BY RICHARD FRIEDLANDER
In medieval times, there was something called a “needle’s eye”—a door within a larger wooden door, just large enough to allow a human to squeeze through after hours or in times of defense. It made a lot of sense, but it has nothing to do with baking bread…or so one would think.
I learned to bake bread many years ago in Greece, on the island of Paros, at a fournos (bakery) with an enormous, 17th-century brick oven (also fournos). Flaming bales of acanthus twigs heated the interior until white-hot ash covered the walls. When I migrated to Berkeley, I tried to recreate some of my Aegean experience, using zimi (leftover dough) instead of yeast; mixing, kneading, and shaping the bread by hand. I even built a miniature bread trough out of one-by-two lath, a labor of love or insanity that took me over six months to complete. No use. As one chef has said, “French bread is bread made in France,” and I suppose that holds for Greece and its bread as well. The wheat is different, the water is different, even the salt. But for me, the biggest impediment was the oven. Here, I was at the mercy of our kitchen’s electric range, with its unpredictable currents and (at best) neutral contribution to the taste of the bread. Building a brick oven seemed out of the question. But in a way, it wasn’t.
For years, I’d been making flowerpot bread, which is as it sounds—bread baked in an unglazed terra-cotta flowerpot that has seen no flowers. The dough rises in a greased flowerpot, bakes in the flowerpot at 400 degrees, and emerges as a beautiful and tasty objet d’art.
I have also used the unglazed terracotta dishes that come with the flowerpots to bake “normal” loaves—boules and bâtards—preheating the dishes to 450 degrees before loading. No need to use anything to prevent sticking—the intense heat manages that quite well—and the crust is superb. Still, the oven problem remained.
One day, eureka! (A good Greek word.) Why not simulate a brick oven by combining the two—flowerpot and dish?” Three inverted, 8-inch unglazed flowerpots, overturned on their dishes, fit comfortably inside our electric oven. I preheated them to 450 degrees. Using potholders, I very carefully transferred them from the oven to a metal rack on the countertop, lifted off the flowerpot, slid the shaped dough onto the dish, slashed it, covered it, slid the little oven back inside the bigger oven, shut the door, and voilà! or in Greek, loipon! the flowerpot combination had given me a baker’s version of the “needle’s eye.”
It also gave me fantastic bread. Perfect shape and color, because the flowerpot distributed the heat evenly. Perfect crust, because the close confinement allowed the dough to retain moisture for a long time, making it almost impossible to burn. And when I ripped the loaf open, a perfect crumb, because of the intense, uniform heat. The taste? Mmm—aaah. And yet….
When we made bread in Greece, we had used a 20-foot mop to rake the embers from the oven floor into an ash pit, which we loaded with potatoes, carrots, beets, and onions that baked while 200 loaves baked in the oven. Of course, yearning for this, I realize I am being like the grandmother walking along the shore who, upon seeing her grandson suddenly swept out to sea by a gigantic wave, vows she will do anything if he is returned. The next wave deposits him at her feet. She looks down, then she looks up and says, “He was wearing a hat!”
Kendra Canfield, illustrator, human being, is Seattle born and raised, and currently lives in Oakland. See more of her work at behance.net/yesmenu and reach her at soupteeth(at)gmail(dot)com.