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Friday, October 07, 2005

Horno Baking for a Feast Day

In Northern New Mexico, life is cyclical and moves from one celebration of life to the next. The wheel of the year is marked by feast days -- times of thanksgiving – not just once a year, but a continuous rosary of reasons to get together with family and friends, break bread and say prayers.

From the celebration of saints, baptisms, betrothals, weddings, funerals, and other sacramental seasons to birthdays and death anniversaries, there is always another reason to chop wood and make a fire in the horno or outdoor adobe oven.

If you are lucky enough to be a part of this kind of celebration – no matter what cultural context you may come from – this is how horno baking is done, typically, on the reservation of the Taos Pueblo Indians.

Usually, baking is done the day before the actual feast so that the women can be free the next day to prepare other food – such as green chile, stews, posole and each and every possible dish the family requires in order to call it a bonofide feast. Be it the humble green bean casserole made with condensed soup or an old-fashioned sopa, nothing is left out or forgotten.

Hornos were introduced to the Taos Indians when the Spanish colonized the region in the mid-1600s. Thought to be part of Spain’s Moorish past, adobe bricks are built into an igloo-like shape. Often, the foundation for the base is made of basalt rock which is plentiful along the Rio Grande. The reason basalt is used is that it holds heat very well. Another method favors using regular kiln bricks for the base. Making an horno is not easy and a good horno builder in the family is nothing to take lightly.

On the reservation, most households will have two ovens, one large and one small, which are fondly referred to as Big and Little Sister. It is said you must use the ovens with an equal hand because, like sisters, they are prone to jealousy and will burn your pies and cookies in retaliation.

The ovens, part of a larger outdoor kitchen complex, are usually situated a good distance from the house to keep the smoke from the cooking and baking fires from pouring into the house during warm seasons when windows and doors are open. Often times this outdoor kitchen will be covered by a ramada or arbor made of aspen poles covered with green branches in the summertime.

While the busy industry of cutting up the risen bread dough (prepared the night before), pie crusts and biscochitto dough are being mixed and kneaded in the kitchen, outside, it is barely day light. Pinon and cedar are cut into kindling smallish chunks and a fire is built in the inside of the oven. The flames and aromatic smoke from the fire pour out of the oven door and allowed to burn down to embers.

The fire heats the adobe then the coals are scooped out of the oven, often with a rake. A stick tied with towels tied into a mop-like head is dipped into a bucket of water and the ashes are swabbed out of the oven, which makes for lots of hissing and steam.

The embers are used to roast green chiles which will be peeled and seeded and chopped for making into green chile stew and posole the next day.

Depending on the size of the oven and the experience of the head woman baker, the correct temperature for baking is gauged simply by sticking your hand into it and feeling the temperature. As you might imagine, this requires a lot of baking experience. You can also judge the temperature by tossing a paper towel into the center of the oven. If it combusts, it’s too hot, but if just the edges singe, it is just right.

First, the bread goes in. These round loaves are either smooth-topped or decorated and each baker has their trademark shapes and variations. The smooth-topped loaves are made without fat of any kind. The usual shortening used is lard.

A plywood door is propped up to keep the heat in and the bread swells and browns in this all-around heat. When done, the pans are removed with a flat wooden paddle.

When the loaves are done, it’s time to bake the pies. Like the bead, the top crust is incised with distinctive patterns to allow steam from the wild prune filling to escape. Round and sheet pies are made. Biscochitos, or cookies are rolled and cut out last. Depending on the kind of feast being prepared, a baking session might require the use a tower of pie tins, pans and baking sheets.

Once baked, the golden loaves of pueblo bread are tied up in a big tablecloth to keep them safe from all the happy hubbub in the home as the rest of the feast day preparations are made. Pies and cookies cool on every available table and countertop until they are cool enough to cut.

While the bounty cools, the women take a break and eat lunch. Usually this can be beans and tortillas with a little of the roasted green chile or maybe one of the young men have been sent into town for hamburgers, pizzas or buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and sodas.

From the head baker to the girl who runs the pies from the kitchen to the ovens and back again, this baking and feast day preparation requires the help of many hands, which is why in many of the kitchens on the reservation there might be a little plaque that hangs near the kitchen sink. It reads, “Many hands makes work light.”


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