Baking in an Artisan Pot

Potter Tena Payne of Earthborn Studios makes gorgeous stoneware pots perfect for baking cobblers and pies.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

My 8-inch "Baker," shown here empty and later with a peach cobbler cooling. Photos by Bakery Boy.

I’ve found the perfect pots for baking cobbler, and they’re things of beauty even when not in use. Potter Tena Payne of Earthborn Studios in Leeds, Alabama, creates the handmade stoneware pieces in five sizes and calls them simply “Bakers.” My 8-inch version (see photos) is glazed a brick-like reddish-brown outside and a softly swirling hazel-green inside. A chart below depicts some other available colors.

Tena Payne at her potter's wheel.

FUNCTION & ART I’d been looking to replace the mundane glass pieces I’ve used for years, a 9-inch round pie pan and an 11- x 7-inch rectangular lasagna dish. I wanted something functional but also presentable. Then I ran into Tena, a phenomenal potter whose earth-toned, no-two-alike dinnerware reaches tables at some very fine restaurants. Her sturdy plates, bowls, platters, mugs, trays, and other serving pieces grace gourmet dining rooms at the Bellagio Resort & Casino and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas, Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City, Sushi Samba in Miami, Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, Palmetto Bluff Resort in Bluffton, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

My pot functions well as a baking pan and looks centerpiece-good even when it's not in use.

“You can bake just about anything in these,” Tena says. “Cobblers, pies, chicken pot pies, soufflés, breads. I’ve learned a lot from chefs about making pottery that suits their needs, issues you wouldn’t think about otherwise. For example, rounded edges that are a little thicker, so they won’t chip when they’re in use every day, constantly going into the oven, onto the table, through the dishwasher, and back to the kitchen. Delicate edges wouldn’t survive. Also I use vitrified clay and glazes that won’t leach, so they can withstand industrial dishwashers, microwaves ovens, and conventional ovens.”

“As an artisan, I enjoy the challenge of blending art with the required function of each piece,” she says.

CHEFS RAVE Chef Chris Hastings—owner of the fabulous Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, and a three-time finalist for the Best Chef in the South award from the James Beard Foundation—is a longtime fan. “Tena’s unique pottery is a key element to the Hot and Hot Fish Club’s casual-yet-classic dining atmosphere,” Chris says. “Each piece she crafts has its own distinct style. We use the smallest Bakers, little crock-pots 4½ inches across and 2 inches deep, to bake chocolate soufflé and fruit cobbler desserts and also for roasting mussels in our wood-burning oven. They conduct heat very evenly and hold up well in daily use. Plus, they’re so aesthetically pleasing that our customers regularly ask who makes them so they can get some too.”

GET ONE At least 100 galleries and specialty shops in more than 30 states carry Earthborn Studios pieces. Tena also ships directly from her studio near Birmingham. Click here for a list of retailers or here to order directly from Tena. Prices below don’t include 15% shipping. Wholesale rates are available for larger quantities.

  • Baker extra large  12” x 3”       $104
  • Baker large            10” x 2.5”     $88
  • Baker medium       8” x 2”         $60
  • Baker small            6” x 2”          $37
  • Baker soufflé          4.5” x 2”      $25

Earthborn's dynamic glazes vary from piece to piece and from one firing to another. Here are a few favorites. Image courtesy of Earthborn Studios.

TENA’S STUDIO Tena shares a cavernous former watch factory with fellow potter Larry Allen. “We call it Cahaba Clayworks after the nearby Cahaba River,” she says. “It has 24,000 feet of workspace, way more than I had when I worked at home, including a classroom and a gallery. My husband Wynn works with me now. He’s a genius with the glazing and kiln duties. Our son Nathan and five other employees keep the clay moving through production.”

The Huck Finn look goes well with Tena's hands-in-the-clay lifestyle.

HER SHIITAKE STORY Slender logs used for growing mushrooms crowd a corner of the studio. “That’s how I got started making dinnerware for restaurants,” Tena explains. “I love shiitakes, and Wynn and I were growing more than we could eat. So I took some to Chris at Hot and Hot Fish Club. He began buying everything we harvested. One day I mentioned that I’m also a potter, and before long I had a commission to make an entire set for his place. Now I’m supplying dinnerware to upscale restaurants all over the country. Lately I’ve expanded into custom pots for corporate gifting and employee recognition awards. Next comes a series featuring college logos and colors.”

GRANDPA WAS A BAKER Although Tena chose a potter’s path she has baking in her background, something Bakery Boy always appreciates. “My grandfather came from Greece and opened a bakery here,” she says. “That’s where my mom and dad met, she worked out front and he ran the ovens. Dad made the wedding cakes for my wedding and all my siblings’ weddings too!”

INFO Earthborn Studios, 7575 Parkway Drive, Leeds, AL 35094; www.earthbornpottery.net; 205-702-7055; email earthbornpottery@yahoo.com.

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