When Marilyn Clark was a young girl in upstate New York, a Sicilian family moved into her neighborhood, a family who brought a bread oven with them.
“It was just a small thing that they set up on bricks in their back yard,” says Clark, “but they cooked in it every day.”
Despite its diminutive size, it emitted an incredible aroma, and Clark says she was “always hanging around.” She knew that one day she would have one of her own.
It took a few years, but she started getting closer to her dream in 2008 when she met Keith Middlemas, who was working on a patio for one of Clark’s friends. When she saw his work, she realized that she had found someone who could help her achieve her goal.
“Marilyn practically dragged me by the ear to her house,” Middlemas says. “She wanted to show me where she thought it would go.”
With Middlemas, Clark got much more than a bread oven, she got a work of art.
“It’s terminally cute,” says Middlemas, who spent nine months on the project and designed the steep-pitched roof intentionally to remind Clark of the architecture of the homes from her childhood in New York.
“I figure that we hauled 60 tons of stone and dirt in and out of this backyard,” he says.
The sides of the house are river cobblestones and the roof is quartzite from Idaho. Accent wood on the oven, as well as wood for a rustic entryway Middlemas created for Clark, is from the woods surrounding his home in Oskaloosa.
From the outside, the oven looks old-fashioned and quaint, like a cabin you might find in a medieval village, but don’t let that fool you — the inside has a space-age design that allows the temperature to soar to extreme heights.
“Inside, there is insulation made from a refractory ceramic fiber that looks like angel hair,” says Middlemas.
The high temperature is exactly what Clark wanted.
“Seven hundred degrees is a good temperature for pizza,” she says.
In addition to pizza, Clark uses her oven to roast chickens, cook lamb chops, and once she even roasted a pig.
“I thought it was going to be a little one, but it ended up being 26 pounds!” she says.
“The oven is great. I start the fire and forget about it.”
Clark estimates that she uses her oven four to five times a week.
“Some weeks it’s every night,” she says. “I like using it in the summer so it doesn’t heat up the house.”
Maintenance is also easy.
“I just protect it from the rain and sweep up ashes every so often.”
Most of the wood she uses has come from a locust tree that was recently cut down in her yard.
“Some people with these wood-burning ovens will only use cherry wood for fish and other things like that … but I haven’t looked into that very closely,” she says.
Knowing that Clark makes use of her oven is music to Middlemas’ ears: “I’m just an old guy who can find rocks,” he says. “I love hearing that Marilyn uses it as often as she does.”
Recipe: Carmelized onion and goat cheese pizza
This pizza is one Clark cooks in her outdoor oven.
4 ½ cups flour (bread or all-purpose)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
¼ cup olive oil (optional)
1 ¾ cup ice cold water
Stir together flour, salt and yeast. With dough hook, mix on medium speed for 7 minutes.
Sprinkle flour on counter, work into a ball. Divide ball into six pieces, mist lightly with spray olive oil, and wrap in wax or parchment paper. Place balls in a big plastic bag and refrigerate overnight.
Two hours before making pizza, roll balls in flour and mist again. Flatten and shape the crust (either with hands or rolling pin).
Heat oven to 500 degrees with pizza stone if using conventional oven. (Bread oven goes to 700, which is better).
Put flour, semolina or corn meal on wooden paddle. Lightly top with sauce and then other toppings, remembering that the best pizzas are topped with a less-is-more philosophy.
Toppings: Thin layer of tomato sauce; carmelized onions, dabs of goat cheese. Dribble olive oil on top, just before baking. In a 500-degree oven, the pizza is done in about eight minutes.
Carmelized Onions: Slice two large onions into thin rounds. Use ¼ cup of olive oil in frying pan. Add a little salt just before the onions are soft and browned. Adding sugar is optional.
— Dough recipe adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. (Berkeley; Ten Speed Press, 2001.