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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: The Ultimate Wood-Fired Oven Book

We've all got our mental lists of things to do. Some are chores: this week I've gotta mow the lawn, go to the dry cleaner, etc. Some are things we want, and actually plan, to do:  going to an upcoming event, perhaps, or trying that new pizza place that just opened up. And of course, there's the bucket list:  "If I live long enough, someday I will ___."
And then there's another list, that I'll call the fantasy list. It's the list of things you'd like to do, but that deep down you know you almost certainly never will.
I, for example, have a fantasy of someday visiting the Faroe Islands. (It would take too long to explain here.) I'm pretty sure I never will, but that doesn't stop me from daydreaming about it.
And that's more or less how I feel about a home wood-fired oven. I'd like to have one. Love one, in fact. But deep down, I know I don't have the combination of the means, desire and know-how to get it done.
But that doesn't mean I don't like thinking about it. That's why it's a fantasy. And who knows? Things could change. Maybe I'll finally get on Jeopardy!, win enough to pay off the mortgage and send our daughter to college, and still have enough left over to pay somebody to build me a state-of-the-art wood-fired oven, while I'm off hiking across the Faroes.
So I was happy to accept a review copy of the second edition of The Ultimate Wood-Fired Oven Book, from Schiffer Publishing. In its 144 pages, author Anna Carpenter addresses what you need to know about designing, building and using an outdoor wood-fired oven. It's got enough practical advice to guide you through the entire process, and enough eye candy to keep you amused, even if all you want to do is fantasize about what your dream oven might look like, someday.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with lots of full-color photographs. But those photos are accompanied by enough text to make this a useful guide to actually constructing a wood-fired oven.
Let's start with the text. The book is logically organized, starting with the anatomy of a wood-fired oven, and progressing through planning, materials, building and using your oven, as well as a chapter on tools and accessories that you'll want to keep handy once you start cooking.
Naturally, I zeroed in on the pizza recipe. Keeping in mind that this is not a cookbook, it's fine, as far as it goes. The dough recipe calls for a short two-hour rise (better to plan ahead and refrigerate the dough overnight) but it's good enough, as a basic quick recipe. And the instructions on baking the pizza are useful, but if you've taken the trouble to build a wood-fired oven, you'll want to learn more about mastering the art of wood-fired pizza.
One thing I found interesting is that the pizza recipe calls for applying fresh mozzarella in cubes, rather than round slices. I guess the idea is that the oven will be so hot that the cubes will quickly liquefy and spread out. I'll try that next time I make pizza.
As useful as the text is, the photos are the best feature of the book. They are varied enough to give the reader good ideas about how to place, design and build a wood-fired oven. Where I live right now, the spot I've picked out for my fantasy oven is right underneath a tree, which concerned me, but the photos in the book indicate that it might be very doable. (So there goes one of my excuses for not having built an oven yet.)
There are also photos and hand-drawn illustrations of the construction process, as well as cross-section diagrams of different types of wood-fired ovens. The latter include detailed specs identifying the particular components and their placement.
Even the photos that don't have any direct relevance to my situation, I found fun to look at. They run the gamut from relatively modest ovens, in a variety of settings, to behemoths worthy of a Roman emperor (speaking of which, there are some photos at the beginning of the book of an excavated oven in Pompeii, Italy, that show how little has changed in the basic design of wood-fired ovens over the past 2000 years).
If you're seriously considering installing a wood-fired oven at home, you'll want this book. I'm sure you'll want to consult some additional resources, too, but for its combination of how-to advice and inspiration, this volume is hard to beat. It might even get you to move "wood-fired oven" from your fantasy list to your bucket list.

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