If He Builds It, They Will Bake
by Andrea Pyenson
Photographs by: Katie Noble
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the cozy kitchen in the Plainville home of Martin and Beth Pearson is like a movie set, with the actors just waiting for someone to shout “action!” A stainless baking sheet on the counter holds 10 perfect rounds of dough, loosely covered with plastic. Assorted bowls on the thick, rock maple table—rescued from a former slaughterhouse—hold home-grown garlic, beth’s oven-dried tomatoes, her pulled pork, basil leaves, pesto, mozzarella cheese and sliced fresh tomatoes. The Pearsons; their daughter Krista, a recent college graduate; and family friend Domenic livoli are ready.
The arrival of two guests serves as a catalyst for everyone to start moving. Beth and Domenic stretch balls of dough into rounds, then lay them on pizza peels. They all put on their favorite topping. Martin chats as he works, explaining that the brown liquid he is squeezing on his pizza may not look pretty (it doesn’t), but it tastes great. it is Beth’s homemade barbecue sauce, a perfect complement to her pulled pork.
Snow is visible everywhere through the glass sliders next to the table. but inside it feels toasty, thanks to two wood-fired soapstone heaters that Martin, a stone and brick mason, built along with the house 10 years ago.
Building masonry heaters is his business; building woodfired bake ovens, like the showpiece standing 25 feet beyond the deck outside, is his passion. ideal for high-temperature pizzas, rustic breads and other foods, ovens like these are on the wish lists of many dedicated home cooks. but though they are by no means mainstream, it turns out that they need not be limited to kitchens (indoor or outdoor) of culinary professionals or the extremely wealthy.
A mason for 35 years, Martin has been attending the Masonry Heater Association of north America annual meeting in north Carolina since the early 1990s. Every year, attendees build an oven and have a pizza party. “one year we built an oven in five hours,” Martin says. He and some colleagues also built ovens for pizza restaurants in the Washington, DC, area. inspired by those experiences, in 1995 he built his first bake oven, out of soapstone, in his previous house.
Gradually, people in the Greater Boston area began to find Martin through the MHA website and asked him to build bake ovens in—or outside—their homes. He builds some of the ovens on his 13-acre property, either outside, weather permitting, or in one of the two sheds he erected. But usually he builds them onsite. They can be as simple as a clay dome with no chimney; a barrel-vaulted brick oven with a chimney and roof, like the one he helped Domenic finish at his Upton home; or intricate stone work and “all the bells and whistles,” like his.
“The roof, to me, is the cat’s meow because you can go out there in the rain, in the snow,” Martin says. “i made sure Domenic finished his oven the right way.” “With freshly cut pine,” his friend adds, referring to the roof Martin built.
The men met at an oven supply shop when Domenic was buying bricks to finish the oven he had been working on for four years. Martin saw the way he was piling them to form an arch and started asking questions. The two recognized each other’s names from an online bake oven chat room. Martin offered to help Domenic with the remaining work.
Martin says his smallest ovens are about 42 inches in diameter (24 inches inside). outside, he builds them on a concrete base. if the yard is not level, he props them up on landscape timbers. “I can bring it to your backyard and you’ll be making pizza that night,” he promises. Outdoor ovens should be at least 15 feet from the house—but not so far that you won’t want to venture out in unpredictable new England weather.
Insulating the ovens is key, Martin notes. He builds all his ovens with foam blast insulation under the floor. The larger ones, like his and Domenic’s, also have insulation around the domes. There he uses mineral wool, which is meant for soundproofing. These ovens usually retain enough heat that the day after they are used to cook pizza they are still the hot enough to bake bread—with no fire burning. in the three years since Martin built their current oven, he and Beth fire it up at least once or twice a month. The two have been working to come up with pizza they feel does it justice. They developed a crust recipe together, putting their own spin on one created by master breadmaker, cookbook author and Johnson & Wales University international baking and Pastry institute department chair Ciril Hitz. For toppings, they “look for new recipes all the time,” beth says.
“There’s nothing you can’t cook in it,” Martin says, referring to all bake ovens. “You can cook meat right on the grill.” last fall, Beth made her Thanksgiving turkey in their oven. it only took an hour and a half. “i brought it to my sister-in-law’s house and we had a competition. My turkey won hands down,” she says. Domenic has sautéed broccoli rabe—which he combines with shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and cheese for a fabulous pizza topping—in his. once the first pizzas are assembled on this Sunday afternoon Martin, Domenic and Krista form a steady procession, carrying the rounds outside on the long-handled wood peels, sliding them inside the oven’s mouth—making sure the pizzas are not too close to the fire—and pulling the pizzas out in a minute or less.
Martin started the fire in the morning, and by 1:30pm the temperature on the sensor mounted outside the oven registers 660'F. That’s a little more heat than the pizza makers are used to, and the first couple of pies come out with more char on the crust than some might consider ideal. but no one’s complaining—and the remaining pizzas just keep getting better.
Martin Pearson can be reached at 508-699-5038 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Andrea can be reached at email@example.com.