Pizza-Making in a Black Stone Pizza Oven

For my birthday my brother, who knows I love to bake pizzas, bought me a propane-fired, 65,000 btu Blackstone Pizza Oven.

The design is quite clever: the oven has a rotating bottom stone, and a stationary top stone. The gas flame shoots up under the right edge of the bottom stone, heating it as it rotates. At the same time, the flame climbs up over the bottom stone and heats a non-rotating top stone. In 10 minutes with full flame both stones reached 700 degrees F, and in another 5 the top stone red-lined my thermogun at 1000 degrees F.


Discretion, as I learned after some trial and error, is a virtue. You can bake a pizza to perfection in about 4 minutes, or incinerate one in less than 2 minutes.

Totally blackened bottom from overheating stone 

Trial and error has shown me that an optimal reading on the thermometer which comes with the unit - and which measures the temperature of the air between the stones - is around 650 degrees F. At this temperature, with just a little flame climbing onto the top stone, a pizza cooks perfectly in just 4 minutes.


In my world perfections involves a thin crust type pizza, where any vegetable or meat toppings are already sauted/sweated out prior to baking. Sauces and toppings are added discretely - this type of pizza is all about the crust, so topping should be viewed as things that complement and bring out the flavor in the crust, not as the main event in themselves.

It's all about the crust!


This also means that you should use a good, unbleached, unbromated flour, which will yield wonderful flavor that is lacking in heavily processed flours.  King Arthur flours are a sure choice in terms of cost and quality.

This oven will also roast (or char if you're not careful) vegetables and cook meat and poultry as well, though the clearance between the top and lower stones would not allow a whole chicken to be roasted. Spatchcocked chicken works wonderfully.


My initial expectation was that at 65,000 btu's a standard tank of propane would be gone in no time.  However, I've done 6 pizza bakes plus a spatchcocked chicken which took 20 minutes and I'm still working on my original tank.  So this seems to me a pretty cost effective way to bake pizzas.

If you are looking for an inexpensive alternative to a wood-fired pizza oven, the Black Stone Pizza Oven is certainly worth a look!

Traditional potato pizza with bacon & fontina cheeseMediterranean pizza




...and now for something completely different: Turkey stuffing boule

Maybe it's because of the interminable winter we suffered through, but now, as Spring finally shows her face and May is nearly upon us, my mind is still thinking about roast turkey with all the trimmings.

"What about a bread that tastes like dressing?" I wondered as we shaped loaves at Le Diplomate last week.  I mean, how cool might that be?  You just put some sliced turkey and cranberry sauce between it and voila, it's Thanksgiving all over! 

Now, everyone has his or her own favorite dressing/stuffing recipe, and mine is simple but satisfying: I sweat out diced celery and onions in a pan with lots of butter, add stale bread diced into 1/4" cubes, some turkey broth, a little milk, and chopped roasted chestnuts, along with salt and pepper.  Oh, and plenty of sage, with rosemary and thyme.  Additions may pop in and out of this recipe, but it's my basis for a wonderful stuffing.

So, how to translate that into bread? 

Well, the spicing is a no-brainer: the holy trinity of spices needed to be present.  How about the cooked celery and onions?  After a bit of thought I decided they needed to be in as well.  Milk?  I wanted a sourdough with some crunch in the crust, so I decided that milk was out.  The butter, onion and celery mixture would give the crumb some nice softness, but leave the crust intact.  Turkey broth in place of water?  That took some pondering, but after looking at the label on my can of low-sodium broth I decided to chance it: the amount of salt wasn't enough to worry about.

As for the dough, I decided to go for 10% whole wheat, 10% medium rye mixture, with bread flour comprising the remaining 80%.

I cooked up the onion and celery mix the night before and let it sit out so that it was at room temperature the following morning, and did my levain build at the same time.  Next morning the levain was lively, so all ingredients were mixed and placed in my Hamilton Beach mixer for an approximate 4 minute mix.  The dough was a little on the wet side from the extra water present in the onions and celery, but nothing ciabatta-like.  Dough strength was moderate, so I decided upon 2 folds at 90 minute intervals. 

After the second fold I shaped the dough into a 2.5 lb boule and placed it in a well-floured brotform for one hour of final proofing.

Bake was done with steam in a 475 degree F oven for 45 minutes.

The result was amazing: this really tastes like dressing!  Moist, nice crumb structure, and with some turkey and cranberry stuffed between two slices, like Thanksgiving all over again.

Verdict: a seasonal keeper!  For that matter, a good sandwich bread if you fancy turkey or chicken sandwiches with a bit of Thanksgiving in them.

Pics were taken with my iPad, so not top quality, but you get the idea....I hope.

CORRECTION: Water in final dough should be replaced with with low-sodium turkey or chicken broth.


Baking with Ancient Grains: Part II

I had previously introduced myself to spelt with a recipe that was 25% spelt and 15% whole wheat flour.  Sticking one's toe in the water is how I described it.


50% spelt and 25% whole wheat sourdoughThis time I stepped up the percentage of spelt to 50%, while keeping the whole wheat portion at 15%.

The result, as you can see, is a boule whose profile is slightly lower and whose crumb is somewhat tighter.  Both results which I expected due to the overall percentage of whole grains increasing to 65%.

However, once again the dutch oven yielded a bread with a lovely thin, crisp crust and a moist crumb.  The flavor conveys more punch of whole grain that my 25% spelt loaf, yet this is a delectable sandwich bread and one which, in fact, matched up nicely with a lunch of tomato basil soup.

My Old Brogue taste testers made quick work of one half a loaf.

Next time I may try a 100% spelt loaf, though I suspect it will require the addition of honey or another sweetener to counteract an increasing (but by no means displeasing) bitterness with the greater proportion of spelt.


Baking with Ancient Grains


A freshly baked boule with 25% spelt flour and 15% whole wheat flour.

Ancient grains, such and spelt and kamut, are precursors to today's modern wheat varieties from which we mill bread flour.  But with increased interest in both healthly grains and artisanal baking, they are making a comeback.

I've been wanting for some time to experiment with these, but between the demands of work and those of sloth, I've found reasons to put off using these.  Recently, though, I discovered an organic market nearby that stocked spelt - something you won't find in an everyday grocery store.  It was time, I decided.

Spelt traces its ancentry before the birth of Jesus, and is related to another ancient grain, emmer.  It was common in Europe up through the Middle Ages when bread was indeed the "staff of life."

I've researched recipes with spelt a bit and found that while people rave about it and its nutty flavor, they also note a bitterness that may need to be offset with a sweetener such as honey in breads that contain a high percentage of spelt flour.

Spelt (l) and Whole wheat flour(r)(Note that spelt is lighter in color and texture, with an almost yellowish hue)

So I decided that as a first attempt, I'd try to create a recipe that had enough spelt to deliver something to the flavor profile of the bread, without going all in. And because I did not wish to add a non-grain sweetener, I also opted to add a bit of whole wheat flour which imparts sweetness on its own.  What I decided upon was a wholly sourdough leavened bread that would be 25% spelt and 15% whole wheat flour.

Call it sticking one's toe in the water.

Here is the recipe:

The levain was made up 12 hours in advance and allowed to ripen overnight.

The following morning I began mixing the dough.  Mix time in my Hamilton Beach stand mixer was a total of about 5 minutes.  The dough showed signs of gluten development, but was still somewhat shaggy at this point.  Further development of gluten was accomplished through 3 folds: one after 90 minutes of fermentation, a second after another 90 minutes of fermentation and a third one hour later.  After the third fold the dough was immediately shaped into a boule and placed in a floured banneton.

I immediately retarded the dough under refrigeration for 19 hours.

The next morning I preheated my oven to 450 F and placed a Lodge dutch oven in to heat for 45 minutes. Once the cast iron dutch oven was heated, I removed it from the oven, took off the pot from the lid, and then quickly upturned the boule onto the lid/frying pan portion of the dutch oven, slashed it, replaced the pot over the lid and returned it to the oven rack.

The beauty of baking in a dutch oven is that it naturally traps steam escaping from the loaf and thus allows for lovely oven spring and caramelization of the crust that is so difficult to achieve in home ovens, especially in gas ovens that vent steam immediately.  After 20 minutes, I removed the pot from the lid to allow the loaf to gain additional color.  After an additional 20 minutes I removed the bread from the oven.

Voila!  A beautiful baked boule emerges after its 40 minute bake.

The crumb was moderately open, but very moist and not as coarse as if I had used only whole wheat.  Flavor was quite good, with a noticeable - but not overwhelming - tang from the overnight retardation.

I took the loaf to the Old Brogue Irish Pub for a taste testing, and in a matter of minutes half the loaf was consumed.  It was a success with my 'expert' panel of tasters who also found that it went nicely with beer.

A couple days later I decided to do a second bake.  This time without any overnight retardation, and shaping the loaf as a batard instead of a boule.

Here are the results:

                                                                                   The crumb was slightly more open on this bake and I attribute that to the fact that the levain was at peak ripeness and thus the dough really moved rapidly.  The flavor was quite similar to the initial bake, though the tang was sightly less pronounced as I had anticipated.

This is a lovely bread.  One that really stands on its own in terms of flavor and mouth feel.  An introduction to ancient grains that has me anticipating more experiments of this sort!


Bread Magic at Le Diplomate

Bread is magical, but also a form of magic.  Like Penn & Teller, but instead of applauding you get to eat the magic. 

The photo above is a good demonstration of the magic of bread.  While I'm a professional baker and help perform the magic each day - Teller to the dough's Penn - I never cease to be amazed at the magic which bakers call "oven spring."  It is a phenomenon which occurs within the first 15 minutes of a loaf's bake, and when successful, it beats sawing a pretty lady in a box in half hands down.

If you look at the piece of dough on the right, you cannot help but be struck at how much it resembles nothing so much as a frisbee.  And yet, if the baker and the dough have worked their magic well, in 45 minutes the flatish frisbee has sprung up to become the beautiful round loaf (called a boule) you see on the left.

Not only is this magic, it is a performance conducted daily without a net:  By which I mean, if for some reason the baker and the dough have not worked together well, the result is not a beautiful tall boule but a barely risen loaf.  And because of that, every day when I load dough into our oven, I tremble looking at how flat and deflated my boules look, and hope that the result will be magical and not a disappointment.

Ok, the hope is actually an expectation.  But I am working with a living organism. This is a relationship. Miscommunication can occur. You and the dough may not be on the same page for any number of reasons.  And so, you never have certainty that the resulting bake will meet or exceed your expectations.  "Hope" is a good way of putting the feeling I experience when I load these loaves each day. 

There are, of course, technical, scientific explanations for oven spring and how it is that a seemingly defeated, deflated round of dough can and will rise into a mountain of a loaf.  But they are not nearly as wonderous as witnessing the event first hand.  And in the end, they take none of the wonder away from this truly magical event.

Some other pictures of this and other loaves as they transformed themselves into beautiful wheat-rye sourdough boules over a long bake in a deck oven.

For starters, freshly formed boules placed on a floured board before being retarded:

 Loaves being baked and cooling on racks after baking:








We call this a "bold" bake, and the sweetness of the bread's crumb contrasts nicely with the slight char on the surface of the boule's crust.

And finally, the interior crumb that magic and a successful bake produced:

This is what gets me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.

And protects me against the cynicism which can easily come with age.

Because as long as I can bake bread, I'll believe in magic.