Alimentary, My Dear
Want a Better Bannock? Just Stuff It!
By Tamia Nelson
September 17, 2013
"Breaking bread" has long stood in for the act of sharing a meal. This imagery is as old as the Christian Gospels, if not much older. And it was certainly an apt description of meals around my family table when I was a girl. My grandparents — whose roots ran deep through the stony soil of Carpathia — always had a rye or pumpernickel loaf on the breadboard, with a long, serrated knife ready to hand to make cutting off a slice as easy as possible. Even today one of my favorite breakfasts is a well‑buttered slab of brown bread, and back when I was working the stones‑and‑bones trade, I sometimes lived for 10 days at a time on little more than hard rye and cheddar cheese.
But bread isn't ideal traveling fare for the peripatetic paddler. Even the densest loaves sprout mold after a few days in the pack. Or else they dry out, gradually acquiring the consistency — and mouth‑watering appeal — of concrete blocks. Either way, store‑bought bread isn't really up to the long haul, and it doesn't matter if it's an airy American sandwich loaf or a crusty artisan round. Nor are home‑baked loaves any better. They're fine for weekend getaways, to be sure, but that's pretty much the limit. Of course, there are many more or less satisfactory alternatives. Tortillas hold up well, and they're wonderfully versatile. You can also make skillet biscuits and unleavened flatbread in camp, as long as your trip schedule permits. And there's always that traditional Canoe Country breadstuff: bannock.
This icon of North Woods cuisine is most often baked in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, placed directly over a wood fire or camp stove, though it can be made in a reflector oven, too. The ingredient list is mercifully short, and so, too, is prep time: Cooking a bannock usually takes no longer than 10 minutes. And the result? A hearty, satisfyingly chewy loaf, quite capable of fueling a paddler's engine from daybreak to lunch break. If you've never tried bannock, therefore, you really should do so. I wrote about it at some length in an early column, "Our Daily Bread," and that can serve as an introduction. One important caveat: Give it the Test Kitchen treatment at home first, where alternatives are as close as your pantry shelves if you decide it's not to your taste.
Is that all there is to the bannock story? Maybe not. A recent encounter with another edible icon — the once‑common plowman's lunch known as the Bedfordshire clanger, described as an "elongated suet crust dumpling with a savory filling at one end and a sweet filling at the other" — got me wondering if bannock could be substituted for the suet crust to yield a similar all‑in‑one entrée. And that led me to consider …
All Sorts of Stuff
Or, more accurately, all sorts of stuffings. You won't find Bedfordshire clangers on many HyperMarket shelves today, but other examples of filled breadstuffs aren't exactly scarce. Jelly donuts. Danish pastries. Hot pockets. Calzones. Cheese‑stuffed yeast bread. All of these are as popular as they are delicious, and I couldn't see any reason why a bannock shouldn't also be wrapped around a tasty filling. So I headed off to my Test Kitchen to give it a try.
Since this was an experiment, I halved my standard bannock recipe. Here's the reduced list of ingredients:
- 1 cup all‑purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup water
- Canola oil to grease the skillet
I mixed the dough as usual. (I've given instructions in my original bannock article, so I won't repeat them here.) Once that was done, however, I let it "rest" for a minute while I collected the fillings. Resting the dough makes it more pliable and easier to shape. It also reduces the likelihood that you'll tear the doughy envelope when you stuff it.
In recognition of the role played by the Bedfordshire clanger in awakening my culinary muse, I decided to partition my bannock into savory and sweet halves. A quick search of the dark recesses of the fridge disclosed a small block of sharp cheddar cheese and a smidgeon of strawberry jam languishing in the bottom of a jar. Not wanting to see either of these go to waste, I drafted them into service as fillings.
First, though, I had to flatten the dough. That was easily done. I pressed it into a ½‑inch‑thick oval (Photo A in the panel below). If you're wondering why I chose this shape rather than another, I can give you no good answer. It just turned out that way. A circle of dough would have worked equally well, so long as the final pocket was large enough to contain the filling and small enough to fit in my skillet — with a little room to spare. (The bannock will puff up during cooking.) I could also have divided the dough into two masses, shaped each into a round, and finished the job by placing one round over the other. Whichever of these approaches appeals to you, however, it's best to eschew extremes when forming your dough. Don't press it too thin, or leave it too thick. A thin dough will be more likely to split or puncture, allowing the filling to ooze out and subsequently burn. (If this happens, despite your best efforts, just pinch‑press the hole or tear to close it before baking.) Conversely, if you leave the dough too thick, the bannock will burn before it bakes.
OK. We have our pressed, shaped dough. It's time to add the fillings. I intended to fold my bannock along a midships hinge‑line to create the pocket, so I divided one of the halves on either side of this imaginary line into two equally imaginary parts, each part consisting of one quarter of the whole. I then placed the cheese on one of these parts, leaving a generous unfilled edge. Next, I ladled the strawberry jam onto the other part. (You can see the result in Photo B.) Now all that remained for me to do was to fold the unencumbered half of the bannock over and press the edges firmly together (Photo C).
The time had come to bake my bannock. I used my little eight‑inch cast‑iron skillet, a veteran of many trips and several Test Kitchen trials. Could I have used my nonstick camping skillet? Sure. And that's what I'll use whenever I'm traveling light.
I began by warming the skillet on a medium‑high burner until the film of canola oil rippled from the heat. I then placed the bannock in the pan (Photo D) — carefully — and covered it (Photo E). All that was left to do now was wait, fighting the temptation to lift the cover until a full five minutes had passed. By that time my nose was telling me that the bannock was browning nicely, and a quick inspection revealed a golden brown crust, flecked with some darker spots. (This is normal in pan baking; it's also seen on the crusts of pizzeria pizzas. Photo F gives you an idea of what to expect.) Then I turned the bannock over — wielding my spatula with care, so as not to damage the crust — and covered the skillet again.
In less than five minutes the reverse of the bannock was also golden brown. To make sure that it had indeed cooked through, I resorted to a time‑honored trick, pricking the bannock with a toothpick — a sliver from a dry, downed limb will work equally well in camp — and inspecting it on removal. If traces of sticky, raw dough had adhered to it, I'd have known that I needed to bake the bannock for a longer time (at a lower heat, to avoid burning). But the toothpick bore nothing more than crumbs. All was well.
My "Bedfordshire" bannock was done to a turn. The moment of truth was at hand. Was my experiment a success? It certainly smelled good, but the proof, as they don't often say, is in the bannock. So after waiting a minute or two to let the fillings cool, I cut the bannock in half (Photo H) and sampled each portion in turn. The verdict? An unconditional thumbs up. Photo I shows the melted cheddar cheese half; Photo J, the strawberry jam half. Savory and sweet. And which was better? I can't say. Both were delicious. The bannock pocket was crusty on the outside, with a tender, chewy crumb. The only shortcoming lay in the scanty amount of jam. I had used just what remained in the open jar. Twice as much — but no more — would have been ideal.
With this success behind me, my thoughts turned to …
And I began to number the possibilities, often pairing savory and sweet. Of course, it's not necessary to do so, but the Bedfordshire clanger has a lot going for it. When time presses and cooking facilities are limited — and that's as true of a riverside camp as it is of a farm laborer's cottage — there's a lot to be said for wrapping your main course and your dessert in one tasty package.
Anyway, here are a few of my ideas, both pairings and singletons:
- Cheese (cook's choice) with mustard and chopped pickles (sweet or dill)
- Smoked turkey and Gouda cheese
- PastramI or corned beef and Swiss cheese
- Pepperoni and provolone
- Tuna and cheddar
- SPAM and marmalade
- Marinated sweet bell peppers and feta
- Spinach, grape tomatoes (fresh or dried), mozzarella, and dried oregano
- Sautéed mushrooms and garlic
- Olive oil (just a thin film), garlic, dried rosemary, cracked black pepper, and salt
- Peanut butter and jelly
- Chocolate chips, Nutella, and marshmallows
- Raisins, honey, and cinnamon
- Dried mixed fruits and nuts
- Chopped apple, cinnamon, and nutmeg
- Any favorite preserve(s)
There's no end to the possibilities. Mix and match to your heart's content. Jumble sweet and savory fillings together or partition them, as in the classic clanger. Just please yourself (and your companions). That's the cardinal rule of cooking, after all, whether you're at home or in camp. But do give stuffed bannocks a try. Before you head out to your own Test Kitchen, though, and at the risk of repeating myself now and then, here are some helpful hints, leavened with a few cautionary words:
- The dough should be firm but not tough, like good pizza dough.
- Don't overstuff your bannock, or the filling will ooze out when it's baked.
- Small is beautiful when you construct fillings. Large, thick parings or pieces will heat unevenly and melt poorly — if at all.
- While moist fillings are good, soggy fillings are not. They'll soak the dough and make a pulpy mess of the bannock.
- To avoid burning your bannock, and to insure that it's cooked through, heat it over a low flame. Owners of roarer‑burner stoves like our semi‑retired Svea 123 will have to exercise great care.
- Meat, poultry, and fish should all be thoroughly cooked before being used in fillings. They won't cook properly in the short time it takes for the dough to bake.
- Fight the urge to sneak a peek while the bannock is baking. Each time you lift the cover you let heat escape from your skillet "oven." So the more often you peek, the longer you'll have to wait to eat.
That's enough of my nattering, I think. What are you waiting for? Get stuffed!
Bannock has been a Canoe Country staple since the earliest days of the fur trade. It's easy to make and easy to eat, and it will fuel your engine for many hours of paddling. But modern canoeists and kayakers can now go the voyageurs and "gentlemen adventurers" one better, by the simple expedient of wrapping a bannock around a sweet or savory filling before cooking. So the next time a buddy tells you to "Stuff it!" don't get angry. Get out your skillet, instead. He (or she) may just be wangling an invitation to dinner at the water's edge.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Alimentary, My Dear," a collection of columns dealing with food and menu planning, including …
- "Our Daily Bread."
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