Baking to the rhythm of flames and coals; the roar and the whisper attune with browning bread and rising cake batter. Groundbreaking wood-fueled baking is at the heart of Marin Howarth and chef Noah Blom’s Restaurant Marin in Costa Mesa, where stunning layer cakes, pies, and artisanal breads reach perfection in a Wood Stone wood-burning oven.
It seems like wizardry. Trained to trust that successful baking requires consistent temperatures and exacting formulas, I was eager to demystify the process that Blom and baker Christy Henry use to create luscious textures and flavors. Baked exclusively using heat sourced from burning wood.
Morning buns: brioche draped in an orange-honey glaze. Marble rye, sourdough, and brioche sprinkled with Swedish pearl sugar. Sugar-dusted donut holes and toasted crumpets. Crumble-crusted mini pies. And a chorus line of towering layer cakes, such as “After Midnight Cake” (chocolate on chocolate) or “We Lost Our Marbles Cake” (chocolate cake layered with house-made Oreo-style cookies crumbled into buttercream).
Baking starts at 3 or 4 a.m., earlier on weekends. The first predawn task is taming the still-hot oven in Restaurant Marin’s kitchen. Most of the hot coals and ash are pulled out, leaving just enough for a fine layer of coals to cover the oven’s floor. With affection, Blom calls this his “Japanese rock garden.”
He builds a little fire at the front left corner stacking the puniest logs he can find, factoring in the temperature and humidity outside. He takes joy in the ritual, calling it his “morning Zen oven.”
Next he turns his attention to proofing yeast and preparing cake batters. The cakes need the coolest temperatures so they will go into the oven first, often placed atop an inverted hotel pan. Breads go in next, the dry heat browning the crust and giving it alluring exterior crispness.
He says at first the baking results were risky. He wrote the outcomes, successes and failures, in a daily calendar. Recipes continuously evolved; heat strategies required constant monitoring, shifting pans from one position to another; ingredients, proportions, and baking vessels changed.
“We’re having fun,” he says. “We don’t get into this because we like easy.”
Cakes and Frostings
For me, those glamorous cakes are the biggest surprise. They are displayed under tall glass cloches on the countertop; layer after layer is visible, tucked between thick sheets of glorious frosting, the sides left icing-free to show off the splendor inside.
“Nostalgia tastes better,” Blom says referring to the layer cakes, adding that few restaurants offer high-quality cakes by the slice. It’s one of the reasons he calls the restaurant a California Coastal Diner.
“I thought the pies would be the most popular, but hands down it’s the cakes,” he says.
The lush textures are light and beguiling. He explains that wood-fired baking pulls moisture out of the cake, making it lighter and fluffier while evaporation condenses the flavors.
“The cake batters need to be looser (thinner) and incorporate grapeseed oil or extra-virgin olive oil; sometimes the tops (of baked layers) are brushed with a little clarified butter,” he says.
Frostings are delightfully fluffy. Due to their lightness, he calls them old-school frostings. The buttercream is beaten a long time to incorporate more and more air. The taste is decadent, but not overly sweet.
“The taste is on the border of sweet and savory with salt and vanilla bean added. Because the cake is so moist, the frosting needs to be rich, so other elements are added later, such as caramel, ganache, cocoa powder.”
Breads and Buns
Breads have exteriors that are crunchy and flakey; inside they are moist and flavorful. At first he used unbleached King Arthur American flours, but changed to unbleached Italian flours made with durum wheat because the results were more rustic and somewhat fluffier.
He started with crumpets, as well as brioche-based loaves, rolls, Ham Balls, and Morning Buns, before delving into hearth breads formed in rounded banneton baskets. Beautiful, but the shapes weren’t practical because each one yielded just four or five useable slices.
So they switched to loaf-shaped breads with deeper flavors in mind.
“We have two starters—‘Aldous’ and ‘Huxley’—honoring our favorite writer,” he says. “Aldous is a poolish (sponge) starter, a more liquid version. Huxley is a classic pate fermentee that is thick and needs constant feeding; it brings vibrancy and some sour. And it helps with rising—leavening …”
Rye was the next challenge, to be used with patty melts and salmon toasts. Once he had that down he mastered marble rye, adding cocoa powder and molasses to the contrasting dough.
A stickler for using the highest quality natural ingredients, he says that the best food is honest food.
He weighs his baked goods against a long-ago experience on a trip in Kansas. At a little diner the server asked which house-made pie he wanted. Cherry? Apple? Pecan?
Downing one of each, the freshness and bright flavors of those pies made a lasting impression. He says he will remember them forever. Now every dessert is compared to those straightforward beauties.
Restaurant Marin, 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949-402-3974
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”