A domed outdoor oven -- handmade with bricks, straw, sand, glass bottles and clay scooped up from Buffalo's subsoil -- burned blazingly hot in the backyard of a house on Eaton Street on a recent balmy Sunday afternoon.
Maura Pellettieri tended to the fire, using a garden hoe to push logs of well-charred, glowing wood to the back wall and mopping up ash with a wet rag on a stick.
Meanwhile, her friend, Allison Ewing, scraped a mound of stretchy bread dough made from locally grown and milled wheat and white and rye flour onto a wooden oven paddle sprinkled with semolina to keep the dough from sticking.
She slid the dough onto the brick hearth floor, keeping a watchful eye on the bread as it puffed and the grains of semolina turned golden brown.
Nearby, on a makeshift counter, a circle of handmade pizza dough rested on another paddle, waiting to be dressed with tomatoes, cheese and fresh basil leaves plucked from the spiral-shaped herb garden a few steps from the oven.
Three young men ambled into the backyard after stopping by Buffalo ReUse's store to pick up some barn-door hinges. They're delighted to find that the banana bread batter they dropped off earlier was baked and cooled, its top coated in a gorgeous, crusty brown.
It is community bake day at the oven -- a little bit of rural Europe in the heart of the city's East Side.
Here, young people are rediscovering the age-old traditions of baking bread and cooking communally. They're also making healthful, whole food available in a community where handmade bread and even supermarkets are hard to find, and making use of local ingredients, from the wheat in the bread to the clay that made the oven.
"It's really nice to be outside, to be in a garden and baking bread in actual Buffalo earth," Pellettieri said.
The oven is the heart of -- and inspiration for -- the Fancy and Delicious Baking Cooperative.
Pellettieri and her friend Matt Lapennas began the cooperative, and they have since added bakers Ewing and Victoria Kuper. The four sell bread at the Clinton-Bailey Farmers' Market and are getting ready to start a 12-week bread-share program as well.
The bread sold at the farmers' market and through the bread-shares is baked in a conventional, certified kitchen at Loretto Ministry Center on the West Side. Health codes prevent them from selling anything made in the handmade oven.
But the four bakers have learned much of what they know about baking bread from their experience with the clay oven. And once a month, they hold either a bread-making workshop or a community bake day using the Eaton Street oven.
The bread co-op started a couple of years ago when Pellettieri and Lapennas started experimenting with bread baking. "We noticed we were going through a lot of bread because our friends were eating all of it," Pellettieri said.
They decided to start selling their bread off bicycles during the summertime "to make a little extra petty cash and have a good time," she said.
As their bread became more popular, they also began having conversations about "how good bread and good food is really inaccessible and expensive," particularly in low-income neighborhoods, Pellettieri said.
Artisanal breads can easily cost $5 or more a loaf. And bread sold at supermarkets for $1 or $2 is often low in nutritional value and taste, Pellettieri said. "But if you go to the store and get those ingredients yourself to make bread, you can make that artisanal bread for $1 or $2," she said.
Lapennas had traveled in Europe "and had seen a lot of these traditional clay ovens," Pellettieri said. He suggested they try to build one.
After consulting library books about the process, they were soon building small prototypes. When they had the method down, a friend, who had recently bought a house on Eaton Street, offered up her backyard.
Over the summer of 2009, the two built the oven. They dug down five feet, to get below the frost line, Pellettieri said.
They filled the hole with gravel, then built a foundation with salvaged brick and mortar. Over that came a layer of glass bottles, insulated with mud and straw and covered with sand, then a layer of fire bricks for the oven floor.
On top of the brick floor they made a dome of wet sand and covered it with cob -- a mash of sand, straw and clay dug up from the ground. As the cob dried, they slowly scooped out the sand until the oven was hollow.
The oven is heated with wood, and it takes about three hours to get it hot enough to bake bread, as much as 500 degrees or more. As the day progresses, the oven cools down to about 350 degrees, better suited for cakes, pies and cookies.
The Fancy and Delicious bakers all agree that there's something special about baking in an outdoor clay oven. "We call it "clay oven magic,' " Pellettieri said.
Ewing said she thinks it has something to do with "the really constant heat" of the clay oven. "A gas oven cycles on and off, and electric has its ups and downs. With this, you have this constant radiant heat that comes from below and the walls."
In June, they began selling bread at the Clinton-Bailey Farmers' Market. They're also now getting ready to sell 12-week bread-shares for $50. The bread can be picked up either at the Clinton-Bailey market or at the Massachusetts Avenue Project farm stand on Saturdays.
At the market, the baking cooperative sells three types of bread, usually one white bread, like a ciabatta; a heartier multigrain; and cinnamon raisin, a perennial favorite. The bread is made with as many local ingredients as possible. The flours they use come from a cooperative just outside Ithaca.
The four bakers get together Friday evenings and work through the night and well into the morning to have bread ready for market on Saturdays.
They haven't quite figured out just how much bread to make for the market. They sold out their first week, but their second two weekends were washouts because of the weather.
While she misses the clay oven sometimes, Pellettieri said she is excited about being able to turn her passion into a business.
"It's still delicious," she assured. "And fancy!"
The next bread-making workshop will be held from noon to 4 p.m. July 24 at 153 Eaton St. RSVP to participate at email@example.com or call Pellettieri at 994-8340. Donations are welcome, to pay for cost of materials. To sign up for a bread-share, contact Fancy and Delicious before July 24 at the above e-mail or number.