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By November 25, 2013 Read More →

Hearth Cooking in the Phoenix Mill House

John PattersonAs you can see from the photo, we had a great day last Saturday cooking in the Phoenix Mill House. John Patterson (pictured in his 18th century duds) has become the caretaker of the mill house and graciously came in early that morning to get the fires going and to fire the bee hive oven. We have tried over the last few years to bake in the oven but have never been successful- until last Saturday!
Baking in a bee hive oven is art and science. The idea is relatively simple. Build a fire in the oven and let it burn down to coals. This heats the bricks. Put in your bread dough, pies, cakes, etc. Close the door and let them bake. The art is knowing when the bricks are hot enough and you can start your baking. And knowing how long to let them bake before opening the door. This time, we fired the oven for about 4 hours. We put the bread dough in the rear because this is the hottest spot in the oven and also so we could take out our standing pie (more on this in another post) without taking out the bread first. For the 18th and 19th century baker, baking in the bee hive means working on the descending temperature. So your baked goods requiring the hottest temperature and the longest baking time go in the back. Then you put in your pies and cakes. Cookies would go in the front as they will bake quickly and you can pull them out and shut the door fast to prevent losing heat.
Brick OvenAfter an hour and half, we decided to open the door and see how things were going. To our surprise, our standing pie was a golden brown and our three round loaves had puffed up beautifully and looked ready to pull out. Monadnock Center volunteer Mary Shonk had prepared the dough early that day and donated it to the cause.  Using our new wooden peel crafted by Mary’s son Whit Shonk, we unloaded the oven. A quick tap on the bread (it should sound hollow when tapped) told us the loaves were perfect. Lorraine Walker, our vice president and resident hearth cooker, noted that the bottoms of the loaves were ashy from the bottom of the oven. She said this is the origin of the phrase “the upper crust.” The most elite would not eat the bottom of the loaf with its ash coating. For them, only the upper crust would do.
Now that we have had success with the oven, we plan to expand our repertoire to include more baked goods. Perhaps we will experiment with a cake for our next Hearth Cooking Saturday on December 14. On that day, we have a Christmas menu planned including mince meat, plum pudding, ginger cakes and roasted chicken. Hearth Cooking Saturdays are offered 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in an open house format- come by and sample some goodies, hear about the holidays in the past and sit for spell in the cozy mill house. We would love to see you there!