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Hearth to Hearth: The Magic of Fire

Hearth to Hearth: The Magic of Fire – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2003

by Alice Ross

Important cookbooks have had the power to shift the directions of popular culture. Just think of the social changes that resulted from Julia Child’s early works. Her writings and TV programs have been credited with triggering a culinary turnaround, breaking with a rather limited and often boring cuisine and launching into the dazzling world of ethnic and fusion investigations. Cookbooks, like many works of art, are also an important statement on the state of our world, and it is in these contexts that we may view William Rubel’s fine cookbook and instruction manual on hearth cooking, The Magic Of Fire.

The word is that historical cooking is coming back, and Rubel totally concurs. He cites the numbers of commercial pizzerias and bakeries making much of their newly installed brick ovens and holding out hopes for superior crusts. And he notes the appearance of restaurants preparing meals on an open hearth for the entertainment and delectation of their diners. Producers of pre-fab “hearths” are increasing their household sales – large kitchens are being designed with cooking fireplaces and country houses are being renovated to accommodate cast-iron cookstoves. Increasing numbers of local history museums are expanding their programs to include cooking demonstrations, and re-enactors are string-roasting their chickens. Television specials such as The 1900 House and its American counterpart on the western frontier are a barometer in and of themselves. To be sure, this oversimplified picture does not suggest that we are all about to tear out our modern kitchen ranges and replace them with fireplaces, but it does seem that in some of the more privileged and avant-garde corners of our food world the charms of food prepared on the hearth are taking hold.

Since from one point of view cooking on the hearth is a return to the drudgery of a pre-industrial age, the mystery of its appeal needs a little looking into. Perhaps it has to do with nostalgia for a simpler life. Perhaps it reflects our increasing search for natural and zesty flavors. Maybe the great mushrooming of food history research during the last 25 years has found its way to kitchen consciousness. And maybe the near-disappearance of the antiques market for primitive cooking utensils – the hand-crafted and early cast pieces (and the consequent rise in their prices that makes collecting so difficult for newcomers to the field today) – has glorified their functions. More than likely, if you have a handsome old copper pot or a food chopper fashioned artfully like an animal, you will want to try it out. No matter. Perhaps the commercial and industrial aspects of our lives need a counterbalance with the natural world, or perhaps the wonderful food one can produce on the hearth is simply worth the fuss. Perhaps the terribly busy pace of our lives further heightens the allure of simple food simmering on a fire, and enhances the pleasure of being home.

The Magic Of Fire is clearly a barometer of this trend. Rubel’s own brand of infatuation with food is perfectly suited to the hearth, reflecting as it does his California background and the Alice Waters philosophy of fresh, high-quality ingredients cooked with relative simplicity. Taking this one step further, Rubel has returned to naturalized fuel – wood – and the back-to-basics of the hearth. Enticed by the fireside, he has spent years exploring its possibilities – cooking, experimenting, traveling, reading, cooking again – until he mastered nuances of flame, embers, and ash, and has now given us a handsome book containing a number of superb dishes and the of hearth techniques for their preparation. In fact, The Magic Of Fire is the best instruction of skillful cooking on the hearth now in print.


At its heart the instruction of hearth technique is the driving force behind the choice of recipes, and each has been selected for its illustrative value for some fine point of technique. As a result a good many are basic, which is not to say boring. Those griddle flatbreads, crumpets and muffins are as seductive as any complex recipe today, and Rubel’s understanding of baking flatbreads directly on the embers is a miracle in itself. Other recipes are more complex, among them a three-stage Pot-au-Feu from the French countryside.

Rubel’s hearth skills have been honed by a moveable apprenticeship of his own devising, during which he worked in a succession of “primitive” (from an American viewpoint) kitchens of remote Europe, Africa, India, and the Middle East. Their tradition-bearing cooks taught him sensitive control of the hearth heat, whether using age-old ceramic pots set directly over flame, in forged or cast iron utensils over embers, or in the ash itself. He has incorporated these experiences into each recipe, along with his substantial collection of old pots, appropriate background information, and his modern sense of food. Thus his centuries-old Dutch oven or French daubiére prepare wonderful stews and pot roasts; his mechanical spits roast meats to perfection, his large terra-cotta pots do lovely soups, his iron gridiron roasts vegetables with the proper smokiness. Griddles over embers do fine flat breads, crumpets and soda breads. And so on.

Considering Rubel’s training grounds, it is not surprising that most of his recipes show a foreign origin and flavor, but he is not averse to modernization. And so we find a recipe for fusion “Chicken in a Pot” that uses (among other things) Cornish game hens, dried Porcini mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, globe artichoke, and Jerusalem artichokes. A handful of American recipes will please colonial cooks (Persimmon Pudding, Ash Cake, and Spider Cornbread) with what appear to be accurate renditions of early regional American foods, although his use of the term “tripod” for “trivet” may be off-putting to the collector.

The recipe that most tempted me was the ash cake that uses no pot at all and is, instead, artfully baked within layers of embers and ash. I must confess that as an experienced hearth cook and lifelong food lover, most of the recipes and techniques were not new to me, but I have never really explored the many facets of ash-baking. In the course of studying Rubel’s section on ash cooking, I was impressed to find that he did not rely entirely on his hands’ sense memory or a mystique of the fire (although he loves its ambiance), but has sought a more fine-tuned understanding via the tools of modern technology. The problem involves consistent conditions and of recipe transmission. In the past younger people learned to judge temperature by holding their hand near the pot, embers, or food, and they developed fairly accurate sense memory. They learned by doing under the guidance of their mothers, a system of training that has given way to the authority of the printed page and restaurant takeout. Rubel’s quest for temperature control has led him to the clever application of the infrared thermometer (just point and shoot and read the dial – no direct contact with the food, pot, or embers necessary). The historical cook can learn to associate thermometer readings with hand sensations, learning from the gadget as we once did from our elders, and eventually dispense with the modern equipment.

As a historical cook, I have been careful to avoided translating heat sensations into numerical degrees, trying to put myself into the mentality of generations of cooks who did not use such concepts as Centigrade or Fahrenheit in their cooking. But the initial experimentation period for such learning is long and would seem to be forbidding to the novices Rubel addresses. In actuality, this book has persuaded me that I must buy this thermometer to use as a teaching tool, just as I use a remote Fluke thermometer to teach the brick oven.

Rubel’s recipes are lengthy, as they include anecdotal historical and cultural commentary, directions for managing the fire step by step, and a more familiar modern listing of ingredients. His attention to detail is both enriching and encouraging, and his flexibility makes it possible for the beginner to do a meal of several courses. Apart from the recipes, he also includes comprehensive sections on the hearth, its equipment, methods, and a list of suppliers.

The Magic Of Fire has contributed an impressive codification of techniques we all will benefit from. My own nagging wish had been that more attention be paid to American history, and other Americans may be inclined to turn away from the book on that account. However, this would be a major mistake as Rubel’s foreign sources are in many ways largely irrelevant. His research with people cooking at the hearth every day has added another kind of evidence to the kinds of research American historians have produced thus far, and there are, after all, limited numbers (if any) in the States with such inherited skills to teach us. One of Rubel’s important contributions to historical American hearth cookery is in his confirmation of much of the work done here thus far, that our use of antique pots, a few surviving documents, and a good deal of pragmatism have produced many of the same conclusions and methodologies. One is now in a stronger position to support, for example, such controversial acts as discarding andirons and iron wood baskets (they only get in the way), and have some in situ evidence to back it up. Fire, a Book Review Recipe.

Rubel offers a number of ash cakes, each using a different kind of grain: white flour, semolina flour, masa harina and chestnut flour.

He notes that ash cakes, properly dusted with flour before baking, do not pick up the taste of ashes as they brush off easily after baking.

Recipe: Cornmeal Ash Cakes; The Magic Of Fire

  • 3 1/4 cups cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • cabbage leaves or corn husks (optional)

The Fire: A mature fire, gentle to moderate flames, and at least 4 inches of ash across the fireplace floor.
Unless the fire has been burning all day, one hour before baking stir embers into a bed of ash using an equal amount of each.

Mix boiling water with cornmeal and salt, cover, and allow the dough to rest for two hours.

Shape the dough into seven balls, working the dough between your hands or rolling on a floured board so that you have flattened it into a 1/2-inch disk. Dust with flour so they are dry to the touch.

By the side of the fire, use the shovel to dig a trench in the ashes large enough for all the cakes. Lay down the disks of dough, cover with a layer of ash 1/2-inch thick, and pile with a thick layer of embers. Bake the breads for 20 minutes under high heat. Remove the cakes with long-handled tongs, brush off the ash, and serve the cakes while they are still warm.

Note: American colonial and pioneer practice included baking ash cakes between leaves, often corn husks or cabbage leaves. If using dried corn husks, soak them in warm water to soften before folding them around the cakes. If using cabbage leaves, lay the disk of dough between two leaves, fold the leaves around the dough, and proceed to bake the cakes as described above.

Photos reprinted with permission from The Magic of Fire by William Rubel, Copyright 2002. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif. Illustrator: Ian Everard.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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