Finney says that one of the enjoyable aspects of the oven is that it becomes the focal point of entertaining. In small villages, the brick oven was the central aspect of life, a place for people to gather, exchange goods and share a meal. It is not unusual for Finney and his wife, Julia Finney, to gather as many as 25 people to share a brick-oven meal.
The biggest thing to learn when cooking in a brick oven is the timing. Much like the hearth cooking of 18th-century Philadelphians, the fire heats the masonry and the actual cooking is done by residual heat.
Pizza requires the most heat, so Finney finds that it works well to start the fire early in the day. After about three hours, when the oven hits about 700 degrees, he rakes out the ashes and puts in pizza for lunch. At that temperature, it takes only about two minutes of constant watching and a couple of turns to ensure that the crust is browned evenly with no burn spots. The oven also turns out crusty bread.
Next, a whole chicken goes in, which takes about 40 minutes. As the temperature decreases, some slow-roasting root vegetables go in, and and at the end of the day a pot of beans cooks overnight.
Finney notes that the oven still will be about 200 degrees in the morning.
"You have to be a little crazy to do this," says Finney, "but I love it."
There was a little trial-and-error in getting perfect pizza results. At first, a high-moisture mozzarella cheese resulted in a pale white puddle in the middle of the pan. That's solved, and now he hopes that the acquisition of a cast-iron Tuscan grate that sits over the coals will allow him to re-create the amazing steak he had on a trip to Tuscany.
Finney, who also keeps bees in his back yard, has always taken cooking seriously. He started baking as a youngster because his mother wouldn't buy sweets. At summer camp, he found himself being in charge of bread-baking.
As one of the founders and creators of Flora-Flow mulch and irrigations systems, Finney's office is at home, which made him in charge of dinner. That experience gave him confidence over the years to cook without a recipe. He makes his own pasta and will pair that with a seafood dish or a rosemary garlic chicken.
"I stuck with it and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized I can now build a meal just by looking at what's in the fridge," Finney said.
He admits that his favorite gadget is the Esmach spiral mixer that kneads dough to a smooth and glossy finish, but says that a good stand mixer works fine if you are doing a lot of bread or pizza-making. Finney also recommends a scale, and measuring ingredients by weight for most baking.
If you don't have a brick oven in your back yard, Finney recommends Peter Reinhart's recipe for grilled pizza dough from the cookbook American Pie. Be warned, however, that it might just get you thinking about building that brick oven.
Sam Finney took a pizza-making class at Osteria with chef Jeffrey Michaud and adapted this home recipe from Michaud's high-volume restaurant recipe. The class included shaping about 30 balls of dough, a quantity that Finney says helped his technique. Finney has a special mixer for the dough, but you can get good results either doing this by hand or in a stand mixer.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup water, room temperature
3/4 teaspoon salt
Whisk together flour, sugar and yeast. Add water and oil to a well in the center. Mix for about 5 to 8 minutes, when a tight ball forms.
Add the salt and continue mixing for about 3 more minutes.
Remove from mixer and hand-knead for several minutes. Shape into a smooth ball.
Cover in a close-fitting flat container or lightly oil the dough and place in a bowl and cover with a towel.
Ideally, dough is kept in refrigerator overnight, or let rise at room temp before using.
Remove dough from fridge about two hours prior to baking.
Makes one 12 ounce dough ball, enough for one 12- 14 inch pizza round
Source: Sam Finney
This over-the-top combination is a standard at Sam Finney's parties around the outdoor brick oven, although you'll also see a classic Margherita pizza. This recipe can be made into several smaller pizzas, which is much easier for handling. If you don't have an outdoor brick oven, a pizza stone is recommended either in the stove or on the grill. (Make sure your stone is one recommended for grill use). Barring that, a rimless cookie sheet or pizza pan works, too.
FIG, BLUE CHEESE, BACON AND ONION PIZZA
4 slices thick bacon, minced
1 large Spanish onion, cut in half and thinly sliced.
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, wash, dried and minced
2 bay leaves
8-12 dried black mission figs, stems removed and cut into small pieces
3/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
oil for drizzling
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven or grill with stone to 500 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a large saute pan over medium high heat, add minced bacon pieces and stir until fat is rendered.
Add onion, thyme and bay leaves and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to medium and continue cooking about 20 minutes until onion is caramelized and bacon crisp. Remove from heat, remove bay leaves and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Roll dough into a 12-14 inch round and top with onion bacon mixture.
Spread mission figs over all and top with cheese.
Using a peel, carefully transfer pizza to hot stone or a pizza pan.
Bake for 7- 10 minutes in the oven; 3- 5 minutes on the grill or until crust is golden and cheese melted. Drizzle olive oil over the top and some freshly ground black pepper.
Makes one 12-14 inch pizza, about six slices.
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser.
Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.