Alimentary, My Dear
Bannock Pocket Pizza
By Tamia Nelson
October 15, 2013
Paddlers have a love‑hate relationship with food. We like to eat. In fact, we have to eat. No engine can run without fuel, and our fuel is food. But we often begrudge the time spent preparing meals. There's just so much else we'd rather be doing. That said, those same meals are frequently the high points of the paddler's day — chances to relax with friends and spin a few yarns.
This already fraught situation is further complicated by logistical problems. The longer the trip, the harder it is to produce meals resembling those we enjoy at home. Fresh fruit and vegetables, liquid milk, and meat that's neither canned nor dried… These are impossible dreams on any trip much longer than a long weekend. To be sure, fishing and foraging offer some hope of occasional relief, but they both take time, and neither can be counted on to yield much in the way of tangible, edible reward. Moreover, any wild harvest is made at the expense of the backcountry's furred and feathered residents, and having missed more than a few meals in my own life, that doesn't sit very well with me. I figure I'm a guest at the permanent residents' table, and no thoughtful guest sets out to strip her hosts' pantry of its carefully husbanded stores.
The result? We paddlers often have to make do with substitutes for familiar dishes, assembled from staple foods that travel well. As it happens, one of the meals I miss most when paddling is pizza. And as regular readers of this column will know, I've had some success in devising portable pizzas to assuage my craving. But that doesn't mean I've closed my mind to new approaches to the problem. In fact, I recently had reason to …
Reinvent This Old Favorite Yet Again
I suppose we should begin by agreeing what we mean by pizza. It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer definitively, however, so I'll just tell you my desiderata: (1) a crust that's either thin and crispy or thick and chewy, (2) a sauce made from crushed tomatoes, seasoned with fresh garlic, ground black pepper and oregano, and (3) a topping of melted mozzarella and browned, grated Parmesan. If the finished product is garnished with sliced mushrooms, diced green bell peppers, and shaved provolone — and given a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil — so much the better.
With this ideal in mind, the gold standard in camp pizza is probably pan pizza baked in a cast‑iron skillet. But my skillet pizza recipe requires that I make a yeast dough from scratch, and this is always a bit of nuisance in camp. Which is where my Pizza to Go came in. It uses a packaged pizza‑crust mix. All I have to do is add water and then shape the resulting dough to form the crust. And if that's still too much trouble, tortillas can be substituted for a baked crust, as can English muffins — and English muffin pizza is probably the easiest camp pizza of all.
Having already come up with four ways to make pizza in camp, you'd think I'd be satisfied, but I can never resist a challenge, and my experiments with stuffed bannock — described in a recent column — offered just that. Here's the executive summary of the earlier article:
Bannock has been a Canoe Country and North Woods 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 hard paddling. But now you can go the voyageurs and "gentlemen adventurers" one better, by the simple expedient of wrapping a bannock around sweet or savory fillings before cooking.
There was one filling that I failed to test, however — the ingredients I normally use for topping pizza. Needless to say, I wasn't going to allow this inexcusable oversight to stand uncorrected. And I didn't.
Now here's how …
You Can Do It, Too
If your food pack boasts flour, baking powder, and salt, you've got the makings of bannock. Just add water, an ingredient that's seldom in short supply in Canoe Country. (To be on the safe side, treat the water first.) Then, if you also add cheese and a small can or shelf‑stable pack of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce, you're well on your way to establishing a backcountry pizzeria. You could bake some bannock and simply use it as the bottom crust for a stove‑top pan pizza, of course. But it's easier and quicker to fold the dough around your pizza "toppings" and then cook the resulting pocket pizza in a skillet. In fact, why not make two while you're at it? That way you'll have enough to feed as many as four paddlers.
Does this sounds like something you've eaten before? It should. It's not far removed from the calzone you'll find on the menu of most pizzerias. But my pocket pizzas are made with bannock dough, leavened with baking powder, rather than yeast dough, and they're baked in a skillet atop a stove or cooking fire, rather than in an oven. (Pizza ovens are hard to come by in riverside camps, after all.)
OK. Let's get cooking. Here's the list of ingredients for two bannock pockets, each measuring about seven inches on the hinge:
- 2 cups all‑purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water
Mix the dough as described in my original bannock article. Once that's done, allow it to "rest" for a minute. Resting the dough makes it more pliable and easier to shape. It also reduces the likelihood you'll tear the doughy envelope when you stuff it.
And while your dough is taking it easy, collect the remaining ingredients and place them within reach:
- Tomato sauce (or pesto, if you prefer)
- Grated, cubed, or sliced cheese (I use cubes of mozzarella, slices of provolone, and grated Parmesan)
- Dried herbs (your choice; I like oregano)
- Chopped fresh garlic (optional)
- Ground black pepper (optional)
- Meat or vegetables (optional; I'll take mushrooms and green bell peppers)
- Olive oil (optional, but use extra virgin if you're going to the trouble)
- Sufficient canola oil to grease the skillet
A few words about the filling: Don't use too much, or your pockets will burst their seams. Cut ingredients small and slice them thin, too. When you're making pocket pizzas, small is beautiful. And if you use meat, be sure to cook it first.
We're ready to roll. Begin by dividing the bannock dough into two equal halves, then shape each half into a round or an oval, about six or seven inches wide at the (imaginary) hinge line. (The photos accompanying this article will give you an idea of the size and shape.) Spread the tomato sauce evenly over the doughy rounds, stopping short of the edges to leave room for crimping. (See Photo A below.) Add the seasonings next: In my Test Kitchen trial I used oregano, chopped garlic, and ground black pepper.
Now add anything else you fancy. I placed a thinly sliced mushroom on one‑half of one pocket and some shaved green bell pepper on the other, then I topped these off with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, a few small cubes of mozzarella, and a wafer‑thin slice of provolone (Photo B). I didn't bother with the olive oil, but if I had added it, it would have been no more than a drizzle. Photo C shows the pizzas at this stage in the proceedings. Each is now ready to be formed into a pocket. Simply fold the less burdened half over the half sporting the veggies and cheese. Easy does it! You don't want to tear the dough. (If any small tears do appear, however, just pinch them closed.) Once you've crimped the edges all around to seal the pockets, your pizzas' next stop is the pan.
My 10‑inch cast‑iron skillet did the honors, and I'd sized my pocket pizzas so that I could cook both at once, placing them in the skillet side‑by‑side and hinge‑to‑hinge. The smaller eight‑inch cast‑iron skillet or my newer nonstick lightweight would also do the job, but these would require that I cook only one pocket at a time. In the interests of efficiency, I opted for the larger pan.
Whatever skillet you use, drizzle a little canola oil into it and heat over a medium‑high flame or moderately hot fire until the oil shimmers, then transfer the pocket pizza(s) to the pan, using a floured spatula. (Photo D in the panel below.) Now cover the skillet and resist the temptation to lift the lid until four minutes have passed.
Your nose will probably tell you when the bottom has browned, but if four minutes have come and gone, it's time to take a look. Is the underside of the pocket pizza golden brown? Has the superstructure ballooned up until it looks like a puff pastry (Photo E above)? If so, turn the pockets over — carefully! (Close inspection of the photo will reveal that my pockets had developed several tiny holes. But that didn't make any difference.) Keep the skillet on the flame until the second side is brown, then remove it from the heat. To make sure that the pizza pockets are done, use the toothpick test. (A sliver of dry wood works just as well.) Prick the pocket with the toothpick. Remove. If it comes out clean or crumby, all is well. If there are blobs of raw dough clinging to it, however, put the skillet back on the fire for a minute or so.
And that's that. Let your pocket pizzas cool before you dig in, and use this time to admire your handiwork. You can see how my pocket pizzas turned out in Photo F. I'd left them a little too long — the charring is evidence of that — but this didn't adversely affect the flavor. And just how did they taste? Well, you'll have to make your own to find out, but here's a close‑up to whet your appetite:
Mushroom to the left; pepper to the right. Both were delicious. In fact, they were far too good to be reserved for camp meals. Care to guess what we're having for dinner tonight?
Bannock may be traditional Canoe Country fare, but it has possibilities undreamt of by the sturdy Scots who first carried it across the Pond to North America. We've already seen how it lends itself to eat‑out‑of‑hand backcountry meals, but now I've taken the idea one step further. Pocket pizza, anyone? For a lot of pizza‑loving paddlers, I'll bet the answer is a resounding yes.
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