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Alimentary, My Dear

Just Desserts

By Tamia Nelson

November 19, 2002

Bumping into Sweet Tooth—don't confuse him with Bigfoot!—is always an experience to remember, but doing so in the backcountry can be harrowing. Woe betide the camp cook who doesn't have something tasty to throw Sweetie's way. He's got one hell of an appetite!

You've probably learned this already. Sweeties aren't rare. And if you ever find yourself in the same boat with one, don't imagine that hard candy, GORP, or chunks of chocolate bar will quell his cravings for long. They won't. (For convenience' sake, I'm calling Sweetie "he." In my experience most are male, but that doesn't mean there aren't lady Sweeties, too. You've been warned.)

It's a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Take Farwell. Most of the time, he's a pretty good guy. Even-tempered. Reasonable. Modest. But every so often, he morphs into Sweet Tooth. Mercurial. Irascible. Insatiable. It's not a sight for the faint of heart. At home, this isn't a problem. I've got an arsenal of treats ready to tame the beast. But back of beyond? That's a whole 'nother story. Fresh-baked breadstuffs sometimes work as a sort of prophylaxis—but not always. And once a Sweet Tooth is on the prowl, nothing but a real dessert will quiet him down.

Of course Farwell's not the worst. Some Sweeties require daily offerings to keep them at bay. That's a nightmare for even the best-prepared backcountry cook. Truth be told, there's a little bit of Sweet Tooth in us all. I don't mind the occasional dessert myself, in fact. Apple crisp always goes down well, and I can't resist anything made with berries. Berry pie, berry cheesecake, berry gelatin, berry juice, berries eaten out of hand…they're all berry nice, thank you you berry much. But I'm conflicted. I like to leave the wild berries for the birds and other creatures with no access to supermarkets. So I don't often have berry treats under way. And in camp, especially after a long slog through a cold drizzle, just putting supper together is enough of a job. Foraging is usually out of the question, as is making anything as complicated as a pie.

Let me put you in the picture. It's evening. You've paddled fifteen miles against a constant headwind, and carried your worldly goods across three portages, the shortest of which went through half a mile of logging slash. Despite everything, though, you made it to the place where you planned to spend the night. Everyone else is catching five or writing in their journals. But not you. You're the cook. Your day is just beginning.

First, there's a fire to make, or a stove to tame. (Where is the vent-cleaner?) Then you've got to heat a big a pot of water for the inevitable clean-up, and guard it against any would-be hair-washers. (Chances are good that before the evening is out, you'll be reminded of the scene at the well in Lawrence of Arabia. "This is my water, infidel. Keep away! Or else.")

And that's not all. One of the food bags is missing—You didn't leave it behind at the start of the first portage, did you?—and another apparently developed a pin-hole leak. It's half full of water. Then the mosquitoes come out to play. Meanwhile, the rice is burning and the chicken stew is bubbling over. A spruce knot explodes, sending a hot coal down your back. It's turning out to be one of those days. But you're up to every challenge. In less than an hour, just as the sun kisses the tops of the tall pines to the northwest, you're serving up supper. Now it's your turn to kick back, right?

Don't count on it. Five minutes later, everybody's scraping the bottom of his bowl and looking around hungrily. So you dish out second helpings. Another five minutes passes. The gang seems satisfied, but you still can't relax. There's something in the air. Then it happens. One of your companions catches your eye. His lips are drawn back in a wolf-like grimace. You know what's coming even before the words are out of his mouth: "What's for dessert?"

Your worst fears are realized. Sweet Tooth is on the loose.

At this point, you've got only two choices. Overwhelming force is one. Pitch Sweetie into the river right away, before he gets his full strength. And hope that his fate discourages anyone else from following his example. If this doesn't appeal—maybe you're too tired—you have to go the diplomatic route: just give Sweet Tooth what he's asking for. It's a policy of appeasement, to be sure, but history notwithstanding, appeasement is sometimes the most sensible course, particularly when the cook gets to share in the spoils.

If you want to exercise this second option, however, you've got to be ready. Serious foodies who anticipate many encounters with Sweet Tooth will need to pack a lot of iron (or aluminum), including some sort of portable oven. Whichever one you choose—reflector, Dutch, Coleman or Outback—be sure to practice using it at home first. You won't be sorry you did!

Does that sound like too much trouble? No problem. Less ambitious cooks can make do with a skillet, but even this won't eliminate all the difficulties. You still have to decide what to make. So let's begin with those desserts you can put together with ingredients you're likely to have along anyway—bannock and fruit. If you haven't learned how to make bannock yet, take a look at "Our Daily Bread." You'll be pleasantly surprised how easy it is. To transform a bannock into a dessert, just stir sugar into the dry ingredients, along with raisins or chopped dried fruit. Then add ground cinnamon and nutmeg (or ground cardamom) to taste, and serve with honey, maple syrup, margarine, or apple butter. Sweet Tooth will thank you.

And speaking of dried fruit, it's not only a great base for a dessert (and a wonderful addition to other meals, as well), but it's also easy to find in the smallest grocery store. Start it cooking while you're preparing your main dish. Place dried fruit in a pot, add just enough water to cover it to a depth of half an inch or so, and simmer till the fruit is soft. Then ladle it out into bowls or cups, sprinkle chopped candied ginger over the top, and garnish with a cinnamon stick. If you think the gang won't like the sound of "stewed fruit," call it fruit compote instead. Whatever you call it, it's guaranteed to bring Sweet Tooth to heel.

Want something even easier? Help is as close as the nearest Hypermart. Its aisles are a treasure trove of possibilities, from ready-to-eat granola or—my favorite—fig bars, to boxed mixes that promise to yield such treats as crispy desserts, puddings and cheesecakes. All of these look good in the pictures on the box, and some taste almost as good as they look. But read the directions first! You won't have a refrigerator or a blender in a riverside camp. And whenever you mix up an uncooked dessert, be sure the water you use is safe to drink. There are worse threats in the backcountry than Sweet Tooth!

Most days, though, you'll want something that doesn't require a lot of fussing, let alone a baking session. That's where ready-to-eat treats come in handy. You can buy them—or you can make them at home and take them with you. When the time comes that you want to try rolling your own, here's how:

Magnum Oatmeal Bars
(makes approximately 24 bars)

1 cup (2 sticks) margarine, room temperature
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  (either light or dark brown)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (baking soda,
  NOT baking powder)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups uncooked old-fashioned OR quick-cooking
   oatmeal (NOT instant oatmeal)
1 cup chopped mixed dried fruits (see Note below)
1/2 cup chopped walnut meats

NB You'll also need two large mixing bowls and a 9" x 13" baking pan that's at least 2" deep.

An hour or more before you plan to start baking, place the margarine in a large bowl and leave it on the kitchen counter to come to room temperature. While you're waiting, assemble the other ingredients.

When all is in readiness, move one rack to the center of your oven, and pre-heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. As the oven warms, use a big wooden spoon to combine ("beat") the softened margarine, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in one of the two bowls. After this mixture has been beaten to the consistency of a sandy paste, beat in the eggs and vanilla extract and blend thoroughly. Then set the first bowl aside.

Now place the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in the second bowl, and stir with a clean fork. Once the contents are well mixed, pour them into the first bowl, and beat thoroughly. Next, stir in the oatmeal, dried fruit, and walnut pieces. Again, beat well. Soon you'll have a thick batter. Spoon this out into your baking pan—there's no need to grease the pan—and spread it as evenly as you can, being sure that there are no gaps between the batter and the walls of the pan. Use the back of a wetted soup spoon to shove the batter around.

Finally, place the pan in the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Check after 15 minutes. If the batter's not browning evenly, rotate the pan 180 degrees. Then check again at 30 minutes, and every five minutes thereafter. As soon as the top is a uniform golden brown, you're done. Turn off the oven and remove the pan, setting it on top of the stove to cool. (Use pot-holders or oven mitts!)

After the pan has cooled for a few minutes, cut your dessert into bars with a sharp knife. Run the blade of the knife around the perimeter, too. Now let your newly-baked oatmeal bars cool completely. Keep a weather eye out for Sweetie while the bars are cooling. He's not just a backcountry menace.

Once the bars have cooled down to room temperature, remove them from the pan with a spatula, and stack them on a cookie rack (if you have one) or on paper-towel-covered plates. Separate the individual bars and allow them to cool some more. If you pack oatmeal bars when they're even a little bit warm, they'll soon become soggy. When you're certain that they're as cool as they're going to get, store the bars in sturdy plastic bags, being sure to expel all the air before closing up. Later, when it's time to pack your food bag, protect the bars from crushing if you can, but don't worry too much about it—the bars will taste great even if they're bent out of shape. If you won't be heading out in the next few days, freeze the bars to keep them fresh.

Note  You can use whatever dried fruit you like, provided that it's not too large (a quarter of an inch is about right). I sometimes use raisins or chopped dried apricots, and sometimes mix different dried fruits together. If you're feeling adventurous, use chocolate chips instead of—or in addition to—fruit. This is too much of a good thing for my taste, but Sweet Tooth will probably like it! He thinks too much of a good thing is wonderful.

Mission accomplished. There's a lot of wild country out there, and you never know who (or what) you'll run into. The secret lies in being prepared—and in always using enough gun. So the next time Sweet Tooth grins his hungry grin and asks "What's for dessert?" don't panic. Just reach into your food bag, grab a fistful of magnum oatmeal bars, and invite him to make your day. I'm here to tell you that he won't stand a chance. Good eating!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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