In 2011, after 24 years as the senior information technology buyer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Tom Hansen retired. He had planned to keep busy with his woodworking, and when the weather cooperated, he’d bake bread in the wood-fired oven he had built many years ago in his backyard.
His wife, Twyla Hansen, the current Nebraska State Poet, had other ideas.
“She knew I’d need something to get me out amongst people and keep me occupied, so she encouraged me to find a bigger wood-fired oven and take my pizza to the farmers market,” said Tom Hansen.
The oven he’d built was too small -- it wasn’t a commercial oven -- and it was fixed in place in his backyard. When he built that oven, he’d found the plans online and modeled it after the wood-fired oven at Wise Oven Bakery in Havelock.
For the much larger portable commercial oven, he found a company in Boulder, Colorado. Hansen explained what he was looking for, and the company built it to his specifications. That was more than four years ago. Rolling Fire Catering is in its fourth season serving wood-fired pizza at the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
In addition to the farmers market, Hansen and his staff also haul the portable wood-fired oven to Jazz in June on Tuesdays and to Deer Springs Winery on Friday evenings from June through August.
Hansen has always enjoyed experimenting with cooking and baking. In the 48 years he and his wife have been married, he’s done most of the cooking.
“She cooked for the first five years, but she didn’t really like it,” said Hansen. “I took over, and I learned how to cook from scratch through a lot of trial and error and with the help of a really patient family.”
Although you can’t change channels now without finding yet another celebrity chef or cooking show, there weren’t many of either when Hansen was learning to cook. He had the "From Julia Child’s Kitchen" cookbook and gravitated toward the quiche recipes.
In spite of learning on the fly, Hansen can’t recall any terrible kitchen disasters that resulted from his experimenting. Cooking relaxes him, and he especially likes to prepare French and Italian dishes. When they dine out, howver, he said they usually go for Mexican because the restaurants still do a better job than he does with Mexican cuisine.
Baking and cooking in a wood-fired oven is a bit different from cooking in a conventional oven. The temperatures inside Hansen’s oven rises to a toasty 850 degrees, and a pizza cooks in as little as 90 seconds. And wood-fired ovens hold heat for days, frequently cooling to only 500 degrees by the day after the market.
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“There’s no more smoke; it’s just heat so the oven doesn’t add a smoky flavor. On the day after the market, when the oven cools to between 500 and 450 degrees, I bake bread. On the second day after the market, the oven is around 300 degrees, and I bake lasagna and chocolate chip cookies,” Hansen said.
As often as possible, Rolling Fire Catering sources Nebraska-raised meats, and Hansen buys as much as he can of the fresh vegetables from fellow vendors at the market. He buys fresh mozzarella from Branched Oak Farm, and he gets all of his feta cheese from Shadowbrook Farm. On a typical Sunday, he’ll go through roughly 25 pounds of cheese.
In addition to a couple of specialty pizzas that feature seasonal produce, Rolling Fire Catering serves eight standard pizzas: cheese, pepperoni, sausage, hamburger, white (rosemary and black olives with an olive oil base), very veggie, farmers market feast and Margherita. The cheese pizza is $7, and most of the rest are $9. Gluten-free options are available for $3 extra per pizza, and Hansen gets the gluten-free crust from fellow vendor Phil Seng of P.S. It’s Gluten Free.
The regular crusts are made from dough that Hansen makes from scratch. It takes him roughly 45 minutes to make 20 pounds of pizza dough, and he usually spends more than eight hours preparing dough for the market on Sunday.
He’s recently increased the amount of dough he makes because he’s been selling out. One week he made 116 and sold out, so the following Sunday, he brought enough dough and ingredients for 136 pizzas, and he still sold out.
In addition to devoting a considerable amount of time preparing dough and ingredients for the three weekly events they’re committed to, the Rolling Fire Catering crew is also in the midst of the busiest catering season of the year. With all of the graduation parties and wedding receptions in May and June, the wood-fired pizza is in great demand, and the newly created Buffalo chicken pizza has been one of the most popular choices.
Hansen enjoys the parties and wedding receptions, and he’s particularly fond of the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market.
“I really like all of the people at the market and especially the farmers. It’s such a great environment, and we’ve developed a lot of close relationships. After four years, you really get to know the people at the market,” he said. “And it’s located in such a lovely setting along the stream with all of the trees. I like watching everyone, all of the kids and the dogs -- the Old Cheney Road market still allows dogs -- and I have fun watching all of the activity.”
From May through October, Hansen relishes the nonstop action and people watching. Then, from November through April, he also truly appreciates the quiet time when his wife can get back to her writing, and he can return to his wood shop.