Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Backcountry Baking Mixes

You’ve probably got everything you need to make biscuits from scratch in your cupboard. And you probably don’t do so very often: it’s time consuming, and mass-produced mixes from Krusteaz and Bisquick are just fine. Still, we make a lot of our own mixes in our kitchen from scratch, everything from pizza dough to waffle batter, because we make all kinds of substitutions to the mix to see what kinds of different flavor combinations and textures we can create.

After getting the hang of the reflector oven, we started making our own trail baking mixes from scratch as well. A backcountry biscuit is a reward; a backcountry biscuit made from scratch is a culinary delight.

Around the time we started our trail baking scratch mix experiments, a friend and fellow backcountry traveler began experimenting with milling his own wheat from heirloom grains. The results were incredible: we were eating better breads in the backcountry than we found in many restaurants.

But making our own mixes was labor intensive. You don’t want to pack more mix than is necessary to feed your group at a single meal. Weeks before your put-in date, you either make a lot of mix, combine it, and vacuum seal it in the right quantity; or you do a lot of fraction math in your head to get the ratios right. Either way, it’s time consuming. At the same time that we’re staging baking mixes in the run up to a backcountry trip, we’re busy staging breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks for the trail. Before long, “good enough” becomes the standard you’re motivated to achieve with the baked goods, but “good enough” wasn’t something we wanted to just default into.

We’d remembered reading in one of Cliff Jacobson’s books about a company called Sturdiwheat out of Red Wing, Minnesota. We got to thinking about it and concluded that if it’s good enough for Cliff it’s good enough for all of us. We gave their products and try and we are greatly satisfied with the results. Sturdiwheat don’t make trail mixes, they make mixes for your kitchen that happen to work fantastically well on the trail because they generally only require oil or water. And the flavors and textures are fantastic. We’ve trail baked their cornbread (as mentioned earlier, fantastic with a sliver of aged cheddar), lemon cornbread, and brownie mixes. For what it’s worth, Sturdiwheat’s pancake and buckwheat pancake mixes are also excellent.

This saves the mixing time but not the measuring time; you’ll still have to measure and vacuum seal before you pack in the mix. But with a standard measuring size of 1 cup this is a lot easier to calculate than when making a mix from scratch. While our baking mixes are pre-measured and vacuum sealed per each meal, we pack in vegetable oil and olive oil in 8 oz resealable plastic bottles and measure out the quantity we want with a tablespoon measure that we keep in our utensil kit. We use small quantities of cooking oil in multiple meals, and this is more economical packing than having lots of little bottles of oil.

Baking mixes can be a bit messy. You can mix them in a small pot if you have a wooden spoon in your utensil kit, but because of their thickness you’ll still end up with a bit of dough left over that you’ll have to wipe up and pack out with your garbage. Instead of using a pot as a mixing bowl, we prepare some baking mixes in a quart or gallon ziplock bag; we’ve found the excess that we take out as garbage is no greater than if we mix in a pot.

We encourage you to incorporate trail baking on your next backcountry trip, no matter if you use a mass produced, specialty produced, or scratch mix of your own. Trail baking is not that difficult, and best of all you’ll give moments of delight to the people you’re traveling with.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Reflector Oven Baking

Some years ago, we read about a trail baking technique called reflector oven baking. It’s a centuries old technology that works by concentrating the heat from a fire in a small metal (in modern times, aluminum) box. Build a fire at one edge of your fire ring and place the oven next to the fire; not on top of the fire or you’ll risk melting the aluminum oven itself. The fire doesn’t need to be very large, the flames need only be as high as the oven is tall. The small wire rack bisecting the oven is a shelf onto which you can place a baking tray.

Intrigued, we bought one made by SF Canoe out of Sweden, and gave it a try on a car camping trip. It was remarkably successful.

It struck us odd that reflector oven baking wasn’t something we’d learned about in Scouting in the 1980s. Dutch ovens were popular at the time, but reflector oven baking was conspicuous by its absence. As near as we can tell, reflector oven baking was fairly common in Scouting at least through the 1950s, and renowned chef James Beard co-authored a book on outdoor cookery in 1955 that features recipes for it. While perhaps commonplace at one time, it just seems to have waned in popularity among the backcountry set.

We think that’s a terrible loss to the backcountry kitchen. You can bake some remarkable goods on the trail, from breads and biscuits to brownies and cookies (in fact, we once baked a lasagna in this thing). There’s nothing like getting fresh baked goods on a backcountry trip, especially if you’re suffering through prepackaged trail meals.

The freshness, flavor intensity and texture of a hot-out-of-the-oven baked good on the trail can make purchased trail meals less bad, and they can supplement meals you source for yourself in some remarkable ways. In our experience, most outfitter and trail food manufacturer soups are bland. They’re not so bad with a fresh biscuit, and you can give that biscuit all kinds of flavor with seasoning (dried soup powders are excellent for this) that makes everybody forget about the soup entirely.

A good home-made dehydrated chili can be very good, especially if you remember to mix bread crumbs into the ground beef before you cook and dehydrate it (the bread crumbs will absorb moisture when rehydrated, giving the ground beef the texture of ground beef rather than gravel). That same home-made trail chili with a side of freshly baked cornbread is even better; that cornbread with a thin sliver of aged cheddar melted into it while it’s baking is a backcountry culinary experience.

Reflector oven baking isn’t that invasive to travel or to mealtime. The oven itself collapses down and is both thin and light; we tuck it into our CCS food pack. For baking trays, we use the skillet with our GSR Bugaboo cookset for cookies and biscuits, and individual baking trays we found on Amazon for things like brownies and cornbread. Baking mixes will add a bit of weight and bulk to your food pack, but not a lot. And if you inadvertently bake too many brownies or cookies, store them in a spare ziplock and put them in your lunch pack for the following day.

If you maintain a consistent fire, baking time is in 20 to 30 minute range. The oven is wider at the opening than the back, so temperatures will run hotter in the back of the oven than the front, so you may have to rotate whatever it is that you’re baking about halfway through the baking process, Having a mini potholder in your backcountry kitchen utensil set (you can make one out of duck cloth) is helpful for handling hot baking trays.

We find freshly baked goods are a reward on the trip. We get much better desserts than the puddings and rehydrated apple crisps and the like common to trail meals. And freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are not just a treat, but a bonding moment for a group sharing the beauty of the outdoors under a perfectly clear nighttime sky or while admiring a distant thunderstorm roll across the horizon.

Just remember a few things about trail baking. While it’s possible to bake with the reflector oven in front of a camp stove, burning a stove nonstop for 20+ minutes is very energy intensive; you’re most likely to bake in front of a fire. If you’ve just landed in a campsite after a hard day’s paddle and portage and all everybody wants to do is eat and call it a night; if you have to hunt for firewood because the campsite is simply depleted; and on top of all that if it’s raining and windy, fiddling with a fire to bake something isn’t a reward, it’s separating people from what they want to do: climb into their tents and pass out. Better to pack out a baking mix you meticulously prepared and miss out on the culinary delight than frustrating your tripmates.

Reflector ovens seem to have increased in popularity and are available at a number of places, including Rutabaga and Ben’s Backwoods. Whether you’re on your own food plan or an outfitter supplied or packaged trail food plan, try adding baking to your meal plan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Canoecopia 2022 Presentation

Thanks to everyone who attended our 2022 Canoecopia presentation live or virtually. We appreciate the fact that many took pictures of our slides, so we've posted them here. We've been and will continue to post blogs that give more detail to the material on the slides. But in the meantime, we hope you enjoy reading these as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Hudson's Bay Bars

We like the Hudson’s Bay Bread, but we’ve been looking for a way to make it so that it comes out more chewy and less crumbly, especially in the field. Crumbly bars are harder to transport intact, harder to eat (especially when they’re in large and small chunks), and are more prone to having traces fall into the water or in camp. There are plenty of chewy granola bars, what can we do to make Hudson’s Bay Bread more like that?

Before doing any research, we tried some experimentation. We added chocolate chips, hoping that when they melted they would increase the bond (a little, not very much). We put the oats and peanuts in a food processor and ground them up, hoping that smaller particles would bond better and be more resilient, kind of like particle board. This was not an inspired choice, as the result had the consistency of particle board - and ironically, the ground-up version held together far worse than the original. We tried adding more honey and even maple syrup, hoping that the evaporation of the liquid would help with the bonding; it added flavor, but didn’t do anything for the consistency.

Then we came across a Cook’s Illustrated magazine from July/August 2018 that features granola bars, and specifically how to make them so that they are more chewy and less crumbly. To make their granola bars chewy, they made a paste out of dried apricots and brown sugar, to which they added vegetable oil and water (in lieu of honey). We integrated the apricot paste into the standard Hudson’s Bay Bread recipe. The result is a different kind of bar than Hudson’s Bay Bread, so we’ve renamed it Hudson’s Bay Bars.

An earlier post details the standard Hudson’s Bay Bread recipe that we use. The apricot paste consists of the following:

  • 1 cup of dried apricots
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 tbs water

To make the apricot paste, put the apricots and brown sugar in a food processor and pulse for about 15 seconds. The mixture should have the consistency of meal. To that, add the vegetable oil and the water. The author of the article figured that the moisture would make a better bonding agent, something she had never before seen in a granola bar recipe. She substituted water for honey, figuring that the water would be better for moistness (and thus bendability) than honey (where the sugars would crystalize). She was right: it does.

Now, a paste sounds great, but we have to reconcile it with the Bay Bread recipe that doesn’t have apricots, but does have sugar and butter and honey. In addition, the paste goes into a granola bar that doesn’t have chocolate chips.

We kept the paste recipe intact, only we like the honey of the Bay Bread recipe, so we added 3 tbs of water to the paste and another 3 tbs of honey to the overall mix.

One other difference we picked up from this recipe is to toast the oats. Lightly toasting nuts brings out the oils and gives them a bit more flavor. We had never done that with the oats before, but were pleasantly surprised with both the taste and color that it added.

We field tested these on a canoe camping trip in the Bittersweet Lakes Wild Area in Northern Wisconsin and were pleased with how well they held up in the field. We also kept some of the bars in a plastic container in the kitchen for 2 weeks while we had them occasionally for breakfast or as a snack (on days when we were not sedentary). They kept remarkably well.

The recipe ended up looking like this.

  1. Take 3 cups of rolled oats and toast them for 12 to 15 minutes in the oven at 350F. This brings out a little more flavor from the oats.
  2. While those are toasting, use a food processor to combine 1 cup of dried apricots, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 3/4 tsp of salt. Combine this until the apricot is small. The recipe says 15 seconds but I went a good 30 seconds+. It will have the consistency of meal.
  3. Add 1/2 cup of vegetable oil and 3 tbs (or 1 1/2 oz) water to the apricot-sugar-salt and blend until it forms a puree, about 1 minute. Add the liquid to the solid while the food processor is running. It’s pretty obvious when the transformation happens.
  4. Combine the toasted oats with the apricot puree. This helps absorb the moisture.
  5. Heat 3 tbs of honey to loosen it up and add it to the puree and oats. You can probably omit this, but we still wanted the honey.
  6. Add a generous ½ cup of peanuts (separated) and 1/2 cup of milk chocolate chips to the puree and oats. Semi-sweet might be a better choice for the chips. Raw, the apricot-chocolate combination was a little unusual.
  7. Place the mix in the usual glass baking sheet, but line this with aluminum foil (length wise and width wise) to create a sling to make it easier to remove. Press the mix down using parchment paper.
  8. The recipe says to bake for 25 minutes at 300F. We baked this for 40 minutes at 300F. Sides should just start turning brown. The chocolate chips (which melted in the mixing stage) make it hard to see when that happens.
  9. Cool for 1 hour in the pan on a cooling rack. Take the aluminum foil sling out and cool for a further hour. Then cut.

The combination of apricots and chocolate chips won’t be to everyone’s liking. You could leave out the chocolate chips of course, but we find the chocolate is a crowd pleaser in the backcountry. Raisins are part of the base Hudson’s Bay Bread recipe, so we will try a variation by making a paste with raisins rather than apricots. We’ll also tried dried cherries.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Hudson's Bay Bread

A lot of people are familiar with Hudson’s Bay Bread, an energy bar that became a standard among outfitting groups in places like the Boundary Waters. There are plenty of origin stories, and several “official” recipes. Neither really matters. What matters is having nutrition to share with the members of your group when they need it most. Hudson’s Bay Bread delivers.

Our version of the recipe comes from the old Boy Scout Region 7 Canoe Base in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. We’ve used this recipe with success on several trips, and we highly recommend it.

Just don’t eat it during a time when you lead a sedentary lifestyle. This packs quite the caloric punch.

The standard Hudson’s Bay Bread recipe consists of the following ingredients and roughly these ratios:

  • 8 oz. margarine or butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 3 oz. honey
  • 1/4 cup peanuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins

For our version, we make the following adjustments:

  • Use brown sugar instead of white sugar
  • Use 1/2 cup peanuts
  • Use 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Mix and bake like this:

  1. Melt margarine or butter, add to sugar.
  2. Add half the oats and mix.
  3. Heat the honey so it is soft and liquid.
  4. Then add the honey, raisins, peanuts, and the rest of the oats. Mix by hand.
  5. Spread evenly in a baking pan, about 1/2 inch thick. Place in a 350 degree oven until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before cutting.
  6. After cutting allow another 10 minutes to cool and then flip the pan out.
  7. Let the bread stand until completely cool before wrapping.

Depending on the size of the group we’re traveling with, we make one or two batches the week we put in. We cut ours into rectangles of about 2” x 3”, and store two in a sandwich sized ziplock bag with the bars separated by a little parchment paper so they don’t stick together.

When the people you’re in the backcountry with need an energy boost, there’s nothing like Hudson’s Bay Bread. We highly recommend keeping some in your thwartbag on the trail.