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Alimentary, My Dear

Our Daily Bread

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

August 14, 2001

Bread is wonderful stuff, but it doesn't travel well. Supermarket loaves are mostly air, and after a few days crammed into one corner of a Duluth sack, even a dense pumpernickel will look a little battered. Worse yet, it will probably have started to grow a green beard of mold. That's not very appetizing. Still, the alternatives aren't very attractive, either. Crackers and crisp-breads aren't really good substitutes, and pancake breakfasts are too time-consuming for anything but rest-day camps.

The result? A craving that Farwell calls "bread hunger." It's not a problem on weekend trips, but by Day Four on most longer excursions both of us are already missing fresh bread.

Happily, it doesn't have to be this way. There's a whole world of breads that are easy to prepare on the move, and you don't have to be a baker's apprentice to make them. If you haven't done so already, why not give one of these a try on your next long trip? I'm betting your first bite of fresh, hot, fragrant bread ten days into a one-month trip will convince you that the effort was worthwhile.

You've never baked before? No problem. To begin with, take a lesson from our ancestors. Most bread nowadays is yeast bread, but it hasn't always been that way. The first bread was probably made from a simple grain-and-water paste, baked on a hot stone, and it's still with us. Modern-day descendents include the Mexican tortilla and the Scots oatcake, along with the Indian chapati. The grain is different in each case—corn (maize to Brits), oats, or wheat—but the formula's the same, and the resulting "flatbread" is both delicious and easy to make. It's versatile, too. It can be eaten as is, or used as a trencher (a sort of edible plate) for things like grilled fish, dal (lentils), or plain old pork and beans. Spread peanut butter or honey over it, or use it as a pizza crust. I like to put a little mustard on one half of a slab of flatbread, place thin-sliced cheddar cheese on the mustard, and then fold the remaining half of the bread back over on itself. The resulting flatbread sandwich is a little like a soft taco.

OK. How do you get started? It's not hard. To prepare flatbread you'll need a large (10") skillet. I use properly-seasoned cast iron. It's heavy, but it works so well that I don't mind the weight. Thick cast aluminum would probably be equally good, but I'm not a great fan of non-stick coatings for camp cookery. I don't like eating plastic. Be sure to keep a pot-holder or insulated glove handy. The handle of a cast iron skillet gets very hot, and third-degree burns will kill even the heartiest appetite! You'll also want a big pot or bowl in which to mix the dough. (Your largest cooking pot will work fine.) A small cutting board is useful, too—a clean paddle is good—and a work table is always nice to have. I often use the bottom of an upturned canoe or kayak. After giving it a quick rinse to wash off any sand or muck, I've got a larger workspace than I have at home.

You'll also need a source of heat, of course. You can bake bread over coals or you can use a camp stove, but if you're going to rely on an open fire, plan on getting plenty of practice first. You'll need it. A portable stove with a well-modulated flame gives you much better control, and you won't need to spend precious minutes scrounging for firewood, either. For this reason, and for others, as well—many popular wilderness campsites have long since been stripped of every scrap of usable wood, for example—most cooks will probably prefer a stove, but be sure that your skillet is adequately supported. You may find that you want to add a supplementary grill.

Now lets try our first bread!


Unleavened Flatbread
(makes four breads)

2 cups all-purpose flour*
(NB You'll need additional flour for dusting)
1 teaspoon salt
about 1 cup water

Begin this recipe at least 40 minutes before you plan to start baking.

Mix flour and salt thoroughly in a bowl. Add half the water, stir it into the flour, and then gradually add more as you mix the dough with a spoon (or your fingers). Use no more water than is necessary to form a dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Now knead your dough by lifting the edge farthest from you, folding it back over the remaining ball of dough, and pressing down with the heel of your hand. Then rotate the bowl a quarter-turn and do it again. Repeat this for about eight (8) minutes, or until you have a smooth, elastic ball of dough. If the dough is really sticky, dust it with flour. Don't overdo this, though, or your dough will be tough. Once your dough is ready, cover the mixing bowl with a damp cloth or a lid and allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes. This permits the dough to "relax" and makes it easier to work with later.

When you're ready to begin baking, place your skillet over a high flame on the stove (or over a bed of hot coals). The skillet must be very hot. There's no need to add oil.

Dust your hands with flour. Divide the dough into four roughly-equal pieces, either by pulling off hunks with your hands or by cutting the ball into quarters with a flour-dusted knife. Now pat the first quarter of dough into a flat cake with your palms, stretching the dough thin while retaining a roughly circular shape.

Next, dust the circular cake of raw dough with flour so it won't stick, and place it in the hot skillet. Let the bread cook about one (1) minute, or until brown and black spots appear on the under surface. (Lift the edge of the dough with a spatula to check.) The bread may also rise slightly. Now turn the flatbread over. Experienced cooks working at home sometimes use their fingers to do this, but there's no Emergency Room in the woods. Use your spatula! Then cook for an additional 30 seconds, or until the underside loses its "raw" appearance. Once it's done, remove the cooked bread to a warm place. (You can stack flatbreads like pancakes.) Start on the next one right away.

When all four breads are cooked, take the skillet off the heat and put it somewhere safe. Unless you want a skillet-sized hole in your canoe, do not set it down on your "work table"! Using a spatula or tongs, place each cooked flatbread directly over the stove's flame, or on a grill over the fire. Allow the bread to stay in the flame for only a second or two, and then turn it over. It may puff up like a pillow, but don't worry. It will deflate as soon as it's removed from the heat. Repeat with each of the other breads. They're now ready to serve. If you want to save them for later, allow them to cool completely and place them in a sealable plastic bag.

* For something a little different, substitute 1 cup of all-purpose flour and 1 cup of whole-wheat flour.


Does all this patting and kneading sound like too much trouble? Then try bannock. An ancient Scots staple, bannock was brought to North America by the Hudson Bay Company's Scottish "servants," and it's stayed on as a camp treat ever since. Unlike the fur-trade favorite, though, modern bannock is a soda-leavened bread—it will make pan-loaves that are almost two inches thick. When cut into triangles and slathered with butter or preserves, there's nothing more delicious. You can even make a bannock pizza. I'll bet George Simpson never had that!


Basic Bannock
(makes one 9" bannock)

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder (NOT plain baking soda!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
about 1 cup water
corn oil or other cooking oil

A single bannock will take about 25-30 minutes to prepare, including mixing time.

Preheat your skillet over hot coals or high flame. While it's heating, mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Next, make a hollow in the center of the mix and pour in 1/2 cup of water. Stir, using a spoon, and adding as much extra water as needed to form a stiff, easily-worked dough. (You may have to knead the dough with floured hands to make it relatively smooth.) When ready, lift the dough and pat it into a round cake about one (1) inch thick and eight (8) inches in diameter.

Pour enough corn oil into the hot skillet to coat the base of the pan. When the oil is hot enough to make a pea-sized lump of dough sizzle, place the pre-formed cake of bannock dough in the skillet and cover with a lid, immediately reducing the flame to medium-high. If cooking over coals, move the skillet to a cooler part of the fire. Bake till the bannock's bottom is golden brown. (Lift the edge with a spatula or fork to check. Don't be surprised if you see some dark flecks.) This usually takes about five (5) minutes. Once the bottom is done, turn the bannock over with your spatula and lower the heat still further. (Push the coals apart some if using an open fire.) Cover the skillet again, and cook till the bannock is done all the way through—another five (5) minutes longer should do the trick. You'll know your bannock is ready when a sliver of wood inserted into the center comes out clean, with no sticky dough clinging to it.

After the bannock is baked, remove the skillet from the heat and slice the bread into triangles before serving. If you want to keep it for later, take the bannock out of the skillet and allow it to cool completely before packing it away.

NB If you'd like to try a sweet bannock, mix some sugar into the dry ingredients, or fold raisins or other chopped dried fruit into the dough after blending in the water. You can also flavor your bannock with dried herbs or spices, mixing them into the dry ingredients before adding water. Toujours l'audace! Be bold!


Still too much trouble? Before you decide to get by with store-bought crackers, try biscuits made from Bisquick or another boxed mix.


Tamia's No-Sweat Skillet Biscuits
(makes nine biscuits)

1 rounded cup Bisquick or other biscuit mix
flour or biscuit mix for dusting
scant 1/2 cup water
corn oil or other cooking oil

Skillet biscuits will take about 20-25 minutes to prepare.

Oil your skillet and heat over a medium-high flame or moderately hot coals. While the skillet is heating, blend water into the biscuit mix until you have a soft, slightly sticky dough. Start with less water than you need and add more as the dough forms—it's much easier to add water than it is to remove it! Dust your hands and the surface of your cutting board with some flour or biscuit mix. Knead your dough lightly until it isn't quite so sticky, adding small amounts of biscuit flour as needed. Don't overdo the flour, though, or your biscuits will be tough.

Once the dough is ready, smooth it into a square about eight inches on a side. Cut the dough into three rows, and then divide the three rows into three columns, making nine biscuits in all. Pinch off a pea-sized lump of dough and drop it into the skillet. When the lump sizzles, the skillet is hot enough. Now separate the square biscuits and place them in the skillet, distributing them evenly. Do not allow biscuits to overlap. Cook till the biscuits are golden brown on the bottom. This will take about three (3) minutes. Then turn them over, cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and bake the biscuits until they're cooked through. This will take an additional five to ten minutes, depending on how hot the flame (or fire) is. Don't try to hurry things along with too much heat—you'll only char the outside, leaving the inside raw and gummy. Test for doneness by inserting a sliver into one of the biscuits. If the sliver comes out clean, your biscuits are done. Serve with butter, margarine, or cheese—or (if the larder permits) use them to make a great chicken-and-biscuit dinner.


There you have it: three pan-breads that don't need yeast. Unleavened bread and bannock are chewy, make no mistake, but if they're prepared properly, they'll be both delicious and digestible. No-sweat skillet biscuits made from a commercial biscuit mix aren't as robust as those made from scratch, but they're light, flavorful and a snap to make. Better yet, all three breadstuffs satisfy Farwell's "bread hunger." We both think these make pretty good additions to the recipe file.

Caution Try out any recipe before depending on it, first on your stove at home and then on your camp stove (or a bed of coals). Remember, too, that different flours behave differently. The amount of liquid you need will depend on your flour, as well as on the relative humidity. Don't be afraid to experiment. You can usually eat your mistakes!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go and whip up some biscuits for lunch….

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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