with mortar/cement and are, of course staggered along their length, no two successive courses having seams directly overlaying one another.

I recall at least one smaller oven which was built using a wooden barrel as a form over which to arrange the bricks.

In some of these ovens, the entire outer wall was cemented over, thus making the ovens stronger, more efficient (due to the greater thermal mass), and relatively water and weather proof.

In others the geometry of the corbelled brickwork was unadorned, and these were protected from the weather by a shed roof.  I think one oven was double walled with rubble/gravel between the inner and outer brick walls.

As I recall, all were built upon a waist high base, all were domed, and all had but a single door. And I think all of the bricks were red, probably coming from clays mined just down the pike; the entire area was known for its pottery industry.

As I say, I learned about building these ovens from the Italians in the neighborhood. You will be pleased to know, however, that I learned baking from Willie Orban, my Lithuanian Godfather. Willie ran the largest and the best bakery in town.

We had several large electrical geared mixing bowls that were capable of handling 200 pounds of flour at a time, several proofing and retarding boxes, each working full time, and a large gas-fired oven with 20 foot long Ferris-wheel revolving shelves.

I would show up for work somewhere around midnight, commence to mixing the bread and set it to rising using pound sized bricks of gray, squeaky bakers yeast. As this ferment began I had just a half hour to mix up the sweet doughs for the pastries. Then began the successive pinching off of the dough as it aged, each fifty pound pull to be cut and kneaded into distinctive shapes.

As these rose in the pans and trays and the remainder of bread in the mixing bowl continued to work,  I/we had just a jot of time to roll out the sweet dough into buttered layers for the pastries, then pull off the second fifty pound batch of dough for the crusty loaves. Somewhere in between, the first batch of breads would go into the oven; the pastries cut, filled, proofed and then set into the oven; cake batter made; a second and third batch of dough mixed and set to working; dinner rolls mixed, proofed, cut, rolled and proofed again; cakes baked; cookie dough mixed, chilled, cut, filled and baked; large bread loaves weighed, cut, kneaded, braided, seeded, proofed and baked off; cakes cooled, cut and layered/decorated; goods coming from the ovens moved to cooling racks, the sweet ones dipped or drizzled with fondant. Meanwhile, doughnut batters were mixed, aged, proofed, fried, and glazed or filled;  puff shells baked and then filled with creams; fruit pie dough mixed, chilled, rolled, filled and baked…

And then the cleaning up, washing of the pans, sweeping of the floors, maintaining the machines, delivering the wedding cakes to the churches, hard rolls to the VFW, pastries to the Bar Mitzvah or Rotary Club.

There was never time to eat, never time even to stop and pee, but then again there was never a need; food was everywhere and the heat and work caused constant sweat to seep from the skin.  Time, meaning, horizon all dissolved into a blur.

It was great! Like living in New York City. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but would never want to do it again.

I did this as a skinny teenager and then went on to college. For Willie it was all he knew. He was trapped there, strong as an ox but with no teeth, aching joints, high blood pressure, a bad stomach, crippling arthritis and the paranoid world view of a mind pumped to the limit by fear and adrenalin, finally eroded to half its potential. The last time I saw him he was glued to his TV set watching endless reruns of the Pope’s visit to what looked like a ball field. He wanted me to watch the reruns with him, share the vision, the glory, marry and put a baker’s dozen in the wife’s oven…

I begged off and walked across the road to the spring near my grandmother’s house, passing my granddad’s bread oven on the way.

Yes Stan, go with the free bricks. You can make a very good oven with free bricks and a little mortar. And the smoke of the fire puts such a splendid color and taste in the crust of the bread. You won’t regret it!

best of luck,

Bill Bakaitis

antique photo, man and boy

Billy and Willie @ 1950

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  • Tatiana Said,

    Wow, what a poetic reply. I was lost in that world of a bakery that I’ve never known. I’d love to one day build a wood oven on my land, for breads, but also slow roasted meats, and pilafs and whole haunches of boar in wine, and who knows what. Cooking with real wood and fire adds a flavor and soul to food that is not replicated elsewhere.

    Hi Tatiana, I’ve got to echo Bill: Go for it! You’re right about the flavor and soul of slow cooked; beans baked in a wood burning oven are almost as rich as the pulled pork that can be roasting next to them… where there might also be a big pan of beets and a couple, three pies. One of the things that’s great about the oven is that it’s BIG. Also, don’t forget the pizza! If you’ve got the land you’ve already done the hard part.

  • Melodae Farley Said,

    Hello! This is a great story — any way we can get Part One? I read about the oven in The 3000 Mile Garden… I’m ready to build one now and I’ve looked at several plans, but this one sounds as if it’s the one I want to build.

    Hi Melodae, Glad to hear you liked the story, and glad to say Part One is as close as the link up near the top to “instructions.” Guess I should have clarified that!

  • Melodae Farley Said,

    Never mind. I found it. Thanks!

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