Thursday, December 29, 2016

Asking a Legend a Question

Sure, the internet can be a horrible place. But sometimes it is amazing. I am astounded at the level of access to people it provides. I imagine that access can and regularly is abused. And then sometimes it isn't.

I had a weird question about gluten. I tried to find the answer online but couldn't. Then I wondered if I'd be able to ask an expert. The first person that came to mind was Harold McGee. He occasionally writes for the New York Times when food science comes up but more importantly, he basically wrote THE cooking science book. I bet you can't find a chef or culinary student that hasn't read it and kept On Food And Cooking around as a reference. Hell, even I have it.

So I sent Mr. McGee an email.

Hello Mr. McGee-
I have a odd question that combines science with food and since you literally wrote the book on that and were also foolish enough to leave a contact email address on your website, I'm bothering you with it.

Both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law have celiac disease and are on strict gluten free diets. I tend to be more careful than they are when preparing food. I have some pans, utensils and other kitchen tools that I keep strictly gluten free. There will be no cross contamination getting them sick on my watch. I am also a pizza freak in the process of building a wood fired oven. I have a little propane fueled pizza oven to play with until the brick oven is finished. My long term plan was to get the propane oven a new stone, clean everything thoroughly and make the propane oven gluten free so they could eat a decent gluten free pizza.

So here's my question: at what temperature would high gluten pizza flour burn up and no longer contain gluten? The oven would be heated up to a minimum of 600 degrees F and often hotter depending on the style of pizza I'm making. My thought is that if I fired the wood oven hot enough and long enough, any residual flour on the oven floor would become gluten free ash. If I cooked a few gluten free pizzas before making traditional pizzas using a separate, gluten free pizza peel they could enjoy a wood fired pizza too. If you think the risk of cross contamination would still be present, I'll move ahead with just the separate, gluten free propane pizza oven plan. It pains me to see the frozen gluten free pizza they eat at parties. I'd like to change that this summer.

I hope you are enjoying the holiday season and have a very happy 2017.

Thank you

I wasn't sure he'd get it. Of if he did get it, he's got to be a busy guy that doesn't have time to field questions from random people. He's Harold Freakin' McGee.

Just under 24 hours after I sent the email, I got this.

Hi Jon,
Thanks for your good wishes. About gluten: it does seem reasonable that temperatures high enough to char flour would completely eliminate the immunological reactivity of gluten. But I've been unable to find any studies that have actually demonstrated it. And I suppose it's remotely possible that some flour aggregates could char on the outside while insulating the interior. If you go ahead with one oven, I would just be sure to give it plenty of time to mineralize any residues from the last batch.

A great 2017 to you as well--


How amazing is that? I thanked him and invited him over for pizza should he ever find himself in the area. I mentioned that I'm the pizza snob but I know beer and wine snobs so it will be a good time. I hope he takes me up on the offer. I’m assuming the beer and wine snobs know who they are. I’m sure they do.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Telling Mom Lies

Yes. I recently bold faced lied to my mother. Fingers crossed. Hoping I get away with it.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving when I was driving her to the Springfield, MA train station. She asked if I was going to let her buy me dinner in Staten Island.  My first reaction was confusion. I’m not going to Staten Island. But I had to quickly mask the confusion. The story she believed was that after my nephew’s birthday party in Staten Island, the immediate family would head out to celebrate her birthday. Normally she wouldn’t care about her own birthday, but this was more of a milestone year.

After the party in Staten Island, you’re going to let me buy you dinner?
The lie:
Well, not dinner. It’s a Sunday and a school night. We can’t go out for dinner and leave at 7 or 8. We’ll get home at 10 or 11. After the party we’ll all go out. But we’ll do it before dinner time.

She seemed ok with that. There were some variations on that lie in phone conversations too.

In reality, on Saturday my brother Mike would go to her condo in Connecticut so he could “drive her” to Staten Island Sunday morning. But when they went out to dinner Saturday night, the rest of the family including all 3 of her grandchildren would already be at the restaurant to celebrate her birthday.  SURPRISE!

The birthday party was a great time. Our lies were forgiven. And then Sunday morning we had a little birthday brunch for my nephew since all the travel plans to Staten Island for his birthday were a hoax.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you enjoyed your fifty second 29th birthday.

Monday, December 5, 2016

We have Liftoff: Another Pizza OVen Update

At the end of the last update, the milestone reached was closing the dome. What remained was the entry which includes two support columns that get filled with concrete, two arches, a way to connect the two arches, and a way to connect the vent to a chimney anchoring plate I bought. Well, I bought the whole chimney system already and that is one of several reasons I can’t park in the garage. The chimney system includes the already mentioned anchor plate, a 5 foot piece of double walled stainless steel chimney pipe, a two piece flashing system for the roof, a chimney cap and spark arrestor. I’m pretty sure the spark arrestor will be overkill, but it isn’t the first thing I’ve way over designed for the oven.

I started by laying out and dry stacking the columns. The goal was to leave a 1.5 inch “reveal” around the arched opening to the dome. The idea is that you can make an oven door that slides into the dome arch and seals on the 1.5 inch reveal. I also picked up some carbon fiber gasket – similar to the stuff the helps seal a wood stove door- to create a small air gap between the dome and the arch. The gap, which may or may not actually be necessary, is supposed to prevent heat flow from the dome brick to the entry. There are two camps on the gap issue: those who have one thinks it works great, those who don’t have one consider them useless. I fall in the middle. It probably isn’t useless but it probably doesn’t matter too much. With or without it, the oven will still work.

I ran a bead of fireplace glue around the dome arch and pressed the gasket material into it. The glue goes on with a caulk gun and it seemed like there were some water pockets in the tube. It threatened to make quite a mess, but I dodged that bullet. Here’s the installed gasket.

The two columns press up against the gasket leaving a tiny air gap. I dry staked the columns to get a feel for how they would be installed. Here’s the big problem. The chimney pipe is 8 inches in diameter. The anchor plate is a 12”x12” square. The bricks are 9 inches long, 2.5 inches thick and 4.5 inches wide. I wanted the gap between the two arches to be about 8 inches to catch all the smoke to send it up through the chimney and away from my face. So if there are two arches with an 8 inch space between them, and each arch is 2.5 inches thick, that’s 13 inches and the bricks are only 9 inches long. Plus I’ve got to bolt/screw this anchor plate on somehow.

My plan was to make the arches 8 inches apart, connect them with a 9 inch long brick with a half inch notched at each end and make the anchor plate fit where I wanted it. It hasn’t happened yet but there will be some cutting of the anchor plate.

After a long day going back and forth about how actually assemble the entry, I just went at it. And put it together. I built most of each column (which has a piece of rebar glued into the slab below because of design overkill), built the rear arch, then finished the columns and assembled the front arch. When I finished, if was after 8 and I was working under lights.

Then next afternoon, I went to take out the arch forms and touch up the mortar if needed. I broke the front arch. Into 3 pieces. The cursing was loud and plentiful. Thanksgiving was coming, there was house cleaning, shopping  and a long list of stuff to do. The oven went on hold.

This last Thursday, I took a day off to work on the oven. As it turns out, the rebuild of the front arch came out nicer than the original.

  Dry stack the outer arch do-over

 Outer arch set

Once the arch was set I laid out my chimney anchoring system. I’d have the bolts go through a brick leaving at least an inch – I don’t want to risk splitting a brick with the bolt. To make that work, I had to make semi-circle-ish cuts in each brick. I clamped to bricks together and used trusty Ron the Wet Saw to cut the same shape in the two bricks. By varying the height of the say and pushing the bricks back and forth I made cuts that eventually worked.

Side Story: one of my neighbors had a contractor that was doing some work in their yard as I, dressed in brick dust covered clothes, dragged Ron the Wet Saw out of the garage. Their foreman came over and asked if I was good with “that thing.” I told him that I got by, but I wouldn’t say I was good with it. Then I showed him the oven and we talked a little. I guess if you have a contractor’s saw (because really, what kind of idiot would buy a saw this big to decorate their garage?), people think you are a contractor.

Back to the vent. With the cuts made, the anchor plat fit nicely but the original holes for bolts were not going to work. The plate is 12 inches wide and I’ve only got 9 inches to work with. I picked spots and drilled holes in the anchor plates where I wanted them to be. Once they were drilled I put the pricks and anchor plate together and marked where the holes needed to be in the bricks. A masonry bit went through the pricks pretty easily. Using stainless steel bolts, washers and nuts it all fit together and was pretty strong.

 Bricks for connecting the anchor plate
The notched ends to a little angle grinding so they met the curve of the arches well but everything centered and mortared in level. Once it was set, I un-bolted the anchor plate so I could work on closing the gap between the two bricks. The pieces I used are pretty small but I think they will work well. They just need to prevent smoke from sneaking out. After that, one more notched brick on each side of the anchor plate and a final brick at the end of each arch to seal it up. After work on Friday, I put a little bit on insulation scraps inside the column in case there was any heat transfer across the gap and then filled them with concrete.

 Bricks connecting the two arches

 Concrete filled column

The oven construction part of the project is done. On to curing.

 Done. You can see the 1.5 inch "reveal" left by the vent

Curing is a misleading term. Everything in the oven is already “cured,” meaning hardened and at design strength. This is more slowly driving excess waster out of the oven. Steam takes up more volume than liquid water so heating that liquid quickly into steam could produce many cracks. To give credit where credit is due, this is an abridged explanation based on a post written by Stonecutter on the pizza forum. It’s honestly the best explanation I’ve read in years of reading through sites.

My driving extra water out plan is to have several small fires without the insulation. By small, I mean not heating anything about 300 degrees and getting to that 300 degrees slowly. On Sunday, December 4 2016, I lit a fire in the oven. I started with just brown paper bags from Trader Joe’s and slowly worked up small chips of wood and eventually got to small pieces of kindling. I was so focused on building the oven, I completely neglected to stock up on some wood. I’ll need to fix that soon. For now, a bag of firewood from Stewart’s did the trick. Over the course of about 90 minutes I burned one log out of my bag o’ wood that I kept splitting into tiny pieces by hitting a hatchet through the log with a hammer. It was fun. It was thrilling. I can’t wait to do it again. Unfortunately, I think it has to wait until Friday. This week is pretty booked up.


As I was making note of December 4, 2016 as a pizza milestone for me it seemed very familiar. And then I remember it: December 3, 2015 was the day that Jay of OG Woodfired in Buffalo, graciously invited me onto his food truck and I made my first wood fired oven pizza.

I have to come up with something cool to do next year on December 5th.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Closing the Dome - Another Oven Update

It’s time for another oven project update. In my mind, I have mini-milestones. After I get to one, it’s time for an update. Well, we just hit one. The dome is closed.

When I wrote the last update, the oven walls were done and I was starting go up with the bricks.  I was basically building a big horseshoe and delaying the entry arch for as long as possible. The reason for that is once the arch was built, my fat butt couldn’t get through to make the joints look pretty and clean the brick of the mortar mess I was making – while I have gotten better, I’m still not a mason.

So the horseshoe, that looks like a mini coliseum to me, got bigger row by row.

Rustic looking, but surprisingly strong. That HeatStop 50 mortar is good stuff. I had been using a bunch of different supports to hold bricks in place – small pieces of wood, bricks, shims, pipe clamps – basically anything that could get me the 20 minutes of time for the mortar to kind of set. After awhile, there was no avoiding the arch.

General Tools makes something called the Angle-izer and for a long time on their website, they offered a free download to help you plan arches and bull’s-eye layouts and a few other things. They don’t offer it any more. Luckily, I have been planning this build off and on for over 6 years, so I had already downloaded it. You give the program the span, height of the arch, some brick dimensions and the size of the mortar joint. With that information, the program can tell you how many tapered bricks you need and the dimensions.  It gets an amateur like me in the ball park.

So with my brick dimensions and an absurdly large wet saw I have named Ron, I cut the arch. It actually worked.  I laid it out dry, cut the curve into a 2x4 to hold it up and then mortared it all together. (This is the part of the build where we gloss over me cracking one of the arch joints while tightening a clamp, then took half the arch apart and spent two hours putting it back together – I’ll deny it if the subject ever comes up again).

Once the arch was built, the horse shoe had to come around to meet it and then go past it.

Then rows 6, 7 and finally the odd shaped plug were set. The odd shape plug, which ideally would have been closer to a circle, is said to make the oven a work of art since it is a one of a kind piece and not a cookie cutter perfect circle. I like the sound of that because there is no mistaking that plug for a circle. I had cut a roundish piece of plywood to hold the last rows in place while they set...and I'm kind of proud of myself that I remembered to make the piece smaller than the door opening.

Once everything was set, there was still a little bit of joint cleaning inside the dome. I believe the technical terms are pointing and tucking. As mentioned earlier, I don’t fit in the oven. I tried. I twisted and turned and tried to reach spots in weird contorted ways. It wasn’t working.

I found the solution: child labor.

I love that picture. She's quite proud of it too and has sent it to several of her friends. Lying on mats, my 10 year old slid right in there and did a pretty good job at hitting the spots I wanted to hit. All that was left was to add a little more mass to the dome. The walls are 3 inches thick. The way I used the bricks, the dome is only 2.5 inches thick. I mixed some more of the same mix I used to pour the walls and packed it onto the dome.

Covering up all that brickwork was bittersweet. Progress, but it was a good amount of work and looked kind of cool. The insulation would have covered it anyway. This layer will take about a week to cure. In that time I hope to build the entry arches and chimney. And at some point I should probably start getting ready for Thanksgiving.