Summer Kitchen

November 2020 (backdated from May 2020).

In my last entry, as I gushed about my counter space, I neglected to mention how, in our new kitchen, we actually cook our food. We use a beautiful woodstove, wrapped in soapstone to temper its heat, and it’s the ultimate multitool that’s not only our furnace and stove but also oven, water heater, toaster, clothes dryer, coffee maker, microwave, dehydrator, and, of course, TV. 

Which is all well and good in November, but what happens when June comes around? Because the woodstove’s giant limitation is that it’s a seasonal beast (it hibernates in the summer)—leaving a huge hole in our kitchen operations when it’s too hot to operate the furnace. Imagine warm weather rendering inoperable your stove, oven, water heater, toaster, coffee maker, and microwave. 

So. Now that we had a beautiful kitchen, we immediately proceeded to work on an outdoor version.

In the back of our minds, we had long been missing our outdoor pizza oven that we had had in the city. In fact, our mouths were positively watering for pizza. We knew that would be a big part of this outdoor kitchen.

So that’s what we would start with. I had poured a cement slab foundation the previous fall, and erected over it a stone platform from glacial cobbles littering our hill. I’m no mason, and you can tell there was very little skill involved in this step, but it was pretty fun to fit the rocks together and glue them in place with mortar. 

I capped the platform with insulating firebricks and then a layer of firebrick (which I have on hand as one of the prerequisites of being a potter). This would become the floor of the oven.

Finally, in the spring, it was time to build the oven. The inner shell is an igloo of firebrick held together with a mortar of sand and clay (a mixture of the silty clay we have underfoot around here and scrap clay from the studio). Surrounding that is an insulating layer of perlite, which we had left over from insulating the floor of our house, mixed with enough liquid clay to hold it together. The exterior shell is handmade tile grouted with dark clay. 

Sorry—I didn’t take any process pictures because my hands were too muddy. The arched stone chamber is for wood storage and in the photo on the far right you can see the first fire built on the floor of the oven.

It was a super fun project—I excel at building projects that don’t involve corners, or measuring, or any precision whatsoever. The kids helped out when they felt like getting dirty and I always enjoy jobs where I can work alongside my children. Plus, it ended with pizza, as all good projects should.

To keep the clay dry and ourselves dry when cooking has to happen in the rain, we needed a roof. Enter J. with another tree. He had recently cut down a giant aspen that was endangering our house; he quartered it lengthwise with his chainsaw and eyed the wood with a timberframer’s squint. Yep, it would be enough.

In the first week of summer vacation he cut himself a “quick” timberframe from that one tree, and one memorably buggy evening he and I wrestled that thing up over the dome of the pizza oven. He roofed it with salvaged metal and put a chimney through it—a Dr. Seuss kind of contraption which would prove the most expensive part of the whole kitchen.

Do you see the table on the right? That’s right…I finagled more counter space!

We still needed a cooktop. We had been limping along with a little camping stove fueled with sticks, and it did cook the food, but I was getting tired of choking on smoke and my hands and pots turning black with soot. J. found us a better stick stove, one with a chimney, which we immediately punched through our new pizza oven roof. It works really great—we can cook our meals on it and still have heat left over to heat a kettle of water for washing up. I even canned peaches on it last summer, but don’t ask me to do it again. 🙂

Like the old wood kitchen stoves, you can lift the burner cover off and stoke the silver box full of sticks, which burn for about an hour.

So now we have an arsenal of summer cooking options. A solar oven is great for baking and heating up leftovers on sunny days, and the go-to cooktop for most meals is the stick stove.

This is just a mock-up. You have to have sun for this oven to work.

And once a week in the summer we fire up the pizza oven—three or so hours of stoking wood on the brick hearth renders it hot enough for pizza, once we’ve scraped out the coals. As it slowly cools over the course of a day, we can bake bread, roast meat or vegetables, bake pie and granola, and then leave a pot of beans inside overnight. 

So, where a year ago our house didn’t have a kitchen, now it has two: one to keep our house warm, and one to keep it cool. Both are a joy to use, although the view from the summer kitchen, if I may say so, is especially terrific.

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