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Minn. Couple Builds Backyard Brick Bread Oven

WINONA, Minn. (AP) -- Mike and Terri Karsten really like good bread. In fact, they like bread so well they built a wood-fired brick oven in their backyard just to bake really good bread. And really good pizza. And the occasional Thanksgiving turkey.

Then, they wrote a book about the project and founded a publishing company to put that book on the market.

"We don't do things by halves," Terri said.

The oven is impressive -- more a building than an outdoor kitchen appliance. Built of red brick and roughly seven feet wide and seven feet deep, with the chimney towering more than a dozen feet overhead, it is "the most beautiful I've seen," said local bread baking guru Rosemary Binkley.

It was a lust for the perfect loaf that drove the Karstens to spend uncounted hours lugging bricks, mixing cement and learning the skills needed to turn a notion into masonry.

The quest began in earnest when Terri was confronted with high cholesterol and the need to reduce the amount of fat in her diet, she said.

Confronted with the prospect of eating "naked bread," she decreed "if I'm going to eat bread with nothing on it, I want bread that tastes good."

Good bread is a basic human pleasure, Binkley said, and baking your own bread multiplies that pleasure in many ways. "You don't just feed your family," she said. You warm your home and make it smell good and work together to make something that makes you all feel better.

But there is more to baking really good bread than the ingredients that go into the loaf. You need to put a good loaf into a good oven.

Obviously, the oven in the kitchen range will heat up and bake bread. It heats to a moderate, even temperature and produces a predictable product -- better than you're likely to take from the grocer's shelves, but not the best that bread can be, Terri said.

A traditional wood-fired oven bakes at a much higher temperature -- around 600 degrees. Baking at very high heat creates "oven spring," Terri said -- a phenomena where the dough rises very quickly and the crust hardens much faster than at lower heat -- creating a unique taste and texture in the finished loaf.

"It just tastes better," she said.

Creating that special taste and texture takes no small commitment of time and effort, even when you have a wood-fired oven handy in your own backyard.

The Karstens' backyard oven is of traditional design, essentially consisting of a baking chamber, chimney and ash pit. The oven bakes with heat retained in the bricks and masonry of the baking chamber, Terri explained. The heart is the four inches of fire brick set in four inches of concrete surrounded by four inches of vermiculite insulation that make up the walls, floor and ceiling of the baking chamber.

Firing the oven means building a fire on the oven floor and keeping it fed with fresh wood until the masonry is heated to at least 800 degrees -- a half-day process. When the oven is hot, the fire is allowed to burn down, and the ash is swept out of the oven door into the ash pit below.

Now it's time to bake bread.

Baking in a traditional oven is no "set it and forget it" operation, Terri said. From one batch to the next, from one moment to the next, the temperature is always changing, requiring the baker to have a vigilant eye and an understanding born of experience as to how that particular oven bakes. Each batch is also affected by the day's temperature and humidity and the peculiarities of the loaves themselves.

On a "bread day," the Karstens will turn out 18 to 20 loaves of a variety of breads -- enough to stock the freezer for several weeks. Bread freezes well, Terri said.

Terri said she and Mike approached building the oven as a husband-wife project, a "life adventure" of a sort. When they commenced, neither of them had laid brick or cast concrete to any extent, making this a "learn it as you do it" type of project.

The information they found to guide their effort was generally technical and difficult to understand, she said, which inspired her to embark on a project-within-a-project. From the start, the Karstens meticulously documented the planning and construction of their backyard oven, creating a profusely illustrated, step-by-step instruction manual for duplicating the oven.

"To get a book published, you need a publishing company," she said, so she and Mike founded their own publishing company, Wagonbridge Publishing, to produce and market "From Brick to Bread: Building a backyard oven."

The book is the first of what the couple hopes will be a series of "life adventure" books -- how-to guides for "everyday adventures for everyday people," Terri said.

"We're thinking of doing one about backpacking after age 50," she said. "We might call it 'Backpacking over the Hill."'

It will be one more adventure.

Winona Daily News

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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