I’ve had my outdoor pizza oven for a year now and I think last Saturday was the first night I’ve really felt confident with it. This was due in no small measure to the calming presence of Leslie Williams who is further down the pizza trail than me.
The building of the oven is fairly fully documented elsewhere on this forum http://forkncork.com/pizza-progress/ + http://forkncork.com/pizza-oven-thats-amore/ and that both the oven itself, an Italian Linea, supplied by Ian from Terracotta Warehouse in Manchester ( www.terracottawarehouse.co.uk ) and the base that I had conceived for it are pretty sound. Were I to do it again I’d make the plinth a couple of inches wider all round so I could put more cladding on. It would also allow me to build a weather-beating brick and tile roof over the oven if I so wished, although I like the ‘mini-mosque’ look of the dome. I’d maybe double the amount of insulation under the oven floor. That apart, it’s spot on. For the top skin I used ‘Segrelime’ a system devised by Ian to protect the oven against the ravages of the Irish climate – chiefly piss rain and, last winter, surprisingly, a horrendous amount of snow and frost. In the event, it didn’t work. Massive cracks (in the top surface only) appeared and it was clear the ‘Segrelime’ – a compound of lime, insulating granules and some mysterious liquid as far as I remember – hadn’t adhered properly to the surface below. After a deal of deliberation I consulted a company called Dineen Refractory who hang out at Athy (well, sort of near Athy, I’d probably never find it again). Dineen, who specialize in building materials with a what you might call a calorific content – from chimney pots to kiln-building materials, were very helpful. After listening to my problems they sold me two bags of a two-pack compound they call ‘Castable’. One element is a high alumina cement, the other, what the manager called ‘grog’ (some kind of aggregate). Mixed together with water the compound is used for cladding kilns and has been tested up to 1600 degrees – whether Fahrenheit or Celsius that’s far more than I need. It wasn’t cheap – you can get a back of hydraulic lime for about €4. My ‘Castable’ cost almost €80 but if it did the job that was fine by me.
I was advised to put the material on over the existing surface and that’s what I did. It was easy to clad the top of the oven, which is relatively flat. The steep sides, however, presented a problem. In the end I resorted to making ‘mud pies’ and plastering them on by hand. Alas, with about 2 square feet to go I ran out of material and had to order another bag. Dineen kindly sent it up with a courier, who charged me a tenner, fair I thought. Early days, but the ‘Castable’ seems to have worked a treat, forming a tough and, thus far, weatherproof hard skin. You can now rest a hand on the top of the oven while the fire is roaring, proof that the insulation is working.
FIRE The first mistake I made was to have the logs too big. These are fine for stoves used for room heating but useless if you want to crank the oven up to 400 C quickly. 12cm/5 inch – 20cm/8 inch hardwood logs split lengthways into four are perfect. To this end I bought a big, sharp axe. A bag of kindling is also useful for getting things started and building a fire fast. An old-fashioned bellows is handy – if anyone in your family is going to Morocco on holiday, they sell them on markets there. I soon found that a broad, flat fire works better than a tall, narrow, teepee-shaped one. Reading a book on the early days of steam locomotion it seems that drivers and firemen on the Great Western Railway discovered the same thing! The aim is to have the fire cover as much of the floor surface as possible before you sweep it to the back or side to create a hot surface for cooking.
DOUGH I’ve acknowledged Marcela Hazan as the source of my pasta recipe. My pizza dough comes from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse via River Café Yellow, except that I’ve replaced her rye flour with semolina.
4 tsp granular dried yeast
125ml warm water 150g semolina flour
250ml warm water
2 tbsp milk
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
500g ‘00’ flour
Makes 6 ten inch pizzas.
Warm a bowl large enough to take the total mixture. Mix the yeast with the warm water in the warm bowl and stir till melted. Leave in a warm place for at least 30 mins, until it forms ‘a sponge’ – a good description, this. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Knead by hand (my method) for 20 minutes or in a food processor with a dough hook (AW’s) for 15. The dough should still be wet and sticky – this gives a crisper crust. Place the dough in a bowl, greased with extras olive oil and drizzle a little over the top. Cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for two hours.
Knock the dough back, leave in a warm place to rise again for a further 40 minutes. This is pretty pluperfect stuff – I must confess that, when pressed, I’ve cut these times to 1 hour/30 minutes without it making much difference to the finished pizza. Here, River café and I diverge. They say roll out into 6 golf ball sized pieces to make a ten-inch pizza. I find this doesn’t work for me (or indeed for Leslie). Both of us had trouble getting the golf ball to stretch beyond 9 inches in diameter. Anyhow, try for yourself. It’s no big deal to take a slightly larger lump of dough.
So, onwards and upwards. Crank the fire up to 350-400 C and you are ready to go. Push the fire to the back or a side, keep it going with a couple more small logs and work away. You want big blaze, with little smoke. Flour the rolling surface well, also the pizza paddle, particularly near the front edge.
On no account load the pizza on the countertop – get the base on the paddle and then load. And don’t overload the pizza – this has been the cause of more accidental concertina calzones in my early days as a pizza shoveller. Get the pizza on the paddle, then load. Be sparing with the tomato sauce and keep it away from the edges. When loaded up, ferry it to the oven, de-paddle it and be prepared to turn the pizza with the paddle to prevent the edges burning. It should cook in under two minutes.
TOP TIP Make more pizza dough than you need – you probably will anyway. You can use it to make schiacciata or focaccia – flat bread – when the oven is dying down (below 200 C). Work some slivers of black olive into the dough and form into a ciabata shape. Push dimples in the top with fingers or the handle of a wooden spoon; anoint with sea salt and fresh rosemary leaves and drizzle with good olive oil. Remove from oven when it’s baked (knock on the bottom, if it sounds hollow, it’s done) – important this, as (under the affluence of incohol) I’ve sometimes forgotten and, sweeping out the oven next day, wondered what the big black stone was. SECOND TOP TIP Don’t go for broke and make 12 inch pizzas from the off (I learned this the hard way). Make 8 inch pizzas and increase the size as you get more confident. I’ve also smoked chickens and, best of all, racks of pork in ‘Gianluca’ – the nickname bestowed on me by my regular customers when I had my café, on account of a fancied resemblance to Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea footballer, after I’d had a very short haircut.