Secrets of

Athabasca

What's cookin' in Wood Heights?

Athabasca's got its own public woodfire pizza oven

Joel Watson, Town & Country reporter

Slightly hidden behind a fence on the corner of Poplar Lane and Wood Heights Road you can find it standing there.

Upon first look you might think it is a nest sitting on top of a tower of circular concrete slabs, but what your really looking at it Athabasca’s very own community pizza oven. 

Built in 2012, the pizza oven – or cob oven – is made mostly of material found in Athabasca: about 40 bricks from an old farm house’s fireplace, one-third a bail of hay, 80 pounds of sand, and 90 pounds of clay from the creeks and rivers in Athabasca County.

“A cob oven is just (made of) clay, sand and straw,” said Nicole McDonald, builder of the pizza oven. “You mix it together pretty much in equal parts until you have a workable density.”

“The Athabasca clay is amazing, because it’s perfect – ready to go right there,” she added. “So we didn’t measure anything out. We had a utility trailer, took the quad and loaded the back with clay, and away we went.”

McDonald – who now lives in Turner Valley – and her friend Jodie Pruden were inspired to build it after finding a cob pizza oven at the Lac La Biche Mission. After the two built their very own at both of their houses, it sparked a lot of interest from their neighbours and former Athabasca land development manager Michael Mallock.

“Literally, when we’d light up the fire in ours I would start getting text messages, ‘What time's pizzas going to be ready?’” she said.  

“Eventually (Mallock) asked us if we wanted to (build one) in Wood Heights, and there were a couple of girls who wanted to do a class on it,” she added. “That’s initially how it started – was basically a class on how to build the oven, and that’s how they got there pizza oven.”

After four years of irregular usage, the pizza oven is still operational and available for anyone in the community to use. All one needs is some firewood, pizza dough and three hours of free time.

“To get the oven up to temperature you need two to three hours, depending on how much heat your wood is giving off,” McDonald said. “You push all the hot coals and embers to the back of the oven and you cook it right on the fire brick. After that, it only takes three minutes to cook a pizza.”

“We’d always hope that more people would get out there and start using it because it’s an absolute hoot to have,” she added.

Make your own: Recipe for Advocate reporter's pizza supreme

There are several keys to making a solid woodfire pizza: time, patience, a lot of kindling and tinder, and a good cleaning rag. It's also more fun and safer to do this with two or more people.

Ingredients (from local grocery store!)
A couple of bags of dough
Slices of prosciutto
Mushrooms, sliced
Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
Fresh basil
Fresh tomatoes, sliced
Red onion, sliced
Olive oil
Pizza sauce
Flour
Mozzerella cheese, grated

Tools & supplies
Shovel
Several buckets of water
Old rag that is relatively clean
Cutting board
A spoon
A knife
Some kind of rolling pin (beer bottle works adequately)
Barbecue flippers and tongs
Pizza paddle (not required, but highly recommended)
Wood kindling, tinder and logs
Preparation
  1. Before you even think about lighting a fire, you have to clean out the oven. This is why you brought the shovel, water and the relatively-clean rag. Get at it. Anything you don't clean out will end up in your pizza.
  2. Now for the fire. Start small, with kindling and a bit of tinder, and work your way up to logs. If you find your fire is going out, don't just add more fuel – give the fire more oxygen by blowing on it or using your cutting board as a fan.
  3. Leave the fire alone. Just keep it going for the next two-three hours, until the oven is warm to the touch on the outside.
  4. Put a good handful of flour on your cutting board. Split one of the dough balls into two. Roll it out on your cutting board with whatever rolling-pin-like device you have. Don't overdo it; if you play with the dough too much, it will get tough and won't taste as good.
  5. Smother the dough in saucy goodness.
  6. Add the toppings that you like from the ingredients list. If you're anything like the Advocate team, you will forget at least one topping per pizza. Don't worry – they will still taste good.
  7. Load on that grated mozzerella.
  8. Push as much of the fire as you can to the back of the oven.
  9. Using your barbecue tongs, flipper and that perhaps-less-clean-now rag, wipe the front of the oven until it looks clean enough to eat off of. This is where your pizza goes.
  10. Now it gets tricky. If you brought a pizza paddle, use it to pick up your pizza and put it on the front of the oven, just beyond the brick lip. If you didn't bring a paddle, try to work it into the oven with the cutting board with the flipper and barbecue tongs. Don't be too dejected if your pizza looks like garbage. The Advocate team's first attempts were glorified doughballs with pizza ingredients and ashes mixed in.
  11. A couple of minutes into the cooking, your pizza crust will be hardening on the bottom. Turn your pizza, or it will get too crispy (like the one pictured).
  12. When the cheese is bubbly and the toppings are well toasted, you can take your pizza out of the oven. Drizzle some olive oil on top, cut it with your knife, and devour immediately.
  13. Repeat until everyone is full.
  14. Make sure the fire is out before you leave.

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