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A Day at the Community Pizza Oven

What is it they say about the community that bakes pizza together? Well, if there isn’t a saying, there probably should be. In Westchester, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, a group of bakers joined forces four years ago to build a wood-fired pizza oven. Today, the oven continues to draw community members (and more) to bake pizza and bread together each month.

pizza oven

Vegan zucchini pizza with pesto and mushrooms

We had a chance to stop by a recent pizza bake, and it was everything you would hope it would be: a wide range of people young and old, a smorgasbord of shared ingredients, a wise and generous oven master, and plenty of delicious pizza being turned out every three to five minutes.

pizza oven

Master bakers Paul and Nathan

The Westchester community oven (we’re calling it a pizza oven, but it’s technically a bread oven; we were just there for the pizza baking) is located in the backyard of the Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, and was built by approximately 50 local bread enthusiasts who volunteered their time and muscle. A short history of the oven boasts that the project went “from adobe bricks to a community oven in 50 days.”

The actual process started with a fund raiser in March 2015, with construction beginning in May. First workers made 288 adobe bricks of clay, dirt, sand and straw; they built the foundation; then leveled and plumbed and added a fire brick hearth; then created a dome made of “cob” (sand, clay, and water shaped by hand). By June they did their final plastering, and the first baking was held in August of that year. All told, the oven was built for only about $2,100 (primarily for large equipment rental) because many materials were scavenged or donated.

pizza oven

The Westchester community oven when first built. What makes the oven especially distinctive is its striking “draped” covering, which was guided by local sculptor Beth Ann Morrison.

The oven is 7 feet, which is considered “community-sized” (as opposed to a single-family oven, which is usually 4 to 5 feet). It takes about 100 pounds of wood and several hours to get the oven to pizza- or bread-baking temperature.

pizza oven

On the morning we visited, the table was set with a variety of large cutting boards and wooden pizza peels. (You bring your own pizza dough and toppings.) Various bakers were working on naan bread, vegan pizzas, Indian-style tikka masala pizzas, and all varieties of traditional pizzas. The main work table was filled with ingredients ranging from sun-dried tomatoes to specialty barbecue sauce.

pizza oven

Master bakers Paul and Nathan were on hand to guide novice bakers through the baking process. “Fewer ingredients!” was their mantra, as we made sure all of the toppings were firmly attached so they wouldn’t tumble out onto the surface of the oven.

pizza oven

Taking the oven’s temperature

Inside, the oven gets up to 800 degrees, which means that pizzas bake quickly. It’s also a “black oven,” where the pizza cooks right next to the fire, so the pizzas have to be watched closely and rotated quickly to ensure that they bake evenly all the way around.

Pizza oven

Pesto pizza with artichoke and sun-dried tomatoes

The result? Perfect, crispy pizza that was gobbled down almost as soon as it came out of the oven.

The community bake takes place on the second Saturday of every month, with pizza starting at 11:30 and bread-baking at 2:00 (after the oven cools down). Want to learn more? Visit the community oven’s web page or learn more about the building of the oven here. Want to make your own pizza? Make sure you start with our quick and easy Basic Pizza Dough Recipe.

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