School News

Cob Oven Bakes Pizzas In No Time

by Andy Hallman--Fairfield Ledger--

Imagine cooking a pizza from start to finish in just two minutes.

Although it sounds impossible, the feat is within reach for a homemade cob oven at Maharishi School for the Age of Enlightenment. The base of the oven is made of reclaimed concrete blocks and the body is made of a mixture of sand, clay and straw in the shape of a dome.

The oven was built by the Maharishi School senior class last school year and finished just before school let out for the summer in June. Now, three students at the school are undertaking a project to put a roof over the oven to protect it from being eroded by rain.

The three students are Leanna Miller, Mickey DeAngelis and Michael Corazza. They are all members of the L.E.A.P. Academy Leadership Program through Indian Hills Community College. Faculty at Maharishi School appointed the three students to the program last school year, and since then the students have been meeting with other young leaders from schools throughout southeast Iowa.

Corazza said students in the leadership program meet once per month to discuss how to improve their communities. Students from Fairfield High School participated in the same program, and earlier this school year they gave away backpacks and offered dental screenings and immunizations to 37 preschool students.

DeAngelis said he and the other two students began thinking of a community service project in the spring. Construction on the oven had already begun, and the students realized it would be nice to cover the oven and create a comfortable cooking environment.

The students plan to erect a tin roof Saturday, and are seeking volunteers to help in the morning and in the afternoon. Those interested may contact Miller via email at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The students spent several afternoons digging holes for the posts. They said it was a difficult task because there is almost no topsoil on the ground, which is full of clay and gravel.

Cambridge Investment Research sponsored Miller, DeAngelis and Corazza’s participation in the leadership program, and donated $100 toward building materials for the roof.

The roof will be up just in time for a public baking demonstration at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The students said the public is invited to taste pizzas baked in the oven. The oven is in the courtyard west of the school.

Miller said she would love to host other public events featuring the unique oven. DeAngelis said that because the preparation time is so great, someone from the school will need to supervise its use.

Michael Cook, who teaches a course on sustainability at the school, supervised the construction of the cob oven last school year and is helping the three students with the roof this year.

Cook said the reclaimed concrete is leftover material from prior building projects at the school. The students picked the best pieces they could find so they could stack them to make a base about 2 feet tall.

“I wanted to do something to culminate their course,” said Cook. “It fit well into the garden program they’re creating.”

The oven is not designed to cook big feasts. The opening of the oven is slightly more than 8 inches wide. Nevertheless, the oven can cook a variety of things from bread to cookies to cakes.

Although cooking times are unbelievably short, the oven is not quite like a microwave. In fact, the chef must burn a fire in the oven for two hours prior to baking in order to sufficiently heat the interior of the oven. Interestingly, once the walls of the oven are hot, the fire inside the oven is removed to make room for the food. Cook said baking temperatures vary between 500 and 900 degrees.

“The absorbed heat radiates and cooks whatever you put in it,” Cook said. “It will stay at heat for four to five hours.”

Cook said the people who use cob ovens usually bake a large number of dishes in quick succession to take advantage of the short baking times. Breads and pizzas are normally the first things to be baked, followed by dishes such as casseroles.

The cob oven has been used only once so far, and that was in June. Cook said winter hung around much longer than expected last school year, which stalled progress on the oven. Even when the seniors baked their first pizza in June, the weather that day was cold and rainy.

The oven is just a few feet away from the school’s garden and greenhouse. That was no accident, Cook said, because the vegetables on site, such as tomatoes and basil, are perfect for the pizzas they will bake in the oven.

Cook said that, in time, he would like to convert the tin roof into a “living roof,” which means putting sod on top of it so grass can grow.

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