Baking Bread in a Wood Oven

Pizza Oven Being Lit

We have another page about making cakes in a wood-fired oven here.

Here is a description of how I make bread in a bread oven.

The Heat:

Cooking in a wood fired oven is complicated because unlike an electric or gas oven, you can’t set an exact temperature which will remain constant.The temperature is more like a curve on a graph. The main idea of a wood oven is that the initial fire will cause the walls of the oven to heat up and that heat will be given back into the oven over a period of time. It is also possible to keep a small fire going at the back of the oven to maintain the temperature over a long period of time. This technique would be used for example for a pizza restaurant who have to serve pizzas over several hours. In our case, we just heat the oven up at the start and let it cool down slowly.

If possible, it is best to use the heat for as many things as possible. For example, the oven can be heated up to 450C to make some pizzas at 2pm. At 3.30pm the temperature is just right to make cakes, bread, or roast some butternut squashes for later use. Later on, we can roast some almonds, then use the heat to sterilize some glass jars for tomatoes and when the temperature gets down to 50C, we can even use it to dry some figs overnight. The oven can also be used for smoking fish. It is always best to try to make the best use of the energy that we have used. 

We use a thermometer which came with the oven which has a metal probe and a dial (as you can see in the photo above). It is probably not that accurate because it only measures the temperature at one place in the oven but after a few uses, the thermometer will give you a good, rough indication of the temperature. If you want to know the correct temperature in any part of the oven so that you could follow a recipe, it is best to use a hand-held digital thermometer.

There is an air cut off in the chimney and the door of the oven. Generally speaking, we leave the air vents open in the burning phase and close off the air for cooking. 

There is no substitute for trial and error when using a wood oven. You learn how much wood to use and more or less how the temperature curve will behave by getting a feel for it over time.

Making Bread:

Bread made in a bread oven

Obviously the most important ingredient is the flour. In our case, we buy ready mixed bread flour from Lidl supermarket which has all the necessary ingredients such as dried yeast and nutrients already added. This flour is actually intended for use in bread makers. I mix the dough in a Kenwood mixer with a dough hook for 4 minutes. I have it wetter than they recommend in the instructions on the packet. If you want to knead the dough by hand, then you would have to have a drier mixture. 

I let it rise in the mixer bowl until it has risen quite a lot (1 hour). I then put it in tins and let it rise again for another hour. Make sure you put some oil in the tins to stop it sticking. I always cut up an onion and add it to the dough and I also add some nuts such as walnuts or almonds. It doesn’t make it taste oniony but it seems to make it go stale slower.

Cook for about 45 minutes at 180ºC. People say that homemade bread is heavy but the secret is letting it rise enough. If it does not rise, you have either got bad flour with not enough gluten or bad yeast. In a wood-fired bread oven, all these time periods change every single time. If you don’t have any bread tins, roll the dough into balls (the size of a squash ball), put them on a flat baking tray and put them in the oven when they are the size of a cricket ball. It’s not a problem if they stick together as they will pull apart after cooking. When you take the bread out of the oven, knock it out of the tins or it will go soggy. If you can’t easily shake the bread out of the tin, it probably is not ready yet. After taking the bread out of the tin, leave it on a rack with air circulating around until it cools. If there is too much for one day, cut it into slices and put it in the freezer.

We have another page about making cakes in a wood fired oven here.

Butternut Squash Bhajis

We grow a lot of butternut squashes. As long as they are undamaged, they usually store well in crates so that we can use them throughout the year. One of my favourite ways to cook them is to cut them into 1/4 or 1/6 lengthways and roast them in the oven with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and possibly some spices. When we are at the farm, however, it is not always feasible to light the bread oven and so I have been looking for stovetop recipes and experimenting with different recipes and ways of cooking them. I though that a potato rosti might work but without the starch that potatoes have, it was too difficult to flip. And so my quest began for more recipes. This recipe is based on one for onion bhajis.

 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH BHAJIS

butternut bhajis


INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups coarsely grated butternut squash
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons self-raising flour
  • sunflower oil
  • 1/3 cup water

METHOD

  1. Whisk the egg in a bowl and add the flour, water, spices and salt.
  2. Stir in the butternut squash.
  3. Heat some sunflower oil in a frying pan.
  4. Form quenelles using two dessertspoons.
  5. Gently put into the oil.
  6. Cover the pan and fry for 3 minutes on each side on a medium flame.
  7. Remove the lid and continue to fry, turning every two minutes until they are golden and crispy and cooked all the way through.

Onion Bhajis

Friday 13th March was the day that we escaped back to the cortijo from the coast. Little did we know then that a state of alarm would be declared the next day forbidding the movement of people and only allowing food shops and pharmacies to open. We had suspected that it might happen and so had already stocked up on some basic staples.

Normally, we would have volunteers to come and stay to hep us with the planting, harvesting, etc. but out of necessity, we’ve decided to go more self-sufficient.

On Tuesday 16th March, I harvested the remaining onions and prepared them for the freezer or fridge. There were white and red onions, of all different shapes and sizes. I thinly sliced some and used them for these onion bhajis.

Onion Bhajis
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Ingredients
  1. onions, thinly sliced
  2. 150g gram flour
  3. 1 teaspoon salt
  4. 1 teaspoon garam masala
  5. 1/2 teaspoon chill powder
  6. 1 teaspoon cumin
  7. 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek
  8. water
Instructions
  1. Combine the onions, gram flour and spices in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
  2. Add enough water to form a moist batter, using your hands to bring the mixture together.
  3. Heat some sunflower oil in a wok or pan.
  4. Using a couple of dessert spoons, shape the onion mix into balls.
  5. Slide the balls into the oil.
  6. Cook for a couple of minutes on both sides until lightly golden.
  7. Transfer to a plate with some kitchen paper.
  8. Turn up the heat under the oil until quite hot.
  9. Refry the onion bhajis for 30 seconds on each side.
  10. Serve.
Notes
  1. This recipe was made slightly more complicated by the fact that we didn't have any gram flour. There was nothing for it but to make our own. We found the best way was to first smash the dried chickpeas with a mallet before grinding in a spice grinder. We then sieved them to remove the coarser particles and reground these.
Cortijo de la Plata https://cortijoblog.com/

Italian-style Grilled Vegetables

Italian-style Grilled Vegetables


Previously, I had only ever thought of grilling courgettes, but thanks to Manuela (a professional cook who was recently staying with us), I have learned a whole lot more about how to grill vegetables and the flavourings and flavours that can go with them. We have experimented with vegetables such as butternut squashes and aubergines, things that I would never thought of grilling before. The secret is to thinly slice the vegetables lengthways and then sear in the flavour with a griddle pan before adding flavours such as garlic, chilli, lemon or vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper.

This page includes recipes for three grilled vegetable dishes: aubergine, courgette and butternut squash.

It has sparked a whole new interest in grilling things, and in the future I want to experiment not just with other vegetables but also seafood and shellfish. In preparation, we have resurrected an old griddle pan which had gone completely rusty. Here it is after the restoration work:

For all of the three recipes, you need to thinly slice the vegetables lengthways. It is then important to get the griddle pan really hot before adding the sliced vegetables. Cook for 3 minutes before turning. Then turn again, rotating through 90º so that the grilled lines cross and then flip and cook for another 3 minutes (12 minutes in total).

Once the sliced vegetables have cooked, transfer them to a flat serving dish and sprinkle with salt.

Here are some suggestions for how to dress the vegetables:

You can make up some chilli-garlic olive oil in a small container: add a couple of cloves of garlic, some sliced chilli and olive oil and blend well with a stick blender. Brush the sliced vegetable with the oil mixture and keep it in the fridge until you next need it.

PUMPKIN: finely chop some garlic cloves and parsley and sprinkle over the vegetables. Mix together some balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar and olive oil and dress the vegetables.

AUBERGINE: finely chop some garlic cloves, chilli and oregano or mint and sprinkle over the vegetables. Dress with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

COURGETTES: finely chop some garlic cloves and sprinkle over the vegetables. Dress with olive oil and lemon juice.