A Multi-Layered Place

A formula for at least some of our trips goes like this: never been there before + don’t know anybody that’s been there = adventure. In the case of our recent trip to Smith Island, there was an added multiplier: we had never heard of it until a few days before.

We stumbled upon Smith Island as a potential destination while we were looking into a possible trip to Tangier Island, which is Smith’s neighbor to the south. Once we “discovered” Smith and researched a bit, it looked to be quaint, off the beaten path (in the middle of the Chesapeake), and somewhat unknown to us—in other words, a perfect weekend adventure.

Smith Island is worth knowing about. The island is a collection of small watermen’s communities that aren’t really built for tourists, but that’s part of what makes this place so charming. Services are limited, but there are a handful of B&Bs and there is regular ferry service from Crisfield, Maryland. And getting to Smith is part of the adventure. It was about four hours door-to-door from Northern Virginia (including the ferry ride).

We were joined on the ferry by Smith residents that were bringing in groceries, supplies, and building materials, as pretty much everything but seafood and cake generally comes from the mainland (more about cake later). We mirrored the locals and brought along picnic-style meals ourselves (although there is a restaurant in-season that is generally open for lunch).

The island was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and later named after Henry Smith, an early landowner. It was settled in the late 1600s by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler, and the 250 or so current residents live across three communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Tradition runs deep here, as crabbing, fishing, and harvesting oysters have been a way of life for generations.

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A crabber keeps his live catch in a wooden crab float, 1945. Photo credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Families on Smith today still appear to share a lot of connections (the names Evans and Tyler remain heavily represented on the island). Smith Islanders also share a dialect, sometimes called a Tidewater or Elizabethan accent, which was different enough to make us listen closely at times on our trip.

During our visit, we rode bikes, checked out the marshes and bird life, visited the Bayside Inn restaurant (great seafood, no surprise), and stopped by the local art gallery in Ewell. We also had a lovely chat with the friendly caretaker at the Smith Island Cultural Center. A lot has happened—and is happening—at Smith, ranging from Revolutionary War history to the current threat posed by erosion (the island has lost 1200 acres over the past 100 years).

We closed out the day back at our lovely B&B, the Smith Island Inn, where we watched a sunset that seemed to take a full hour.

What struck me the most about our visit was the evening quiet. Maybe it’s because watermen’s communities are ‘early to bed’ kinds of places—or maybe I’m imagining that—but the stunning quiet was something I was glad I got to hear (can you hear quiet?).

There are clearly a lot of layers to Smith, with history and nature mixed in with a dash of tourism—all on a working watermen’s island. A friend from the Eastern Shore told us recently that Smith Islanders look forward to getting their first skiff at age 14 or so, much like city kids might look forward to cars and drivers licenses. That makes sense when you are in a place where a trip to school involves a boat ride. Life clearly revolves around the bay when you are living in the middle of the bay.

And speaking of layers, we also took the opportunity to enjoy Smith’s trademark dish, Smith Island Cake. It’s typically a yellow cake with eight or more thin layers of fudge frosting that is an island specialty. Smith Island Cake dates to at least the 1800s, when it was made to take along on the autumn oyster harvest.

When we got back home, we of course were inspired to make our own version of Smith Island Cake, complete with a taste test against the real thing (by our visiting niece, who was a good sport!). I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the eight cake pans that I bought just for this recipe, but souvenirs are a part of the travel experience, right?

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Our niece was a good sport and did a taste test…and the real Smith Island Cake won, of course!

 

A Grape Idea

I was driving north last week towards Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, when a purple awning caught my eye. The awning belonged to the storefront of Monica’s Pies, a shop where just about everything is purple—awnings, signs, milk jugs, jars, t-shirts, carpets, flower pots…even the port-a-potty out back. Monica’s Pies is in Naples, a town of 2,500 that claims to be the grape pie capital of the world.

I always thought that I knew a lot about purple—including preserves, juice, wine, Bubble Yum, Pez, and even the Williams College Purple Cow (thanks to my in-laws). But I’d never had a purple-flavored pie before (and if orange can be a color, then purple can certainly be a flavor).

Monica’s Pies dates back to 1983, and it is one of four shops in Naples that feature grape pies. Back in the day, owner Monica Schenk was looking for a way to use a surplus of Concord grapes—a style of grape that had fallen out of favor with local vintners–and she started making grape pies. She sold the pies only in the Fall season, and most of her sales were by the honor system (an unattended box of pies sat out front, along with a money slot).

Then and now, her grape pies are very sweet, thick like jello, and come topped with a crumb crust that adds a lot of texture. Souzz said each bite was “like eating really good grape jelly, back when you were a kid.” Huh?

Nowadays, Monica’s Pies is open year round and offers a variety of pies, jams, baked goods, and other treats. The shop has been featured in the New York Times and on the Food Network, and her grape pie sales alone top more than 10,000 a year. There’s no reason to wine with sales like that.

When I got back home, I shared the story of my new discovery with my Williams-educated purple cow-loving brother-in-law Steve, who is quite the foodie. “I love those grape pies,” he said. “Concord grapes suck for wine, but grape pies rule.” Those Williams kids sure have a way with words.

Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

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Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.

Looking for Sasquatch

The east coast has some fun destinations, including Great North Mountain, which forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia for about 50 miles. Much of the mountain is above 3000 feet, so the views across neighboring valleys are among the best around. The area also has a well-developed trail system, including a few summits that offer 360-degree views (ok, so I guess you can actually see in multiple directions from any place).

This weekend’s trip was to Sugar Knob Cabin, which was built in 1920 as a shelter for rangers patrolling the George Washington National Forest. Nowadays the cabin is managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and is rented out to backpackers willing to make the six mile (round trip) trek.

I have backpacked past this modest 10 foot square stone structure many times, dating back to the mid-1980s, and have always been curious about it. I was invited inside once by a few new friends on a rainy day, but I had never stayed there–until this past weekend.

Souzz and I arrived at the trailhead on Forest Service Road 92 on Saturday morning, heavy on food but light on everything else. We carried just a small butane stove, a first aid kit, headtorches, a small lantern, a water filter, a few extra clothes…and the frybake, which I carry with me at all times (in case somebody needs an emergency casserole). As for water, there’s a spring not far from the cabin, and we’d been told that the cabin was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, axes, a wood stove, and pretty much anything else we were likely to need.

The hike in was steady uphill (1500 feet of elevation gain), but not too steep. Little Stony Creek runs right along much of the trail, and there were some nice views as we got closer to the ridge. The hike seemed longer than three miles, suggesting that the map is wrong…or perhaps suggesting that most hikers don’t carry a 6-pack, a bag of charcoal, a mini-cooler, and a four course meal.

The area has a deep history, including a moonshine operation in the 1930s, a tragedy in the 1950s (sadly, a scout leader got lost near here in in a winter storm), a lot of bear sightings, and even a pretty recent Bigfoot sighting.

As for Bigfoot, a hiker wrote that his group was staying in Sugar Knob Cabin and saw “a dark, very hairy large face looking at us about a foot outside the window.” Hmm…that sounds suspiciously like just about everybody I’ve ever hiked with (except Souzz).

With no Bigfoot sightings to amuse us, we were left to enjoy this fabulous spot. Sugar Knob Cabin is cozy and quaint, and one could almost feel the history of the place. Looking around inside at the stonework and the wood stove, I wondered what those walls would say if they could talk (perhaps something like “man, Souzz’s husband is a total blowhard.”)

As for dinner, we started with cheese and salami, then moved on to steamed mussels and fresh-baked bread (from the frybake). The mussels appetizer was pre-cooked with tomato and garlic sauce by a company called Bantry Bay. We highly recommend this dish–but I suppose there is a carbon impact when one eats mussels from Chile sold by an Irish company while hiking in the Blue Ridge. All told, it did feel like a big foot print (so to speak).

We followed the mussels with filet mignon, mashed fingerling potatoes, and green beans with mushrooms. It was great to eat next to the fire, and the weather was perfect.

After dinner, we enjoyed the fire, made “break and bake” cookies in the frybake, and marveled at the beautiful starry night sky.

As we soaked in the sounds of crickets and tree frogs, all was well in our world–until Souzz was startled by a huge, smelly, hairy creature tromping around near the cabin.

I was just getting some more wood.

Magical Place, Magical Pace

After attending a great wedding in Homer and then visiting Tutka Bay Yurt, we closed out our recent Alaska trip with a stay at Water’s Edge Cabin–a fabulous property near Homer that overlooks Halibut Cove Lagoon. Like the yurt, the cabin is well managed by Alison, Melanie, and the great folks at True North Kayak Adventures.

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Water’s Edge is about 40 minutes by water taxi from Homer, and it offers a lot of things that most Alaskan cabins don’t—like a propane stove, a propane oven,  running water (albeit stream water that needs to be filtered), oil lights, and a propane refrigerator (!). There’s no electricity, but that’s part of the charm (and who needs electricity, anyway?). Overall, the amenities at Water’s Edge are rivaled only by the view…well, actually, the view surpasses them!

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The covered porch was awesome, as was waking up in the second floor loft. The cabin was built with windows from floor to ceiling, so Halibut Cove Lagoon was with us every step of the way. The lagoon is full of life, including bald eagles, sea otters, loons, the occasional Dall’s Porpoise, and probably a lot of other stuff we never even saw. The sounds alone, including loons and a ton of bird life, were amazing.

Over the course of the next four days, we hiked on the awesome trail system in Katchemak Bay State Park, we kayaked, we cooked (of course), and we spent as much time as we could on that amazing porch.

In addition to the fridge and stove/oven, Water’s Edge boasts a spacious kitchen that was very well stocked. Forgot cumin? No problem, it’s right there on the shelf. Need more olive oil? Got it. It was a luxury for us to have so much room to cook, and so many supplies on hand.

With access to a fridge, we were able to have a fresh seafood theme on the trip–with halibut, king salmon, and king crab headlining the menus.

For the halibut, we used our friend Steve’s recipe. He cubes halibut into one inch squares, dips them in pancake batter, then rolls in Panko, and fries the cubes in an oil that can handle high temperature (peanut oil, grapeseed oil, etc.). Steve tells us he just made up the recipe, quite the imagination. I imagine we are going to be making this dish again.

A highlight of our trip was our kayak/hike to Grewink Glacier. It was fun to combine a paddle and a hike, as getting to the trail head required timing the tides pretty carefully. It was also a great chance for Souzz to be Survivor Woman, as I forgot to bring rope to secure our kayak. With the tide rising, Souzz scrounged a piece of rope off of an old buoy on the beach and saved the trip!

Grewink Glacier was stunning, even though the weather was pretty spotty on our visit.

In addition to paddling and hiking, we fished, we picked blueberries, salmon berries, and watermelon berries, we read, and we relaxed a lot on that amazing porch. We got into the easy pace of the lagoon, and yet the days seemed to fly by. When our water taxi came to bring us back to Homer, we really didn’t want to leave.

Alaska is a big geography and we try not to visit the same place twice. But this was a magical place with a magical pace, and we might just need to go back.

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An Odyssey In Homer

Souzz and I were just at a wedding in Homer, Alaska, a few hundred miles south of Anchorage. Traveling to Homer from Virginia is a bit of an odyssey—9 hours in the air, a few airport layovers, and then a five hour drive…so of course we tacked on a little adventure to our trip.

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But first, the wedding was…um, fabulous! It was an outdoor celebration for great friends at a venue that overlooked Katchemak Bay–with glacier views, whales swimming by, a surprise visit from a guy on horseback, and an after-party with a big bonfire on the beach. Granted, we’re from “Outside,” as Alaskans say about folks from the lower 48, but it felt like a very Alaskan event to us.

After the wedding, we (along with a lot of gear and food) took a water taxi ride to Tutka Bay, just across from the Homer Spit. We headed to a yurt that was our home for the next few days. There are a bunch of yurts in Katchemak Bay State Park that can be rented through Alaskan Yurt Rentals; all are well maintained by Alison and the fabulous folks at True North Kayak Adventures. Ours was very secluded, up on a cliff about 30 feet above the bay.

If you aren’t familiar with yurts, the are sort of a cross between a tent and a cabin. Yurts are somewhat portable and offer a lot of space, as well as storm-proof shelter. They originated in central Asia and have been around at least 3,000 years.

Our yurt thankfully was a little newer than that, and it offered a propane stove for cooking, a wood stove for heat, bunks, and a lot of flat space for cooking. Best of all, its location on Tutka Bay also offered us the chance to kayak around watching humpback whales, sea otters, bald eagles, loons, and one (very surprised) black bear.

As for our meals, we of course shopped ahead of the time, including a stop at a terrific local seafood market called Cole Point Seafood Company. Over the course of the next few days, we enjoyed steamed mussels, halibut fish tacos, king salmon, and fresh shrimp with garlic and lime. We also made a Julia Child favorite called potato gratin a al savoyard.

For dessert, we took advantage of the ample space and made a key lime pie, tapping into some advice that we got from Chef Scott Fausz, the pastry chef at nearby Alyeska. He gave us a bunch of tips, including recommending that we use meringue powder instead of egg whites (due to the high humidity).

Based on a sample size of one, we agree about the meringue powder. Our pie came out excellent, and the meringue had soft peaks despite the rainy weather. To bake the pie, we used a frybake with 12 coals on top and 6 on the bottom for 30 minutes, and we made the meringue with a hand-crank mixer (16 minutes of cranking!).

Looking back, our first yurt experience was pretty awesome. We saw a ton of wildlife, we went tidepooling, and we just generally forgot about the city life. The days went by too fast–and it was easy to see the allure of the lifestyle in and around the bay, where everything revolves around the water.

With our adventure complete, we headed back to Homer by water taxi and found our way to another cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon (but that’s another story for another blog). The only thing missing from our Homer odyssey was hearing the sirens sing, but maybe that comes later?

Twice Baked Alaska

A few months back, we blogged about making a dessert called Baked Alyeska. We were inspired by a feature in the Alaska Dispatch by Suzanna Caldwell. She wrote a great column with a detailed description of the dish as made by the extraordinary pastry chef at Alyeska Resort, Chef Scott Fausz.

Making Baked Alyeska at home was pretty involved, but we thought our version came out well. As a part of our victory lap, we sent the Dispatch our blog and thanked Suzanna for her article–figuring that our email would find its way into a newsroom spam filter.

Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I got a really nice email from Chef Scott Fausz, who had been forwarded our blog by Suzanna Caldwell. He offered up a few suggestions on making the meringue and then generously invited us to stop by his kitchen at Alyeska the next time we headed north.

Flash forward to this week, when we found ourselves passing by Alyeska Resort on our way to a wedding for close friends in Homer. Chef Fausz graciously hosted us and gave us a full tour of his kitchen, spending nearly an hour and giving advice on how to make a “northern lights” decoration as well as how and where to best enjoy the (actual) northern lights.

Alyeska makes more than 5,000 of these desserts a year, so he might just have this recipe down. He also shared with us that he had told the Dispatch that “there’s no way anybody is going to actually try to make this, as it’s way too complicated.”

It was great to have a chance to see behind the scenes and to get advice from a professional. We learned about new (to us) ingredients like luster dust, meringue powder, and isomalt, got a bunch of recipe ideas, and we swapped stories of various travels across the state.

We followed our visit with a stop into the Aurora Bar and Grill, one of three restaurants at the resort that feature Chef Fausz’s amazing desserts. One bite of the Baked Alyeska and it was clear that there’s a big difference between pastry chefs and Souzzchefs. The dish was light, full of textures, and just fabulous. It was plated with raspberry, chocolate shavings, and of course a northern lights decoration on top.

Souzz and I don’t usually spend a lot of time at resorts in our travels, but we’ll be back to Alyeska for sure. And as for our chance to meet Chef Fausz and tour the kitchen, I think we need Suzanna Caldwell to write articles about all of our favorite recipes from Alaska.

Happy Campers

This past weekend I had the chance to go on an adventure with a friend that I’ve known since the 1960s. Tim and I share a hometown and a lot of interests–including a passion for the outdoors–and we’ve been tied together for a long time (sometimes literally, on technical climbing trips). Tim also happens to be my brother.

This was to be the first-ever backpacking trip for Tim’s sons Sebastian and Tristan, so it seemed important to pick a good place! We chose one of our favorites, the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, about three hours to the west by car.

The Sods are one of our favorite places for a bunch of reasons. There’s a great trail system, nice cool weather (even in summer), and the high elevation (4000′) translates to flora and fauna that are more typical of Quebec. It is the southern-most range of a lot of interesting plants, and the winds up high are so constant that many of the spruce trees are three-sided.

The human history of the Sods is interesting, too, as the region was named after a German immigrant (Johann Dahle) that used the area for grazing cattle in the mid-1800s. At some point, the spelling of the region was changed to the now familiar Dolly, and in 1975 the area was designated as Wilderness.

Some years back, we had the chance to meet one of the original Dolly descendants, known to the locals simply as “Mister Dolly.” We wanted to cross his property with our kayaks to access the river, so we walked up Dollytown Road (really) and knocked on his door to ask permission. He answered right away and talked with a thick accent and a rapid fire cadence that made him hard to follow (but made it easy for my friend KB to imitate him afterwards).

As we chatted, we noticed that Mister Dolly was calling city folk like us “smarties,” and we wondered where the conversation was headed. But in the end he charged us a dollar a boat and tucked the bills into his shirt pocket in a way that made it seem like he’d done that before. It was a pretty good deal considering that we got river access and a story, all for $4. We enjoyed meeting him…and he seemed to enjoy meeting us.

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That’s me and Souzz to the left with a few smartie friends. Guess which one is Mister Dolly?

Smarties or not, the Dolly Sods are a pretty smart destination. We started out from Red Creek Campground under cloudy skies but generally great weather. Sebastian and Tristan did more than their part, carrying packs that included their gear as well as a Nerf football. Tim and I shouldered the rest—including a generous kitchen and a rain tarp (in case the skies ended up “watering the family tree,” so to speak).

The trail was wet and muddy, but that didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits–and might even have lifted a few, as the boys enjoyed the challenge of keeping dry feet. The hike was fairly straightforward and the terrain and scenery were interesting, including blooming mountain laurel. We also saw a deer and jumped a wild turkey, so we had a pretty good sampling of the flora and fauna.

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At some point, the boys decided to “gameify” the hike and rock-hopped most of the way. I have no idea who won–but when we got to camp, they immediately started throwing the Nerf ball, played baseball using hiking poles as bats, and swimming in the creek. There was no shortage of energy in this crowd (or at least half of it).

The trip really wasn’t about the food…but what backpacking trip isn’t at least a little about food? With this being a short hike, just four miles or so, we’d brought along homemade beef jerky, antipasto, homemade Buffalo wings, and the makings for two fry-bake pizzas.

The boys jumped right into prep, which was a great help! For the pizzas, we used store-bought fresh dough and sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, and a bit of fresh basil. For the baking itself, we used 6 charcoals on the bottom, 12 on top, and the baking took about 50 minutes (which gave us time to devour the wings, which we heated in a frybake).

After dinner, we started a fire and then we turned attention to dessert. The center of attention was a treat that dates to the 1920s that was originally called a graham cracker sandwich. Now it is commonly called a s’more—two graham crackers, chocolate, and a roasted marshmallow. No matter how old I get, s’mores are still a ride right back to childhood, when my campfire limit was about a dozen. As an adult, just one bite had me searching for a glucometer (a new vocabulary word inspired by the trip).

What I’d forgotten about s’mores is just how social an experience that they are. For starters, there’s the need to search for and then carve the perfect roasting stick, with plenty of consultations along the way. That’s followed by a lot of discussion about the best area of coals for roasting, and then a lot of riffing on anyone that drops a marshmallow into the fire. The whole process is a Sociology Masters Thesis waiting to be written (providing one has access to a good ultralight glucometer and doesn’t mind that nobody reads their thesis).

After enjoying a handful of s’mores, my nephews told us that the only thing that they loved more than s’mores was ice cream. Of course, we knew that going into the trip, so there was another surprise in store. Through the wonders of dry ice, two pints of (very frozen) ice cream made their appearance, along with grishgroom (homemade chocolate sauce). At that point, the night became one long sugar coma. And isn’t that what a backpacking trip should be with your dad and your uncle?

 

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Tristan, Tim, and Sebastian, ready to head homeward

Burning Dessert

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Sara enjoying dessert

A few years back, Souzz and I made flaming Baked Alaska on a packrafting trip in West Virginia with our good friend Sara. The trip was Sara’s Bon Voyage before she moved to Alaska, and we wanted to send her off in style.

Naturally we chose a backcountry meal that required dry ice, a dutch oven, and a hand-crank mixer. It may have been our most outrageous camping meal ever, and to this day it serves as proof that even the stupidest and most futile gesture can yield a good meal. It also gave us a taste for more.

Baked Alaska supposedly was created as a novelty dessert to celebrate the Alaska Purchase way back in 1867. A combination of ice cream, cake, and meringue, it appeared in fancy restaurants off and on for the next 100 years or so before peaking in popularity during the 1960s as a dinner party treat.

That was of course a time when flaming dishes like bananas foster, crepes suzette, and cherries jubilee burst on the scene…and probably a time when a lot of drapes were accidentally lit on fire by careless hosts while people sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes at the dinner table.

Since then, the dish has slowly faded into obscurity, with cruise ship mass-marketed dessert menus perhaps the lone holdover (along with packboat campouts). But when it is done well, it is still a worthy dish, and one with a lot of interesting variations. For instance, there is a “reversed” version called Frozen Florida (warm liqueur inside, cold meringue outside), and there is a sponge cake version popular in Hong Kong called Flame on the Iceberg.

A more contemporary adaptation comes by way of the restaurant at Aleyska, a ski resort in Alaska (of course), just south of Anchorage. The pastry chef at Alyeska, Chef Scott Fausz, uses mousse (two different kinds) instead of ice cream, which makes for a lighter dessert that is much more more popular with today’s crowd. Baked Alyeska also includes a layer of ganache under the meringue. As you might imagine, putting it together requires a bit of a time commitment (suggestion: wear comfortable shoes and bring a bag lunch).

Alyeska’s recipe actually spans two days, as we soon learned, although much of that time is spent watching the freezer. The mousses (one chocolate, one raspberry) and layers of chocolate cake are assembled and frozen before the ganache and meringue are added (the mousse/cake step alone took us a solid two hours).

The entire recipe is a bit unusual, calling for gelatin sheets (I didn’t even know what those were) and meringue powder (we couldn’t find that locally, so we just made a regular meringue). Oh, and the gelatin sheets must be bloomed” before using, which turns out to be just a fancy culinary term for “soaking them in water.”

Once the dome of mousse and cake was frozen, we drizzled on the ganache and then coated the whole assembly thoroughly with meringue. We then browned the almost-finished product with a torch and let it sit for a few hours.

Afterwards, we both agreed that making this dish in the backcountry would be completely absurd, as even doing it in our home kitchen was a challenge. Sara is on her own on this one.

 

Baked-alaska.paradeMost of what makes this dish fun is the mix of textures and the interesting flavor combinations. Add in 150 years of history, including a bizarre cruise ship tradition called a Baked Alaska Parade, and you have a dessert, a story, and a trip through time–all rolled into one.

It was almost enough to have me searching for a Manhattan and a pack of smokes.