Thursday, September 04, 2008

Alpine Bread

Baking in the Back Country
My British friend, Ian House, recounts one special breakfast on his journey through Desolation Wilderness
One Sunday Morning In August
I'm awake. It's a little after 6am...
I'm up early because I challenged myself to make bread this weekend, having put it off last night (the light was fading). At this early hour, fresh bread for breakfast doesn't seem to be the great plan it was last night. Still, I am driven, and this quest is on my 'to-do' list of challenges for this season.

Bleary eyed, I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, unzip the tent and face the world outside.

Tahoe's high land is a wonderful place, even more so in the peace of morning. The golden light raking across the white Sierra granite is simply breath taking. This is day three of our 'Desolation Wilderness' backpacking trip. My fellow hikers and I are at Upper Velma lake, about twelve miles from the trail head at Meeks Bay.

Shaking off the last remains of sleep I contemplate the scene: It's time to tackle the conundrum of baking in the wild-lands, at 8,000ft.

Activating the yeast:
The rising sun was not yet warm enough to activate my yeast solution. Thankfully though, quick thinking created a warm water bath that got the yeast foaming, frothing ... and doing it's thing, all the while, giving off that wonderful beery smell.

I started mixing it with the flour to make a dough. By the time my camp mates were starting to emerge from their tents, the dough was formed and ready to rest. By now there had been a 'sunshine lift' and the day was warming up nicely. I placed the dough into an oiled pan, covered it and placed it in warm position for a hour, waiting for it to double in size.

A cup of tea or two later and everyone's up:

I planned to bake the bread over my gas burner for about an hour using a baking chimney and a 'flip-bake' method. This means that for approximately two thirds of the cooking time the bread will be heated over the burner in a closed pan. The pan is then turned over and the 'top' of the bread is finished in the remaining time. A chimney is constructed from rocks and stones to lift the pot and the bread three or four inches above the direct heat of the cooking flame. The chimney lifts the pan off the direct heat spot, so as to not cause a burn. Thus, it encourages a more even heat across the base of the pan, while providing wind protection so the heat is not simply blown away. In short, the chimney increases cooking efficiency by creating an upward funnel, directing the heat to bake the bread.

About 'flippin' time:
After approximately forty minutes on the heat, the pan was ready to be flipped. It is important to have oiled the lid of the cooking container ahead of time, so that the bread will not stick. I ventured a peak inside the pan: The bread had risen nicely and was showing promise. After flipping the pan it was time for a quick swim in the lake before it finished baking. A few short minutes later the invigorating freshness of the lake had instilled in me a ravenous hunger for breakfast. The gentle aroma of the burn prompted a quick check for a dull thud when the crust was tapped, signifying it was perfectly ready. Hey presto! It was time to lay out the cheese, gather the gang and put the kettle on once more.

My quest is complete and I'm enjoying freshly baked bread at 8,000ft!

A backpackers dream come true perhaps? Either way, we wolfed down our hearty 'door steps', with cheese and tea. Eating like the Kings and Queens, atop our lofty spire, amongst the biggest blue mother nature has to offer and breathing in the glory of our conquest.

Ian House, 2008

QUESTION OF THE DAY graphic copyright sam breach
?What's the most ambitious thing you've ever cooked in the wilderness?

2007 | Blows You Away "Ajo Blanco" Soup aka White Gazpacho
2006 | Succumbing to temptation: Harissa, Almond and Chocolate Tart
2004 | The Coffee Table, Silver Lake, Los Angeles, CA

© 2008 Sam Breach
Alpine Bread


  • At 5/9/08 06:26, Anonymous Genie said…

    Wow -- I haven't even yet had the guts to try bread at normal altitudes with normal baking conditions. (Well, I did try, years back, but it was before I actually knew how to cook and the two or three loaves I made before giving up were, to be fair, horrid.) This is great inspiration!

    As for adventurous outdoor cooking, I'm really not much of a (ahem) camper. I think the extent of my camping food madness was the time I tried to campfire-bake orange-flavored cake mix in hollowed out oranges that served as cups for the cake. They were just about inedible -- all bitter from the pith and unevenly cooked.

  • At 5/9/08 07:08, Blogger Dicentra said…

    Wow!! That looks awesome!! And I love your description of a bleary eyed morning. I've had lots of those! Ambitious? Chicken and Dumplings, maybe?

  • At 5/9/08 10:10, Blogger Zoomie said…

    Not exactly wilderness but when an ice storm knocked out power in western NY state for three days, I cooked in the fireplace - cream of mushroom soup and grilled filet mignon (which had thawed when the freezer lost power). Does that count as wilderness cooking? :-)

  • At 5/9/08 11:47, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    Well, I remember smoking a pretty good fattie in the Desolation Wilderness, so maybe it was ambitious me who was cooked.

  • At 5/9/08 13:28, Blogger sfmike said…

    I am extraordinarily impressed by your restraint in not posting an awesome photo of the blue view from 8,000 feet. But still, you must have taken one and I want to see it. Please.

  • At 5/9/08 21:08, Blogger Catherine said…

    Nice job, Ian! I don't do bread, even at home!

    I think my camping cooking achievements were extremely limited, but they were always much appreciated. Nothing like a sweaty 10 hr hike to work up an appetite. Favs: the endless cups of tea/coffee, blueberry pancakes, black beans with salsa and cheese quesadillas (by a visiting Brit who had never had them before and, in an unrelated moment, peed on the camp fire!). Oh, wait, a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich with avocado!

  • At 6/9/08 11:59, Anonymous eamonn said…

    hmmmmm,id have to say that my best effort at baking up high was my bacon and cheddar biscuits at around 10,000 feet on the back of denali.baking bread anywhere in the woods scares me.biscuits are get big cudos for wilderness bread!

  • At 6/9/08 12:53, Anonymous Carolyn Jung said…

    OK, I admit I'm a city girl. I'd rather stay in a cute B&B than a pup tent. But I did go camping ONCE years ago. And I have to admit, it's true what they say: Everything does taste better when you're camping. We made pasta with jarred sauce, and burritos with canned refried beans. We ate them as the stars twinkled overhead, the frogs heckled, and the warm fire sizzled. It made for one of the best dining experiences ever.

  • At 6/9/08 22:29, Anonymous Chezus said…

    Sounds fantastic!

    We always go ultra gourmet ... creme brulee would be the tops!

  • At 8/9/08 08:47, Blogger Jeanne said…

    Just BEING in the wilderness is pretty ambitious for me!! Very, very impressed with the bread, Ian.

  • At 8/9/08 11:16, Blogger Jenn said…

    Wow, bread. Okay, I made pancakes once. Yes, they were instant, but they were still pancakes over a fire.

  • At 8/9/08 13:59, Blogger Tracie Broom said…

    love this!

  • At 8/9/08 15:09, Anonymous leena! said…

    Hey Sam! This looks so awesome, and what an inventive way to bake outdoors. I think the most ambitious thing I've ever made in the wilderness was a s'more using toasted coconut marshmallows (which apparently feel just like fire if they drip on your feet. Fun stuff.).

  • At 10/9/08 08:21, Anonymous Tina said…

    I'm so impressed! I love baking bread, but I don't think I have the courage or the stamina to do it at 8,000 ft!

    The most ambitious thing that I've ever baked while camping was probably mini strawberry cheesecakes, but I've been lucky enough to eat beef vindaloo, stuffed chicken pinwheels, and steak in a gorgonzola sauce with freshly found wild leeks - all things that other people cooked for me ;)

  • At 10/9/08 10:20, Blogger Rev. Biggles said…

    Hmmm, I believe that would be a russet potato, stuck in a beer can, half full of beer, over an open fire. I'd neglected to bring a grate for the fire, oh well. At least the chicken cooked on rocks was good.


  • At 11/9/08 00:54, Blogger Bradley Cooper, Winemaker said…

    My wife cooked a rib roast on a spit over a camp fire with all the fixings. We had a bottle of wine and afterwards I had a large cigar and some cognac while gazing up at the stars.

  • At 11/9/08 10:49, Anonymous swirlingnotions said…

    I wa once went sent on assignment on a hiking trip through the John Muir Wilderness to cover a woman who takes women on "gourmet" adventure trips. It was actually quite incredible. She had all kinds of things dehydrated that she'd whip up, grains and pastas, and several cakes like this one here. We really did eat like queens, despite being camped out above 10,000 feet--so high that we weren't aloud to have a camp fire.

    The only bummer was, I had to ride out in a pack mule train through four hours of multiple thunderstorms . . . above the treeline the whole way . . . and I'm TERRIFIED of lightening. Needless to say, I didn't get paid nearly enough for that story ;-).

    Have a great trip!

  • At 12/9/08 10:50, Anonymous Christian W said…

    Most ambitious was peach cobbler in a dutch oven on the fire. its a bit more forgiving

  • At 13/9/08 09:20, Blogger Scott at Real Epicurean said…

    I wish my life was as exciting - it's not.

    We did cook chicken in a little oven outside next to a lake in a Polish forest this year, only to wake and find a dog outside (not ours - we thought it was a wolf!) pulling the oven away...

  • At 14/9/08 01:48, Blogger Rochelle said…

    Wow! Looks delicious. My bravest moment was cooking eggs and bacon over a fire on a discarded pot lid found in the bushes on a camping trip (I forgot to pack the pan)> Brave because we had only river water to wash the lid with!

  • At 15/9/08 18:01, Blogger Penny said…

    yum - you should cook a good ol' aussie damper topped with butter and golden syrup - soooooooo good.


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