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Alimentary, My Dear

Secrets From the Test Kitchen —
Apple of My Eye

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

February 19, 2008

Who doesn't welcome a hot apple dessert on a cold day? Apple betty, apple cobbler (also known as apple slump or apple grunt), apple crisp (aka apple crunch)…. All these are variations on a well-loved theme. Each marries apples to bread or a crumb topping, and the union is almost always a happy one. Apple desserts are comforting, warming, and aromatic. They're also delicious.

The upshot? There's no better addition to any camp menu. Except for one thing — these apple dishes have to be baked. Of course, backcountry baking needn't be Mission Impossible. All it takes is an oven, and there's no shortage of choices. You'll find Dutch ovens, reflector ovens, and stovetop ovens on most outfitters' shelves. Or maybe you're the do-it-yourself type. If so, you can make a "mud oven" right in camp. But none of these alternatives is wholly satisfactory, is it? Building a mud oven takes time, and such campsite engineering runs counter to leave-no-trace guidelines. It may well violate local regulations, too.

What about a reflector oven or Dutch oven, then, or one of the lightweight backpacker's ovens? Well, no matter how cleverly designed and carefully fabricated, a portable oven is yet another thing to find room for in your pack (or under your deck), not to mention an extra burden to haul over each portage. Still, it's sometimes worth the trouble. But not always. After all, not every paddler wants to become a backcountry baker. Even would-be pastry chefs may not have the inclination, especially when they come face to face with the limitations of a riverbank kitchen. At the end of the day, when you're hungry and tired and anxious to set up camp before a storm breaks, enthusiasm and patience can both be in short supply.

But what if the craving for an apple dessert is as insistent as a horde of hungry mosquitoes? What then? How can you appease the inner man (or inner woman) without becoming either a pack animal or a chef? I wanted to find out, so I grabbed my apron and went into my test kitchen to tease apart…

The Makings of an Apple Dessert

To begin with, let's look at three of the most popular:

  • Apple Cobbler.  Also known as pandowdy, grunt, or slump, a cobbler is typically made from baked apples, sugared and spiced and topped with a biscuit batter or dough. Assembling the cobbler is straightforward. Flour, milk, butter, and a leavening agent like baking powder are mixed together, and the resulting liquid batter is spooned over the sugared, spiced raw apples until the entire dish is covered. Or if you prefer, you can stint on the milk. A stiffer batter is the predictable result. Just roll it out into a rectangle, cut it up into rounds with a biscuit cutter, and place these rounds over the apples before baking. Simple, eh?

  • Apple Betty.  Think of this as apple pudding. Apples and chunks of bread are the main ingredients. Bake with butter, sugar, and spices. That's it.

  • Apple Crisp.  Aka apple crumble. Usually made by baking sweetened, spiced apples under a crust assembled from flour, butter, and brown sugar. (Sometimes oatmeal is added to the mix, too.) Why apple crisp? Easy. When it emerges from the oven, the crust is a crispy golden brown.

Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is. And any one of these treats would certainly be welcome in a rainy riverbank camp. But there's one hurdle to overcome: the oven. Or rather its absence. Still, we did manage to make a pretty fair pizza without an oven, didn't we? So there's reason to hope. Before we start cooking, however, let's take a look…

Inside Your Home Oven

What's the first thing you notice? Right! The key is that little word "inside." An oven is enclosed. In essence, it's a heated box. It has an inside and an outside. Ovens cook largely by convection. A heat source warms the captive mass of air surrounding the food, and the heated air does the cooking. By contrast, food in a skillet held over a fire cooks mostly by conduction. The skillet conducts heat from flame to food. To summarize, then: On a stovetop — and this is equally true for camp stoves and open fires — food cooks from the bottom up. On the other hand, food in an oven cooks from the outside in. And baking requires just this sort of uniform, even heating. So if you try to bake in a skillet held over an open flame, you're almost certain to be disappointed with the result. Your treat will likely be charred on the bottom while it's still runny and raw on the top. That's not much of a treat, is it?

 

OK. We've outlined the problem. What's the solution? If you want to bake over an open flame, you need to gentle the heat and distribute it evenly — or as evenly as possible, at any rate. You'll also need to adapt your recipe to the limitations of stovetop cookery. And in the end, that's how I managed to turn out…

Stovetop Apple Desserts

First things first, though. In discussing the nature of stovetop cooking, I've made several references to a skillet. But should you use a skillet for your stovetop baking in the backcountry? There's no denying the skillet's versatility. More often than not, it's my choice for stovetop cookery at home, where the shallow depth makes for quick cooking and easy sauce reduction. And there's also no denying that a cast-iron skillet spreads heat evenly. That said, however, a skillet that's large enough to do the job is usually a poor match for a diminutive portable stove — and I prefer to use a stove whenever possible. Moreover, there's no premium on speed when you're baking over a flame. So even though I use a skillet in the test kitchen, I usually opt for a pot with a tight-fitting lid in camp. (A word to the wise: Make sure your pot or skillet is made from something that distributes heat well and isn't prone to hot spots. Ultralight aluminum and tissue-paper-thin stainless steel are not good choices.)

Now we're ready to start. The stovetop apple desserts we'll turn out aren't exactly the same as their oven-baked counterparts, but they're every bit as good. Here's my take on the first principles of oven-free backcountry baking:

  • Simplify.  Choose recipes with a minimum of ingredients and embellishments. Simple and good — that's our goal!

  • Cut things fine.  Your apples, that is. Small cubes and thin slices take less time to cook.

  • Cover up.  A covered pot prevents the escape of steam. While this won't make your pot into an oven, it helps distribute the heat evenly. Once the lid's on, though, keep it there except when you need to stir things up! Resist the temptation to sneak a peek at your dessert every 30 seconds.

  • Chill out.  You don't want to hurry things along too much. A low flame is better than a high, hot flame — and if you're cooking over a fire, coals are better yet.

So far, so good. But there's one more first principle, and it deserves a heading all its own:

Adaptation Rules!

What's the hallmark of an oven-baked treat? A crisp, brown crust, of course. But it's mighty hard to brown a crust when you're baking on a stovetop, especially if you've got a lid on your pot. (The trapped steam makes the crust soggy, not crisp.) Dead end? No way! You just need a workaround.

Take apple cobbler with biscuit topping for example. The result of my first trial was more like apples with dumplings. It tasted all right, but it wasn't what I was looking for. So I tried a different approach. I heated canola oil (corn oil would have worked equally well) in a skillet. Next, I dropped spoonfuls of soft (but not watery) dough into the hot oil, reduced the flame as low as it would go, and flattened the biscuit blobs with a spoon. Then, when the biscuits had browned on the bottom, I turned them over, removing them from the skillet as soon as they were golden brown on both sides. Now I placed chopped apples in the same skillet and cooked them in a saucelike mixture made from a little water, some brown sugar, and pinches of salt, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. I kept the skillet covered all the while the apples were cooking, lifting the lid only to stir. When the apples had cooked through and the sauce had thickened, I spooned the contents of the skillet into bowls and topped each bowl with several pre-cooked biscuits. Delicious!

Apple betty is a bit easier to cook on a stove — if you like a soggy betty, that is. Just mix crumbled bread (day-old crusty artisan bread is best), apples, sugar, and butter, along with a pinch of salt and whatever spices you favor, together with a little water. Then simmer in a covered skillet over a low flame until the whole mixture is soft, stirring once or twice to prevent sticking. Not a fan of soggy puddings? Me neither. So here's my workaround: I crisped some of the crumbled bread in sizzling butter (a butter substitute would have worked fine), stirring constantly to prevent burning. It took no more than two or three minutes. After that, I set the crisped, browned bread aside and cooked the apple mix over a low flame, along with the remainder of the crumbled bread. Once the apples were done, I spooned the hot mixture into bowls, finishing each one off with a topping of crisped bread. It worked. There was just the right amount of crunch.

What about apple crisp? Think apple betty here, but delete the soggy option. I stirred cut-up apples together with brown sugar, butter (again, a butter substitute will also work), pinches of salt, cinnamon and nutmeg, and enough water to make a sauce. (Use a light hand. You want a sauce, not a soup.) Then I brought the mix to a simmer in a covered skillet, stirring once or twice before removing it from the heat just as soon as the apples were cooked through and the sauce had thickened. (If the sauce is a bit too thin, uncover the vessel and raise the heat to cook off some of the excess liquid. Don't do too good a job of it, though!) To add the necessary crisp, I chose a novel ingredient as a substitute for the usual flour-and-butter crunch — crushed cookies. If you like, warm the cookie crumbs in the skillet (or pot) before cooking the apples. (Hold the heated crumbs at the ready in a covered bowl.) What cookies should you use? Whatever suits your fancy. I like shortbread cookies, but you might want to try Amaretto cookies, sugar cookies, or even oatmeal cookies. Crush them inside a plastic bag and pour the bits over the cooked apples. What could be simpler than that?

 

Things are looking up, aren't they? Now it's time to make the leap from test kitchen to backcountry camp.

Leaving Home

This really isn't difficult. The hard work is already done. If your trip isn't too long — and if your back can cope — take fresh apples. But if space is tight and weight is a concern, carry sliced dried apples instead. Figure on half a cup of dried apples for each serving, though you may want to test this at home first. And if you don't want to carry butter or a butter substitute, just leave it out altogether. The other ingredients shouldn't pose any problem.

To reconstitute dried apples, simply cover them with clean water and bring to a boil, then cover your pot or skillet and reduce the flame to a simmer. When the apples are half cooked, add the sugar and spices. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking, and add more water if the apples soak up what's in the pot. Don't add too much, however. As I said before, it's sauce you need, not soup!

Here are some more hints:

  • Apple Cobbler.  If you don't want the nuisance of making batter from scratch in camp, use a packaged mix like Bisquick®. Carry premeasured quantities in plastic bags. Once in camp, pour water into a bag, seal it, and knead it with your hands. Decant the resulting dough and cook the biscuits in a pot or skillet before cooking the apples. Alternatively, make a stiff dough, wrap it around a green stick, and cook in the heat of a fire till golden brown. The twist of hot bread can be then be broken into smaller bits and served atop the cooked apples.

  • Apple Betty.  Be sure to carry dry bread crumbs, not fresh ones — the dried ones keep better. And remember to reserve some or all of the browned bread crumbs to sprinkle over your cooked apples.

  • Apple Crisp.  Crumbled cookies are the way to go, particularly as it doesn't matter a bit if the cookies get broken in your food pack. Just be sure to carry them in a sealed plastic bag!

 

Who could ask for anything more? Three baked apple desserts, transformed and translated for the camp kitchen. And what paddler could resist such a dessert at the end of a long day on the water? Not me, at any rate. Unfortunately, I still haven't discovered a substitute for heavy cream or ice cream. Guess I'll just have to take a soft cooler….

When you're in the mood for a sweet treat, baked apple desserts are hard to beat. But if the fuss and bother of backcountry baking aren't to your taste, don't despair. You don't need an oven. You just need a camp stove (or an open fire). Then all it takes to master the art of bakeless baking is a little trial and error in your test kitchen.

Sounds good, doesn't it? So what are you waiting for? It may be the dead of winter in Canoe Country now, but it will be dinnertime in camp sooner than you think, and the first question on everyone's lips will probably be "What's for dessert?" When that day comes, you won't have to worry about a thing. You'll have a ready answer: "Dessert? Nothing much, really. Just the apple of my eye."

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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