It had been three decades since our brick ovens were fired up to deliver fresh gingerbread cookies to customers at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. But now, when you walk through the doors, you can once again expect to be enveloped in a cloud of nostalgia. That’s right. They’re baaaack!
The return of onsite baking was a vision that started straight at the top. And Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss was there Tuesday morning as the first batch of warm cookies came out of the oven. Turning Dr. Reiss’ vision into a reality required a collaborative effort from departments all across the Foundation and it was an exciting adventure to get to witness firsthand.
In all, there were roughly half a dozen after-hours tests (most involving cookies) that led up to this moment. The Making History blog team was included in this project early on so that we could document the behind-the-scenes moments and track the progress to share with you. These meetings of the minds involved Director of Historic Hospitality Seth Farrell, Master Blacksmith Ken Schwarz, Historic Foodways Journeyman Cook Barbara Scherer, Head Pastry Chef Rodney Diehl, Manager of Building Trades Ernie Clements, and Manager of Mechanical Trades Chris Anderson (just to name a few).
Initially (as you can expect), there were some questions and concerns. After all, our ovens hadn’t been used since the early 1980s. Would the chimney work after remaining cold for so many decades? Could the bricks in the oven possibly collapse? And what about the refrigerated drink units? How would they hold up with all that heat emitted from the ovens?
We saw some of these concerns play out. The second time the ovens were fired up, there was smoke… and a whole lot of it! As predicted, the chimney initially wouldn’t draft, so smoke quickly filled the room, with us in it. (In fact, our camera still carries the lingering scent of a campfire). But with each use and each warmer day, this problem eventually worked itself out. We also brought the flue in a couple of inches to help force some of the smoke to pull up the chimney better.
Another issue to contend with was the heat—both in the oven and in the room. We used an infrared digital thermometer to monitor just how hot the bricks were getting every time the ovens were fired up. We recorded readings from the chimney, the back of the ovens, and even the surrounding walls. And now that we’ve started baking for hours at a time, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the bricks to make sure they can hold up under production.
While the bakery is now air conditioned (unlike in the 80s), those fires still put out some serious heat! And the windows in the back have to stay open to help circulate the air. Barbara tells me on a really hot summer day, our ovens can easily raise the temperature inside to 30 or 40 degrees above the outside temp. It won’t affect you as a customer, but can you imagine standing directly in front of them, baking cookies? Fortunately, this isn’t Barbara’s first rodeo. She cooks under these conditions daily in the kitchens at the Governor’s Palace and Anderson’s Armoury.
In addition to the heat, she has learned to rely on instinct and experience rather than timers and temperature gauges to determine when her food is done. She told me it will take a few consistent batches to learn the quirks of each oven, a process similar to what we face when we cook in an unfamiliar kitchen.
For now, they plan to light each fire one at a time so that when one oven starts to lose heat, the other is ready to use. Once the fires are lit, the flames burn down for about two hours. Barbara then circles the coals for 30 minutes before removing them so the oven can cool to its ideal temperature for baking. It takes roughly 20 minutes to bake a pan of 28 cookies. You can bake two pans before you have to start the process all over again. So that first batch–from lighting the fire to pulling out the finished cookies—takes roughly three hours. Talk about a labor of love!
As for the recipe? It’s the same one Head Pastry Chef Rodney Diehl shared with us last year, but he says those baked in a brick oven have more of a “caramel” taste. Chef actually worked in this very same kitchen in the 70s when he was just 16 years old. He returned to Colonial Williamsburg in the early 80s and tells me at that time, they were cranking out a thousand fresh-baked cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, every day! For now, we’re taking baby steps and will serve 300-500 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Each cookie costs $1.50 and will be sold on a first come-first serve basis. However, once the fresh-baked batches run out, you’ll still be able to purchase the prepackaged ones made from our same delicious recipe.
UPDATE: The Raleigh Tavern Bakery is now baking gingerbread cookies fresh every morning from 9 a.m. to noon—seven days a week!
What are your favorite memories of the Raleigh Tavern Bakery? Do you remember visiting when the cookies were fresh-baked? Share your stories below in our comments and please enjoy a trip down memory lane with the images we pulled from our archives. Some date all the way back to the 1960s!