Home is where the hearth is

Today’s generation doesn’t know what a hearth is.

An inspired idea: Making pizza with stone-generated heat (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An inspired idea: Making pizza with stone-generated heat
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
"In the Grain” has a new home! While on the subject of homes, a man’s (or woman’s) home is his castle, a sacred abode radiating and replenishing lost energy.
The center of the home has always been the hearth, a stone or cast-iron fireplace/oven, the hub of energy and industry for heating the house and cooking the family food. The Latin word for hearth is focus, the focal point of the home.
Modern, hi-tech society is just a speck on the historical timeline. Since the dawn of time mankind has been baking and cooking on the hearth and with stone. I remember my grandmother telling me stories about her mother taking the cholent to the town baker to cook and keep hot over Shabbat in his brick oven. Around 140 years ago gas ovens began to supplant the hearth, and 90 years ago electric ovens finished the job.
Today’s generation doesn’t know what a hearth is. The focus of today’s homes is the laptop and the Wi-Fi router (which Bezeq recommends to place in a central location). If people want to heat their house or cook today, they do so with a flick of a switch. Turning a dial is a tad easier and quicker than building and stoking a wood fire in your kitchen, but such convenience comes at a cost – the quality of the food and the ambience in the home. In fact, it all boils down to energy, physical and spiritual.
Electric ovens are real time-savers.
With the turn of a dial and in less than 10 minutes, the oven is ready to go. Heat is generated by electric elements strategically placed above, below and on the sides of the oven chamber. This heat is fanned around the oven, cooking the food by convection.
Has anyone seen a professional, industrial oven? You probably have – in pizza joints, but they also abound in bakeries and restaurants. They all have one thing in common – stone.
Sometimes just a stone floor, but the more stone, the higher the quality of the oven. Could it be that hearth cooking, or cooking with stone-generated heat, is not so primitive after all? Actually, it is all in the physics.
Cooking or baking in a home electric oven is predominantly achieved via conduction and convection. The amount and type of heat radiated from a measly electric element directly onto the food is ineffective for cooking or baking. Heating a stone and then using the stored heat to cook or bake is much more effective. The stone stores and then relinquishes its heat in waves of radiation energy, the way the sun warms the earth. The type of radiation projected by a hot stone is different from that of an electric element; the waves are longer, penetrate the food quicker, and cook it faster and more thoroughly. I am privileged to have a brick oven in my bakery and can attest to the fact that it bakes everything in about half the time, and the crust of baked breads is much crispier and of higher quality.
It is impractical today to have a hearth oven in home kitchens. Our society is too pressured for the investment in time it requires. You can, however, at minimal cost, approximate the quality of hearth-oven baking by purchasing a pizza stone – a flat, rectangular block of special stone called firebrick, which absorbs and stores heat. It is about the dimensions of an oven shelf and costs around NIS 100. By placing pizza stones on the shelves of your oven, heating them to the required temperature and then cooking or baking, you will enjoy higher quality, evenly cooked or baked food – the way hearth cooking and baking used to be.
Aside from the physics, the anthropological and spiritual effects of the hearth served to unite the household.
Everyone huddled around it for warmth and for the bonhomie it generated.
Contrast that with today’s family dynamic, its members with their earphones on, huddled over their “smart” phones, in their own corner, enjoying their own air conditioner.
We call this progress?! While the physical, baking issue is more easily solved technically, the spiritual issue continues to challenge.
I thank my hosts for providing my column with its new home and fervently hope that it will become a hearth and generate positive energy and warmth for all to revel in.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking, and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.
Focaccia with rosemary
Pre-fermented dough:
1 cup flour ½ cup water
small pinch of instant powdered yeast
1 tsp. salt Mix thoroughly and leave to rise overnight, covered.
Final dough:
3½ cup flour
1 cup water
1 tsp. instant powdered yeast
2 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. oil
2 Tbsp. dried or fresh (chopped) rosemary
Pre-fermented dough
Mix and knead for 10 minutes by hand. Leave to rise covered for 2 hours, punching down after 1 hour. Roll flat into round or rectangular shape to fit a pizza dish or baking tray. Baste with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic and salt to taste. Heat oven to the highest temperature for 20-30 minutes with the pizza stone inside. Bake for 10-15 minutes on hot pizza stone until golden brown.