In the Studio: Microwave Baker

Baking in the microwave oven is quick and convenient, but it isn’t the same as baking in a conventional oven. Because a microwave oven heats the water in food, steam can build up quickly in the food being cooked, often causing it to pop and splatter before the baking is finished. A lid can help contain the splattering, but it must be vented or it may blow off. One option is to give your baking dish a conical lid with an opening in the top. A conical-shaped lid is high enough to easily vent steam while also containing any splatters. Now that I have this baker, I use it all the time. It beats turning on the oven for an hour on a hot summer day!

Throwing Baker

Start with 2 pounds of clay for the baker and 1½ pounds for the lid and handle. This will make a smaller baking dish, since a microwave oven is smaller than a conventional oven and is more often used to cook a quick, casual meal.

Center the 2-pound lump and flatten it out to about 5 inches wide. Open up the clay and make a flat floor only ¼ inch thick and 4 inches wide. Pull up a straight wall that angles out slightly. Use a small rib to create a simple gallery by pushing the top ½ inch of the wall out about ¼ inch. Trim the rim with a needle tool if necessary, and smooth it with a chamois. You shouldn’t have to trim this piece much, just a bit around the base with a wooden knife or a metal trimming tool with a triangular blade (1). Measure across the gallery (don’t include the rim) with calipers.

1 Center the clay and open it up, leaving the floor only ¼ inch thick and about 4 inches wide. Pull the wall up, angle it out slightly, and use a small rib to push out the top to create a lid gallery.

2 Center 1½ pounds of clay, make a groove toward the top, then open up the clay almost to the level of the groove.

Off the Hump Handle

Throw the handle off the hump from the top of the second lump of clay. This handle is similar to one found on a French-onion soup mug—a horizontal cylinder attached to the side of the pot. This style of handle fits on a short pot better than a pulled handle and is easy to grip  with one hand, so it works well on microwave ware. If your clay is properly vitrified, this handle doesn’t get too hot to touch after being in the microwave because it’s not too close to the hot food.

Center your clay, then make a groove toward the top of the mound. You only need a few ounces of clay for the handle. Open up the clay almost to the level of the groove (2). It’s a bit easier to remove the handle from the hump without deforming it if you don’t go too deep, but you don’t need a floor on the handle, so if you accidentally open it up deeper than the groove it’s fine. Pull up a small cylinder, collaring it in at the center and flaring the rim slightly to allow for a secure grip (3). Use a tool with a triangular blade to deepen the groove at the base of the handle (4), and pull a wire tool through the clay under the groove. Lift the handle off with dry fingertips and set it aside.

3 Shape the handle by pulling and collaring, using a rib to smooth and refine the form.

4 Use a wooden tool to make a groove at the handle’s base, cut it off with a wire tool, and set it aside.

Use the rest of the clay to make the lid. The lid will be thrown upside-down. Re-center the clay and open it all the way to the bat. Pull up a steep-sided bowl with a very narrow foot. Pull as much clay up from the base as you can (5). The clay left at the base will become the knob, which will be open in the middle to vent steam. Bring the rim out a bit wider than the caliper measurement, trim it to fit the calipers with a needle tool, and smooth it with a chamois. Make sure you don’t make it too small—it’s easy to trim it smaller if it’s too big but if it’s too small you have to make a new lid.

Allow both pieces to air dry, but make sure to keep the base of the lid wet enough to re-shape. Wrap this part with plastic if necessary while the rim dries to leather hard.

5 Open up the rest of the hump all the way to the bat and pull up a narrow-footed bowl. Using a rib, refine the form and widen the rim so it matches the gallery measurement.

6 Allow the rim to dry to leather hard but wrap the foot to keep it from drying too much. Check the lid fit on the gallery and trim if necessary.

Fitting and Trimming

Turn the baker over and trim as necessary around the base. Don’t trim a foot ring. Now, try fitting the lid on the base, and trim it if it’s too big. (This is easy to do if it’s still attached to the bat.) Cut the lid off the bat, check the fit again (6), then prepare it for trimming. Center it and use three wads of clay to hold it down securely. Shape the soft clay at the top of the lid into an open knob by trimming a bit (7), then pulling it up and collaring it in (8). Use a loop tool to trim some of the excess thickness from the top of the lid, then carefully squeeze a small amount of water over the top, making sure it doesn’t drip all the way down to the rim. If the rim gets wet, it will deform and it will also stick to the bat and to the wads that are holding it down. Using a sponge and your fingertips, pull and thin the soft clay at the top of the lid. You’ll have to create a fairly large opening in order to get your finger inside to thin the clay adequately, then collar it in so the opening inside the knob is no more than ½ inch across (9). Allow it to flare at the rim, and trim off any excess with a needle tool. If you need to, you can always trim excess weight from the lid later with a loop tool.

7 Trim some clay from the top of the lid to begin shaping the knob.

8 Pull and thin the remaining clay to form the knob.

9 Collar it in to leave a flared knob with an opening about ½ inch wide.

Attaching the Handle

Cut the base off the handle (10), and bevel it slightly to fit the curve of the baker. Try it on the baker and make sure you can get your hand around it. You may have to cut a bit extra from the upper edge of the handle to get it to come out at the right angle. It’s easier to fit the handle if it’s still a bit malleable so you can bend it at the base to fit around the curve of the baker instead of shaving it to fit. When you’re satisfied with the fit, trace the handle’s outline onto the baker with a needle tool, making a registration mark on both pieces so you can realign it exactly right. Slip both pieces, put the handle in place, and smooth it on. You may want to add a reinforcement coil to secure the join (11).

10 Cut off the base of the thrown handle, shape the cut edge to fit the baker, and bevel the cut edge.

11 Score and slip both surfaces, then attach the handle to the baker. You may need a tiny coil around the top half of the handle to make the attachment smooth and secure.

Finishing and Using

Make sure you use a glossy, non-crazing, food-safe glaze inside. And make sure you use a vitrified stoneware clay body for this project as well. If it’s not properly vitrified, the clay will eventually absorb water and then the handle will get extremely hot in the microwave. Be careful when you’re using it; the steam coming out of the vent hole on top is very hot, so don’t pass your arm or hand over it. This baker works great for meatloaf, small casseroles, and bread puddings. I’ve even made a falafel loaf by cooking a batch of falafel batter in it. Of course it can also go in the oven, with or without the lid.

Sumi von Dassow is an artist, instructor, and regular contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She lives in Golden, Colorado. Check out Sumi’s book, In the Potter’s Kitchen, available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop, http://ceramicartsnetwork.org/store/in-the-potters-kitchen.

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