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Alimentary, My Dear

More Bannock Bounty: Cinnamon Spirals

By Tamia Nelson Sweet Dreams!

December 17, 2013

Writing is usually thought of as a solitary activity: the image of the lone writer in an unheated garret, banging away on a battered Remington typewriter, still strikes a chord, though nowadays the garret has been replaced by an unsociable corner table in a coffee shop or a booth in a deserted roadside eatery, and a laptop has taken the place of the typewriter. But even when tricked out in modern dress, this venerable trope is incomplete. The writer behind the keyboard is only one half of the story. The writer's readers, individually and collectively, make up the other half.

In short, an article like this is just a conversation opener, particularly when the subject is food. A case in point: When I followed up a recent column on new ways to use bannock — new to me, at any rate — with a description of calzone‑like bannock pizzas, I figured I'd exhausted the subject. But I was wrong. Reader Greg Morgus had been doing some experimenting of his own, and he wrote to tell me what he'd learned. One letter then led to another, with entirely predictable results. Before long I was trying my hand at making …

Bannock Cinnamon Spirals

And that's today's topic. But first, for anyone who's just joined the conversation, so to speak, here's a brief reprise of my earlier articles. Bannock is a hardy breadstuff with a very short list of ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder, and water. It came to Canoe Country by way of Scotland — many of the Hudson's Bay Company's tireless "servants" were Scots — and it's ideally suited to the needs of any backcountry cook who has to satisfy big appetites. A covered skillet is all the oven you'll need.

Traditionally, bannock was served like any other bread, cut up into slabs and then slathered with whatever topping the hungry paddler craved. Alternatively, it could be used to soak up a pemmican hoosh straight from the kettle. But I'd got hold of the idea of wrapping the bannock dough around sweet and savory fillings before baking. Taking my inspiration from the Bedfordshire clanger (a portable all‑in‑one meal that once sustained farm laborers during workdays that extended from dawn to dusk), I'd experimented with what I called "bannock pockets." And my experiments bore fruit.

But I wasn't the only paddler to boldly go where few camp cooks had gone before. Greg was hard at work in his Test Kitchen, too. Here's how he described his labors:

I went to work on the bannock cinnamon calzone. I had not been satisfied with my attempts to make a cinnamon dessert bannock by swirling a cinnamon/sugar/butter slurry into bannock dough, like a swirl ice cream, so I went to the pocket idea.

I added about two tablespoons of agave sweetener to the dough, and since I was at home, a generous teaspoon of vanilla. I am thinking that I won't be making icing for these puppies in the outback, so having the dough on the sweet side helps make it a dessert.

I used the dough recipe in your stuffed-pizza instructions, and my filling was...

  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon flour

These are well mixed together and applied to the loaded half of the calzone. The other half of the calzone was well buttered before I folded and pressed the pocket closed. (A tip, not essential: Wet the loaded side with a few drops of milk.) Then I cooked it.

One thing I experimented with was to make two of these calzones, and then alter the order of the bake between them. In my opinion (it's free advice, and worth every penny), it is better to bake the [internally] buttered side down first. I felt that the filling was smoother and better flavored. I tried them side by side, and the difference is small. I ate them both.

Is your mouth watering? Mine was. Greg's bannock cinnamon calzone recipe made me want to bake a batch right away. And I'd have done so if I hadn't already been working off the unlooked‑for increase in my deadweight tonnage that my earlier bannock trial had engendered. (It's vital to try out any prospective camp recipe at home before relying on it. But you'd better be ready to ratchet up your activity level afterward.) Still, I was intrigued by Greg's reference to his failed cinnamon swirl bannock. Could cinnamon spirals — classic cinnamon rolls, in other words — be made from bannock dough? It seemed possible.

I suggested this to Greg, and asked his opinion. He replied:

I have not tried to just make a cinnamon roll with bannock much as I would with a yeast sweet dough. You might be onto something. If you do make rolls, brushing milk on the dough before adding the cinnamon mixture will help (a little) to keep the mixture from leaking onto the bottom of the pan. Good luck. My wife has banned bannock experiments for a while. She is trying to save me from my ever-expanding waistline.

It seems I wasn't alone in fighting the battle of bulge. But some sacrifices have to be made in the pursuit of knowledge, and when a cold norther blew through, sending temperatures plummeting into the single digits (that's Fahrenheit, not Celsius), I figured the time had come. So I girded my loins — a denim shop apron serves as my cuirass on culinary expeditions — and headed out to the Test Kitchen, where I hoped to learn …

How to Make Cinnamon Spirals on a Stovetop

Because I didn't want to waste ingredients if the experiment miscarried, I used half quantities in making up my bannock. (You'll find the full recipe in "Our Daily Bread.") And luck was with me. A half measure of bannock dough made just enough rolls to fill a small camping skillet — and no more. Here, then, is the list of ingredients I used (the sugar was the only addition to the traditional recipe):

  • 1 cup all‑purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 heaping tablespoon granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup water

Since I wanted to replicate conventional cinnamon rolls as closely as possible, notwithstanding the constraints imposed by a camp kitchen, I mixed the bannock dough to a consistency that allowed me to form a ½‑inch‑thick rectangle. (see Photo A below). My fingers — they're the slug‑like appendages just visible on the far left — provide scale.

Forming Up

Next, I gently daubed ersatz butter onto the doughy flat, being careful to avoid stretching or tearing it. (You can see this in Photo B above, though thanks to the indifferent lighting in my Test Kitchen, you'll have to look closely.) I took this approach rather than adopting Greg's suggestion that I brush the dough with milk, thinking that the buttery flavor might enhance the final product. The ersatz butter — I've been using something calling itself Smart Balance — also provides a sticky surface to help anchor the brown sugar and cinnamon. In all, I used about two tablespoons of brown sugar and a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon, along with some raisins and chopped walnuts. These were spread more or less evenly over the buttered surface of the dough, except for a ½‑inch border on three sides and a slightly wider margin on the bottom. Photo C shows the result.

Now came the trickiest bit — rolling the dough so as to encapsulate the sweet filling. (This is what gives conventional cinnamon rolls their spiral structure.) I used a small steel spatula to goad the dough into doing my bidding (Photo D below), an exercise made somewhat easier by my decision to flour the cutting board beforehand. Once I'd finished, I smoothed the long seam closed and sliced the resulting log into sections (Photo E).

The curtain was about to go up on the final act in the drama. I put my little nonstick skillet over medium‑high heat and melted a pat of real butter. I'd planned to place the rolls in the pan with the cut surfaces down. But now I was having second thoughts. Would this encourage the filling to ooze out, I wondered? I thought it might. I therefore changed the game plan, placing the rolls in the pan on their sides (see Photo F). Then I covered the skillet and crossed my fingers.

On a Roll

I didn't have long to wait. After four minutes I lifted the lid to see how things were progressing. Photo G (below) shows how the rolls had puffed up. I quickly turned them over — using a silicon spatula to spare the skillet's nonstick surface — and re‑covered the pan. Photo H shows how nicely the first side had browned. The second side took only a minute more, though it browned less well. No matter. The rolls were done. How could I tell? A gentle push with my fingertips told me all I needed to know, but if I'd felt the need for something more objective, I could always have resorted to the toothpick test. (If the toothpick comes out clean, you're good to go. What's that? You say there aren't any toothpicks in your pack? No problem. A splinter shaved from a dry hardwood billet works just as well.)

There was no reason for further delay. I scooped the rolls out of the pan and put them on a trivet to cool. Photo I records the moment.

In the Pan

I was getting impatient to see if they tasted as good as they looked. But what about the sugary glaze? That's the hallmark of the conventional cinnamon roll, after all. And while I wouldn't often go to the trouble of making a glaze in camp, you never know when a rest day will prove rainy. There are those long autumn nights to think about, too.

In any case, the list of ingredients for a glaze is short: whisky (the real thing, you understand, not whiskey with an "e," though be sure you save your single malt for sipping) and powdered confectioner's sugar (see Photo J). Not keen on whisky? Then substitute water, milk, cream, or juice — just about any liquid that strikes your fancy, in fact, so long as you adhere to a 1:3 ratio of liquid to sugar by volume. Simply add the liquid to the powdered sugar and stir until all the lumps are gone (Photo K). Is the resulting sweet slurry too thick? Then add more liquid. Too thin? Add more sugar. Now pour the glaze over the rolls (Photo L).

The Icing on the Cake

At this point, common sense dictates that you wait until the rolls have cooled and the glaze has hardened to a glossy white. But I was too impatient to wait, and anyway, I didn't think it would make the slightest difference to the flavor.

Cook's Reward

It didn't. My verdict? The bannock cinnamon spirals were a complete success. To be sure, the spiral effect was less pronounced than it would be in the real thing, but the texture and flavor were very, very close. And it only took five minutes of stovetop baking to go from dough to plate.

That said, in any Test Kitchen trial there are always …

Lessons to be Learned

And this was no exception. In particular, it prompted me to revisit one of the Great Controversies:

Is a Cast‑Iron Skillet Better Than Nonstick?  It's a subject I've touched on before, and while I have to confess to a stubborn preference for cast iron, in this instance I'd have to give the edge to my little nonstick pan. Cinnamon spirals are sticky. That said, well‑greased cast iron should also prove equal to the task, though I'd use canola oil rather than butter in the pan.

The trial also drove home …

The Importance of Prior Planning.  The size of your skillet will determine how large a batch of rolls you can bake. One cup of flour will yield all the rolls that a small seven‑ or eight‑inch pan can hold. If you use two cups, you'll have to do your baking in batches — or get a larger skillet. Do not crowd the rolls in the pan. They swell dramatically as they heat, and if they don't have enough elbow room they'll steam rather than bake.

It's also important to …

Think Thin when rolling the dough into shape. But not too thin. If your dough is too thick, the rolls will likely burn before they've cooked through. If it's too thin, however, the spirals might fall apart when you lift them from the pan. Neither outcome would be a happy one.

Now let's move on from thin to fat, specifically …

The Fat in the Pan.  I chose butter for its flavor, but you can use whatever fat or oil is most to your taste. Temperatures in the pan shouldn't rise high enough to make even extra virgin olive oil smoke.

And speaking of taste, …

Don't Sweat the Sweet Stuff.  Following Greg's lead, I added granulated sugar to the basic bannock dough to sweeten it and promote crisping. You can add whatever sweetener you like, or none at all. A little cinnamon or other seasoning mixed right into the dough would be worth trying, too.

While we're on the subject of experimentation, let's look at some …

Variations on the Spiral Theme

The range of possible fillings is as long as your imagination can make it. Here are a few that spring to mind:

Apple Pie.  Fine‑chopped apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar.

Figgy Cheese.  Chopped dried figs, blue cheese chunks, and maple sugar.

Power Fruit.  Smear your favorite fruit preserves onto the dough, then garnish with dried cranberries, dried cherries, and dried blueberries. You might even want to add small pieces of candied ginger.

Sweet and Savory Combo.  Cooked bacon bits, pecan pieces, and brown or maple sugar.

S'more, Please!  A new take on a campfire cliché, this features chocolate morsels and small marshmallows. Not sweet enough? Then add a sprinkle of cocoa powder and some crushed graham crackers before you roll up the dough.

Mind you, I haven't tried any of these alternative spirals yet. I've still got that deadweight tonnage problem to deal with. But it will be many months before General Winter retreats from New York's frozen Borderlands. So there'll be plenty of time for more Test Kitchen trials. And if you get around to this before I do, please let me know how things worked out.

Soup's On!

Bannock has come a long way from its humble, hardscrabble beginnings. But it's still at home in the backcountry. Few menu items do more with less, and I've been exploring bannock's possibilities for years now. Thanks to intrepid (and inventive) experimenters like Greg Morgus, however, I'm not done yet. In the meantime, why not join me in sampling this latest bannock bounty? But be prepared to let your belt out another notch afterward. You've been warned!


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