Before there were ovens, or if you were unlucky enough not to have one built into your house, you baked in the fire.
Cooking, of course, happened in, above, and around a fire, but baking had to happen differently and involved a heck of a lot more guesswork and way more watching than most of us have time for these days.
I’ve baked an apple pie in a fire. Not easy. I burned the first one. The second one turned out ok, but nothing like what we think of when we think “pie” because it was flat. The third time was nice, and I felt so good about it that I never want to attempt it again and ruin the record.
I’ve also tried to bake cookies in a biscuit oven, which is placed directly *next* to a fire. This also takes a long time and requires a lot of watching unless you want the cookies to be rocks. A biscuit oven is like a reflector oven in shape, nearly, except it’s smaller and there are trays for cookies, biscuits, or bread instead of a spit for meat. It sits next to a fire or hearth and slowly bakes the items on the cookie sheet. They work, but they are slow…until suddenly the bakery is done!
Baking in a fire is tricky only because you have little control over the exact temperature, and there’s no exactness to how long (or how little) it will take to bake the item. Some people tell me it takes longer, and others say less, to bake in the fire. I have come to believe much of it depends on the heat and amount of coals used, because when baking *in* a fire you have so many variables that it’s impossible to make it an exact science. The weather, the type of wood, the amount of coals or heat of them, all have a say in how your baking turns out. There’s a reason we actually have baking contests when we do rendezvous – it’s hard to do!
If you don’t have a tin biscuit oven, you can always bake in a fire with a cast iron oven – like a Dutch oven with a cover. This was the best way to bake if you had a hearth but not a bread oven, or were on the road or on the pioneer trail. The best way to bake a pie, a stew, or anything like that, is in a cast iron piece with a lid, stuck inside the fire and with coals on top. If you can find a piece with legs to stick in the fire, so the bottom of the pot isn’t sitting exactly IN the fire, even better as that prevents scorching of the food.
There’s an art to baking in a fire, and a recognition that you’re going to have to be yet one of the elements to make that pie happen, and do your best. And it will always taste homecooked, which is maybe the best part of all!