Wood-Fired Sourdough Love
Flour Power and a Mobile Wood-fired Oven
When Kevin Johnson entered the Air Force twelve years ago, stoking fires was not on his agenda. Now retired and serving for NH’s Air National Guard, he’s doing just that—fanning the flames for Embers Bakery, his mobile, hand-built wood-fire oven where he’s found his true specialty crafting sourdough breads and pizzas.
On a slightly overcast day, I catch up with Kevin and his wife, Erin Allgood, at Newmarket’s year-round Saturday farmers’ market. In between catering special events like brewery openings and weddings, the two have been rolling to Newmarket since they began Embers Bakery in 2014. Today their pizza board boasts a margherita, a pepperoni, a breakfast special, and a farm special. I order the farm special—a hyper-local recipe using organic produce from the UNH student garden stand just two tables over.
I ask Kevin what people think about this new take on classic comfort food. With a modest glance toward Erin, he admits that people are raving: “When we worked this year’s Seacoast Microbrew Fest, we sold 100 pizzas in two hours. People are telling us this is the best pizza ever.” They might not be used to the praise, but there is nothing apprehensive about this pair’s enthusiasm.
Kevin ladles a simple red sauce onto my pizza’s thin crust before reaching for fresh ingredients out of clear containers surrounding him. “The sauce is just Muir Glen organic crushed tomatoes,” Erin explains. “It’s meant to be simple to leave room for the flavor of the crust and the toppings.”
The idea for Embers came up when friend and farmer Josh Jennings of Meadow’s Mirth farm pitched an idea to Kevin and Erin about the Portsmouth farmers’ market: “Someone ought to do something with a wood-fired oven here.” Kevin was in. “I just wanted to build something cool, and once I’d built it in the backyard and it worked, I figured I should see what it could do.”
In 2013, Kevin completed an internship with Alstead’s Orchard Hill Breadworks where he learned to make the beautiful boules, or loaves, that line his market table. They come in options like Olive Rosemary and French Country, and they stock Brandmoore Farm’s breadshare in Rollinsford.
But it wasn’t until after his internship that Kevin perfected his now vigorous and distinctive sourdough yeast starter in his home kitchen. He credits Sandra Katz’s Art of Fermentation and a lot of trial and error: “It’s just flour, water, and careful attention to the process.” That process has grown to include three separate fermentations, two mixings, and the final dividing and shaping of dough before any baking.
Using a long-handled wooden paddle to push my pizza into the oven’s half-moon opening, Kevin explains that a friend suggested he try crowdfunding after his internship. He immediately credits Erin, who takes the compliment over their 2014 Kickstarter campaign in stride: “Well, he was deployed to Qatar for two months right after starting it, so I watched the page while he was gone, and we raised over $8,000 in forty days.”
With another reach of the wooden paddle, Kevin pulls out my farm special pizza. Its pale cream-colored crust is mottled black from the wood-fire. Hints of produce peek out from white pools of mozzarella dotting the pie. The taste is true to Erin’s description—light sauce with room for flavor above and below. Fresh toppings and the sweet piquancy of sourdough with the perfect amount of charring is an experience my palate remEmbers.
To see where Embers Bakery will be rolling up to next, visit it on Facebook and experience Kevin and Erin’s motto: “Wood-fired Sourdough Love!”