The domed clay ovens (called hornos in Spanish) are busy for feast days and special times during the Taos calendar.
Most families will have two ovens one large and one small. The legend is that they are sisters and they get jealous if you use one more than the other. A jealous oven will make you burn the breads or pies that come out of these magnificent, all-over, radiant-heat ovens.
Baking in the hornos is something that must be learned rather than written about. If you are lucky enough to watch or participate in a baking session at Taos Pueblo, count yourself lucky.
The following recipe has been adjusted for our standard ovens, but if you ever find yourself in a position to learn how to bake in an horno, do it. The taste is incomparable and the skill could come in handy sometime. You just don’t know.
2 packages of active yeast or 6 tablespoons of dry active yeast
½ cup warm water (about 115 degrees)
¼ cup lard or solid shortening, melted
2 teaspoons salt
6 to 7 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups warm water
Soften or proof the yeast in the ½ cup warm water. Let it set for a while and the yeast will be all moistened or will have begun to expand into a froth of bubbles. If you’d like to give the yeast some sugars to feed off of and also to buffer the yeast a little before it is introduced to any salt, add a couple tablespoons of flour to the warm water and mix it up a little before adding the yeast.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, melted lard and salt and then the softened yeast. Slowly start to add the remaining two cups of warm water to the mixture, beating thoroughly between additions. When enough flour has been added and the dough starts to form a ball, turn it out and let it rest for five or so minutes, then knead in the rest of the flour until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bread bowl, cover with a moistened cloth and let it rise in a warm place for at least an hour or until doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and if you have the time, let it double in size in the bowl a second time. If not, no big deal. Turn it out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently for about three minutes. Cover and let it rest again for ten minutes. divide the dough into four equal pieces.
Now the next step is up to you. Each family has its own shapes and way of shaping and decorating the loaves. Some are simple and some are elaborate. Balls of dough are reserved to roll into little wheat seed-shapes and pinwheels and flowers are other motifs. This way, each loaf has been blessed with the family tradition and are easily identifiable in the large feasts where 100s of loaves are baked by several families in these beautiful, powerful, yet humble, hornos on feast days throughout the year.
Cover and let these rise until nearly double (30 to 40 minutes). Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven 20 to 25 minutes.