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Carry the right equipment and bake on the go

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008

Add five letters to the word baking and you get - backpacking. Of course!

Is there any other connection between the two?

Baking - with its tantalizing aromas filling a household or spilling onto a sidewalk, carrying connotations of comfort and nostalgia - does not evoke the ruggedness nor rigors of backpacking. Backpackers carry only necessities, drip sweat or precipitation, and should not give off the aroma of any kind of food. Even those who rough it by car camping attempt to get away from sidewalks, out of the house, into some fresher air wildly (or citronella) scented.

Eventually though, wherever you go, the great moment of reckoning arrives: meal time. Wouldn't something fragrant, fresh, crusty and delicious be sheer magic juxtaposed with stuff poured from a pouch, re-hydrated in a pot and then not always completely? Wouldn't it also be a perfect complement to the catch of the day prepared over an open flame?

There are ways.

Baking is possible with a hot fire, flat rock, aluminum foil, corner weights and a spatula. You could make biscuits, flat breads and anything else that tolerates being turned over mid-way through. It requires attention, patience and practice. Most outdoor pastry chefs do not explore beyond this often frustrating method, though some master the cast iron pan with a lid.

If you can carry the weight and make your kitchen in an area where fire is permitted, a Dutch oven takes your outdoor baking one step further. Dutch ovens are large, heavy lidded pots that are designed to a) bear heat on all sides through radiation or induction and b) distribute heat within by natural convection. A good one can sit buried in hot coals and works best with plenty of coals piled on top for the most even heating. A large enough Dutch oven can accommodate a muffin tin, or a rack for bi-level baking. Add a little water, and it's a steamer.

For a different open-fire option, try a reflector oven. A reflector oven is a chamber made of shiny sheet aluminum with an open front, sloping back, and shelf in the middle to hold baking pans. Reflector ovens can be folded or disassembled to pack and are lighter than Dutch ovens, making them better suited for backpacking. Also, reflector ovens work by focusing radiant heat from flames onto your baked goods. The place for them is a few feet away from the center of a fire rather than in the coals, so they are cleaner and easier to handle. Plus, they can hold sheet pans or multiple cake pans. Does your next expedition need perfect pizza, followed by chocolate layer cake for dessert? If so, the reflector oven might work for you.

Alas, in many of the very best areas for backpacking, open flames are not permitted or advised. Can you bake on a camping stove? Yes! You can buy or create equipment that uses a diffuser plate to raise a covered vessel above a burner flame to prevent scorching, combined with a fire-resistant reflective dome that traps and circulates heat. It is not advised to try this using a stove whose fuel source is directly under the burner, however, because trapped heat might cause the fuel tank to explode along with the biscuits.

But fresh biscuits there shall be, even when backpacking.

• Andrea Mogil can be reached at PieintheSkyAK@aol.com.



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