A week into her first-ever National Outdoor Leadership School class, deep in the wilderness, Katherine Boehrer experienced the biggest shock of the trip, at dinnertime. “They made this chocolate cake. I didn’t know you could make a cake in the backcountry,” she says. “And it was so comforting; it was like a taste of home.”
The experience stuck with her. Today, Boehrer works as the social media manager for NOLS, and she regularly blogs about baking in the backcountry. While she’s been on countless expeditions and tried all kinds of recipes since that first taste of chocolate cake, Boehrer maintains that it was the best thing she’s ever eaten around a campfire.
Baking at a campsite or in the backcountry can try even the most talented pastry chef’s skills, but it’s worth the hassle and it isn’t as hard as it seems. “If you like baking in the front country, you’re probably going to like baking in the backcountry, too." Boehrer says.
Make a Self-Contained Baking Dish with Real A-Peel
If you hang around Pinterest, you’ve probably seen pictures of perfectly baked goods slow roasting in the soft embrace of an orange rind. And if you hang around Pinterest, you also know it’s best to be skeptical that things will turn out anything like they appear in the photos. But this one pans out, literally. “I’ve done it in the backcountry, and it works well,” says Maria Gaffney, a Minnesota musher who lives off the grid in the north woods.
Here's what you do: slice the top off an orange; hollow it out; pour in brownie, cake, or muffin mix (premade cinnamon roll dough is great too); and replace the top of the orange. Wrap the whole thing in heavy-duty foil, and place it on very hot coals for 25 to 35 minutes. Your final product will probably have a strong orange taste, but for most things, that’s a bonus.
Scramble Your Brownies
An even heat is probably the hardest thing to achieve when baking without a true oven. That’s why Boehrer doesn’t bother. She’ll pour brownie mix into a pan over hot coals, and then scramble them much the way you’d scramble eggs. Stir them every few minutes, and pull the pan off the heat before the brownies are completely done. The result is like a messy molten lava cake—you might even like it better than baked brownies, says Boehrer. For peace of mind, use powdered eggs to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.
Turn Your Camping Stove into an Oven
Camping stoves, when used wisely, can be great for baking, but you have to get creative. Boehrer recommends building a “tower of power” on your one-burner to get maximum heat over a large and even surface area. To do this, wrap your wind screen around the base of the stove so your pot sits on top of the screen. Then, top your pot with a “pot parka,” a foil-lined cozy you can find online. The parka cocoons the whole thing and locks in heat. Depressurize your stove, and set it to medium heat so as not to nuke the bottom of your cake.
Next, pour your cake batter into a Fry-Bake pan (the choice of most NOLS instructors for backcountry baking), and cover it with the cozy. Check it after about ten minutes—if the middle of the cake still jiggles but you can smell the bottom burning, put a lid over your pot, pull it off the stove, and build a small fire using twigs directly on top of the pot. NOLS actually has a deep library of instructional videos on baking, with good demonstrations on how to build the “tower of power” and “twiggy fire.” This one on how to bake a cake is a great place to start.
- 1 3/4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup powdered milk
- 1 tablespoon powdered egg
- 4 tablespoons margarine, melted
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup water
- Grease and flour a 12-inch fry pan.
- In a separate container, mix dry ingredients; add liquids and stir until dry ingredients are incorporated.
- Pour mixture into pan and bake 12 to 18 minutes, using a twiggy fire.
- Serve with stewed spiced apples or wild berry sauce poured over each serving. Also good plain or with honey-cinnamon butter.
- Streusel coffee cake: Sprinkle with a topping made from 5 tablespoons brown sugar, 1/3 cup oatmeal, 4 tablespoons margarine, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon mixed together. Bake, using a twiggy fire, for 15 to 25 minutes.
- Blueberry coffee cake: Cook 1 cup fresh berries or drained canned fruit with 1 tablespoon sugar or honey, 2 tablespoons margarine, 2 tablespoons flour, and about 3/4 cup water. The batter should be quite thick. Spread over basic coffee cake batter and bake as above.
- Gingerbread coffee cake: Make basic recipe, except use 1 cup flour and 1 cup gingerbread mix; reduce sugar to 1/4 to 1/3 cup, reduce baking powder to 1 teaspoon, and reduce salt to 1/4 teaspoon. Bake as above.
Go Small (And Have Cupcakes in the Backcountry)
Simply reducing the size of the cooking vessel makes it much easier to bake all the way through without burning the edges. Boehrer often packs single-serving silicone cupcake molds—even into the backcountry. Tiny cakes bake faster, and the molds are squishable and add only a modest amount of weight.
You Can Bake All Kinds of Things on Sticks
Sticks: They’re not just for hot dogs or marshmallows. Carrie and Rupert Blease, the husband-and-wife duo behind Michelin-starred Lord Stanley in San Francisco, roast swirls of sweet bread dough over an open flame when they go camping in Yosemite. The trick is to work the dough until it’s in a relatively long, thin strip, says Carrie. Anything thicker than half an inch will result in raw innards and burnt crust. Roast until it’s golden brown, rotating occasionally to make sure all the bread gets cooked. Also, soak your stick in water before you roast. This keeps the stick from catching fire and helps steam the bread from the inside out, which makes for a fluffy, delicious final product. The Bleases make their dough from scratch, but you could easily replicate this magic by unrolling a can of premade cinnamon buns.
Sweet Stick Bread
Recipe courtesy of Carrie and Rupert Blease
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons milk powder
- 1 teaspoon sugar or honey
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup water
- Mix all dry ingredients together in a Ziploc.
- Add all wet ingredients to the bag, seal, and mix as thoroughly as possible.
- Empty bag onto a plate, and knead the dough for about five minutes, until completely incorporated and the dough is smooth and shiny.
- Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. While you wait, find a long stick, scrape the end to remove the outside bark, and soak this end in water. Once your campfire is roaring, place the soaked end of the stick into the fire to get it hot. This is one instance where you want to cook with flames, not hot coals.
- When your stick is hot, work a long, thin strip of dough around the end. Heating the stick first will help steam the inside of the bread.
- Place the dough end over the campfire and rotate occasionally to achieve an even golden-brown color on all sides. (The milk powder helps with caramelization.)
- Once your bread is ready, eat it immediately. The Bleases like to dip the final product in fruit compote or sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar.