Alimentary, My Dear
Secrets From the Test Kitchen —
By Tamia Nelson
June 15, 2010
Everyone knows that food tastes better outdoors, and this is doubly true after a long day on the water or a marathon relay over a portage trail. At times like those, I find myself looking forward to my dinner with more than usual anticipation. It has to be hearty, of course. I need to top up my fuel tank. It also helps if the fare is tasty, though I have to admit there is some truth to the notion that hunger is the best of sauces. Still, nothing rounds off a long‑awaited meal better than a well‑chosen dessert. Even folks who don't often crave sweets find the prospect a lot more enticing at the end of a hard slog. Chocolate chip cookies fit the bill handily. So do brownies. And while store‑bought is definitely better than doing without, nothing beats a fresh‑baked treat, still warm from the oven. Unfortunately, ovens are in short supply in backcountry camps. But it's a rare paddler who doesn't have a skillet somewhere in her kitchen pack, and a skillet is all you need. Or so I reasoned when I first considered the problems confronting the backcountry baker. My next stop? The test kitchen, of course.
I tried my hand at making skillet chocolate chip cookies first, and when these proved a hit, I was emboldened to give stovetop skillet brownies a try. Why brownies? That's easy. If there's anything better than chewy chocolate chip cookies, it's gooey brownies. So I started thinking just how I could go about making acceptable skillet brownies. I wasn't the first to take up this challenge. Patricia J. Bell wrote about her own attempts in Roughing It Elegantly, describing how she cooked brownie mix in a skillet. The result wasn't exactly a brownie, though — more like a sticky fudge. I figured I'd try to go the whole hog, and make honest‑to‑goodness brownies. So I gathered my ingredients together and made…
Ready to Get Under Way
A box of Betty Crocker Fudge Brownie mix was the starting point. The package instructions call for mixing the dry contents with ¼ cup of water, 2/3 cup of vegetable oil, and two eggs (or three if you like your brownies really cakey — I don't), but I substituted canola oil for the vegetable oil and omitted the eggs.
The resulting batter had the consistency and texture of wet sand (see photo on right, above). I then divided it into two more or less equal portions. The first of these went into a lightly‑oiled, eight‑inch nonstick camp skillet — I preheated the oil before adding the batter — which I immediately covered and placed on a medium‑low burner.
Then, while the eggless batter baked, I added a single egg to the remaining portion. (Why only one egg, rather than two? Because I was using only half of the original mix.) As the photos below show, this yielded a much smoother batter. It went into a lightly oiled, preheated, eight‑inch cast‑iron skillet.
I covered the skillet before it, too, was settled on a medium‑low burner. Soon my test kitchen was filled with a rich, chocolaty aroma, but I resisted the temptation to peek. After 10 minutes, however, I could stand the suspense no longer. I lifted both lids to see how things were progressing. Here's what I saw:
The eggless mix is in the nonstick skillet in the left photo; the mix with the egg, in the cast‑iron skillet on the right. The edges of the eggy brownie were setting up nicely, and I thought the same was true of the eggless mix. But when I slid a spoon along the margin, the eggless batter proved to be a formless, unconsolidated mass, more like a thick chocolate sauce than a baked treat. The egg‑enriched brownie was doing fine, though. It had a dense, cakey consistency. That said, the jury was still out. I re‑covered the skillets and let both brownies bake for another five minutes.
After the additional time had elapsed, I checked again. Lifting the edge of the eggy brownie with a spatula, I saw evidence that the underside was starting to burn, but a toothpick pushed into the center still came out covered in fudgy goo. Emergency action was called for, so I tried turning the half‑baked brownie, tipping the skillet to make the maneuver easier.
The result wasn't an unqualified success. The brownie cake broke into three pieces. But I didn't worry overmuch about losing points for presentation. I just turned each piece over individually, covered the skillet, and lowered the heat further. After all, my object was to cook the brownies through without burning. This mattered far more than their appearance.
Next, I shifted my attention to the eggless brownie. Things didn't look promising. As Patricia Bell had noted in her book, the eggless batter was more like fudge than anything else. Much of the oil had cooked out of the mix and now floated around the edge. I didn't see any point in continuing down so unpromising a path. Instead, I spooned the excess oil into a Sierra Club cup and slid the fudgy residue onto a plate.
But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Despite its unprepossessing appearance, my eggless fudge smelled delicious. I spooned some up and tasted it. It was delicious. It was also very hot. Further taste tests would have to wait. I left it to cool. Half an hour later, the fudge had gelled into something more like toffee than anything else. It certainly wasn't a brownie, but it was chocolaty and very good, though I chewed carefully. You'd need to exercise care if your dental work were at all suspect. In fact, if you're tempted to try eggless brownies yourself in the backcountry, and if your teeth are in less than perfect shape, you'd be well advised to have a dental first‑aid kit in your pack. Losing a filling or crown when you're a hundred miles from your take‑out is not a recipe for a good time.
And it's not a gamble that appeals to me. All my hopes now rested on the egg‑enriched batter. After cooking the flip side for five more minutes, I repeated the toothpick test. This time around, only a bit of moist crumb clung to the sliver of wood. My brownies were done. I slid the spatula beneath the slabs and tilted the skillet. The brownies slid off onto a plate, none the worse for the experience, even if the result did look a bit like a chocolate pancake. No matter. I tasted a piece. It exceeded my fondest hopes. Chewy, chocolaty, and toothsome. To be sure, my brownies had burned in places, but not to the point of charring, and this didn't detract from their flavor or texture. I had a winner!
The Bottom Line?
Do stovetop brownies have a place in my camping cookbook? Yes. Up to a point. Eggs make or break the deal. Leaving the egg out of the batter gives you toffee, not brownies, and while the toffee tasted fine, it wasn't what I was looking for.
Luckily, whole fresh eggs travel well on weekend trips — if kept cool and protected against hard knocks, that is — while dried, powdered eggs can go the distance on longer treks. And skillet brownies made with eggs are everything you'd want in a brownie. Try them in your test kitchen at home first, though. Different mixes will probably perform differently, and your skillet may not lend itself as well to stovetop baking as my old cast‑iron warhorse. Timing is everything, too. My test batch took nearly 20 minutes to bake, and baking is a full‑time job. Don't plan on doing anything else until you slide the finished product out of the pan.
Is it worth the trouble? I think so, at least as an occasional treat — a pick‑me up after ten hours battling a relentless headwind, say, or something for a rest day in camp. So why not give stovetop brownies a try? And be sure to let me know how they turn out.
After my success with skillet chocolate chip cookies, I was ready for another challenge. So I tried my hand at making stovetop brownies. It proved a bit more difficult than I'd expected, but the experiment turned out well in the end, and that's what really matters. The list of ingredients is short and to the point. All you need are a box of brownie mix, a little vegetable oil, a splash of clean water, and a couple of eggs — or their equivalent in dried, powdered egg. Then you're good to go. What worked for me will work for you, too. Try it in your kitchen at home first, then take it out on the trail. Dessert in camp never tasted so good!
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