Virginia Willis Blog

Fireplace Cooking: Baking Bread

Fireplace Cooking

Olive Bread on www.virginiawillis.comWith record-breaking cold spells of late we’ve had a fire every night. I love how cozy and homey a roaring fire makes the dark winter evening. Each January, I experiment with fireplace cooking. Being a recovering history major I am very interested in historic foodways. This past New Year’s Eve we cooked a leg of lamb on a vertical colonial cast iron spit. I have also recently put a fireplace grill to use with some pretty incredible steaks and mushrooms. Recently, a cooking friend and colleague came to visit, so we thought we’d give bread baking in the fireplace a try.  

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Hearth Cooking

One thing that I’ve learned is that fireplace and hearth cooking is time consuming. It may take a smallish leg of lamb an hour or so in the oven, but ours took nearly 4 hours. Cooking in a fireplace is also unpredictable. Cooking dishes evenly is nearly impossible; one side may resemble charcoal and the other is nearly raw, which isn’t all that bad when it’s a vegetable, but not a good idea for a roast chicken.

Fireplace cooking takes pretty constant monitoring, rotating, basting, and moving things about. Which leads to the fact that fireplaces are dark, sooty, and dim. It’s hard to actually see what’s happening with the food. Working over a blazing fire is dangerous and hot – really, really hot. Metal tools and pots quickly become elements of a hades-like inferno. I’ve developed an incredible amount of respect for colonial cooks.

olive bread on www.virginiawillis.com

Baking bread in the fireplace? Did we really want to give it a try? A big, resounding yes! My friend and I cook well together and we’re both just geeky enough. For inspiration, she looked to Rose Levy Berenbaum‘s Bread Bible. A bit of research indicated that baking bread in the fireplace can be done directly on the brick or stone hearth, covered by a baking cloche, or in a covered pot. (Or in a beehive oven, which isn’t the style of my hearth.)

The pot seemed the best idea. I used a Lodge Cast Iron Dutch Oven and placed it as close to the burning coals as possible and topped the lid of the pot with burning coals, as well. That way there is heat coming from the bottom where the pot rests on the hot bricks, the sides where the pot is exposed to the coals and fire, and the top. (A camp oven would be slightly easier as the lid of the Dutch oven is curved and the camp oven lid is a bit recessed so that the coals are more secure.) As it baked, we turned the pot periodically so that it would not overcook or burn, but cook as evenly as possible.

The results were crusty, chewy, and moist. It was incredibly satisfying. We served our Fireplace Olive Bread with a savory vegetable stew. Everyone oohed and aahed over the bread’s texture and robust smoky flavor. It felt like an accomplishment, but really it’s just wonderful to share good food with good people. It’s fun to cook with a friend and learn. Whether it’s fireplace cooking or in a skillet on a stovetop or in a slow cooker, it’s not really about what’s in the bowl or how it got there –  it’s really about sitting at the table together.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia

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Fireplace Olive Bread 
Makes 1 loaf

For the starter aka biga
75 grams unbleached all purpose flour (we used King Arthur)
.2 grams instant yeast
59 grams room temperature water

For the dough
186 grams unbleached all purpose flour, more for kneading
1.6 grams instant yeast
biga (from above)
106 grams room temperature water
3.3 grams salt
50 grams sliced green olives

For the starter aka biga
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir with a wooden spoon for 3 to 5 minutes, or until it is smooth and comes away from the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Set aside until tripled, about 6 hours.

For the dough
Place the flour, yeast, and biga in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Add the water and blend until it forms a rough dough. Add the salt and continue mixing until combined. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat. (The dough is ready if it bounces back when pressed with your fingers.) Place in a bowl and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Return to the bowl and let rise to double, about 2 hours, or, do as we did and let it rise overnight in the refrigerator.

The next day, or when doubled, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch down. Add the olives as you knead the dough. (If they pop out, simply push them back in.) Shape into a ball. Place it seam-side down in the cast iron pot in a warm place adjacent to, but not too close, to the fire and let rise to double, about 1 1/2 hours.

When ready to bake, carefully push the pot into the fire and cover with the lid. Bake, rotating occasionally, and keeping the fire roaring hot by adding logs as needed, the loaf is until rich brown, about 1 hour. It will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom and an instant read thermometer will register 205-210° F when inserted into the bottom of the loaf. (Let the pot stay in the fireplace to eventually cool.) Let the bread cool for about 20 minutes before slicing with a serrated knife.

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