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 ofMonica’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.
Driving towards Canandaigua Lake (literally)
Even the port-a-potty is color-coordinated
My kind of place
Special parking just for me
Flowers against the lake
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).
Souzz’s parents flanking a purple cow
At a Williams football game
Purple cows are pretty book-smart
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).
Honor system pie sales
A roadside honor stand for pies
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 beenfeatured in the New York Timesand 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.
That’s Steve on the left, with his sisters, and looking more like a college kid than a foodie
A family visit to the “purple valley,” as Williamstown is known. That’s Souzz 2nd from right, probably after eating some jelly.
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–withFreddie’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 Schoenfeldonce famously screamedat one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”
Freddie’s started in 1922
Paula’s is the new rage
The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight toKepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.
Detailed trail map
Down low along Cedar Creek
KB and Souzz near the ridge
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).
Souzz and KB near our campsite
KB and I shared our first adventure was in 1987. He looks the same.
cool clouds from the ridge
We shared the trail with a mountain biker
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.
Souzz gathering wood
ham, bread, cheese, smoked trout
that thermometer was handy!
ok, maybe we cooked it a little too long…but it was pretty good!
Gnocchi with tomatoes
Dinner at sunset, not bad!
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 aBetty 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).
Ingredients for the dough
dough and flour, pretty easy
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).
improvising is key
we could have ordered a doughnut hole cutter (they actually make those), but what’s the point?
raw doughnuts on a frisbee
Getting the oil to temp
Waiting for toppings
A “backcountry dozen”
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.
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.
Philip, Peggy, Johnny (the birthday boy), and Betty Jean, in 1932
Johnny today, anticipating cake
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.
Pretty sure that’s Lillian on the left
Aunt Lillian loved her nephews!
Not sure the story on the chair
“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?”
A classic hat from the 1930s, from Margie’s collection
My mom rocking one of Aunt Inez’s hats
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.”
lots of wood in these nuts
slow but steady progress
My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find severalrecipesfor “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.
Mixing in hickory nuts
Cake mix with nuts
Brown sugar frosting
Cooking up the frosting
Mixing confectioners sugar into the frosting
So far, so good
Frosted and ready for action
Almost time to sing
The finished product
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.
Young Johnny on the porch
The Marshall House
I think pop still has that jacket
Broughton Street, 1930
Lillian in later years
St. Patricks Day Parade, 1934
Margie, age 13, 1937
That’s Lillian on the right, at Hunting Island Beach, near Savannah. My folks tell me that the aunts always wore dresses, even at the beach!
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.
Margie, just before she stabbed herself with a nut picker
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).
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.
Sugar Knob Cabin, 1987
Sugar Knob Cabin, 2016
A little (ok, a lot) thinner in 1987, carrying my North Face BackMagic pack, state of the art for the time
30 years later, still in orange
The cabin is at the top of the yellow-blazed trail
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 thefrybake, 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.
Souzz is always faster than me on the trail
Broad daylight, headtorch turned on, you do the math
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).
A still from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, which started the Bigfoot craze
Maybe what was seen through the window?
A bigfoot researcher’s journal entry
ok, so we stole this from a tv ad
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.”)
Arriving at Sugar Knob Cabin
Home away from home
Lots of directions inside
lots of pots and pans!
Souzz writes in the logbook
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 calledBantry 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).
Bantry Bay Mussels
The finished product, 5 minutes later, along with bread in the frybake
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.
dinner is served
Are we ready to eat yet?
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.
After attending a great wedding in Homer and then visitingTutka 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 atTrue North Kayak Adventures.
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!
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 occasionalDall’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.
is it still called a selfie if its two of us?
Souzz spent a lot of time in this spot
Pretty sure that’s a loon.
The back deck is nice and sunny!
Darkness in Alaska in the summer!
Souzz loves her coffee
Warming things up
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.
A beer cozie from the wedding
Need a spice?
A water filter, very handy
Our home kitchen isn’t this well equipped (although we did bring the box of wine)
One of the two dishwashers
Souzz hard at work
A mystery kitchen gadget
Souzz schemes another meal
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.
King Crab legs
Nice to cook with a view
celery, leeks, garlic
King Salmon over lentils, onions, leeks, carrots, and celery
Breakfast, pretty standard
ok, so not everything was seafood
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.
Halibut chopped into squares
soaking in pancake batter
Rolling in Panko
Ready to serve
Halibut with broccoli and potatoes a al savoyard
Dinner is served
A highlight of our trip was our kayak/hike toGrewink 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!
Sunshine at the start…but not for long
Lots of starfish
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. 🙂
Marine life everywhere
Lots of beautiful scenes on our hike
Tide charts are critical
We took the Saddle Trail
Grewink Glacier was stunning, even though the weather was pretty spotty on our visit.
We can see the glacier in the distance
Lots of floating ice
It’s early August, but it’s fall in Alaska
The obligatory couple shot.
In addition to paddling and hiking, we fished, we pickedblueberries,salmon berries, andwatermelon 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.
Floating docks are handy for fishing, but we were a little early for silvers
We didn’t eat these, but they were everywhere
lots of good reading at the cabin
Souzz relaxing after a long paddle
Highbush blueberries, what a treat!
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.
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.
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.
The bride and groom dance
The view from the wedding!
Horses show up at receptions all the time, right?
A wedding bonfire! (photo by Sally)
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 throughAlaskan Yurt Rentals; all are well maintained by Alison and the fabulous folks atTrue North Kayak Adventures. Ours was very secluded, up on a cliff about 30 feet above the bay.
Lots of gear
Our water taxi
Tutka Bay Yurt
Prayer flags and the yurt
A lovely spot
Souzz enjoying morning coffee
Katchemak Bay Park Map
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 originatedin 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.
The bear was more surprised than we were, which is saying something
A beautiful view up Tutka Bay
Lots of sea otters!
As for our meals, we of course shopped ahead of the time, including a stop at a terrific local seafood market calledCole 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.
Mussels with garlic and butter
Lots going on in this photo!
We brought our cutting board for prep
Shrimp and cocktail sauce
Potato a al savoyard
Potato a al savoyard, fully cooked
Halibut for the fish tacos
Avocados for the fish tacos
garlic, jalapenos, oil
The Halibut was amazing
Halibut fish tacos
dinner served on a frisbee
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!).
The crust awaits
mixing the filling
starting on the meringue
pouring the filling
prepping the coals
Topping the pie
the finished product
ok, let’s eat!
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.
some kind of jellyfish
tidepooling for starfish
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 thesirens sing, but maybe that comes later?
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.
Baked Alyeska, Virginia style
A look inside
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.”
Alyeska takes great care of its outdoor space
Gardens in the courtyard
The tram station out back
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.
Commercial kitchens kind of do a lot of volume
Explaining a device that cuts rolls from large disks of dough
Too bad there were no free samples. 🙂
A disk made of isomalt that is used to adorn the top of Baked Alyeska
Painting some color on the isomalt disks using Ideale Luster Powder
Hundreds of Baked Alyeskas waiting for meringue
Chef Fausz with Souzz
They go through a lot of ingredients around here. Those containers are the size of kitchen trash cans.
Rolling pastry is a big process
This centerpiece is entirely made of sugar. Chef Fausz was lamenting that it had lost some of its color, but it still looked beautiful to us!
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 dessert
Friends Sara, Ben, and AnnMary joined us
Baked Alyeska, complete with northern lights on top
The scene at the Aurora Bar and Grill
Inside Alyeska Resort Hotel
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.
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.
Tim and Court on the trail
In the Alaska Range
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, theDolly Sods Wildernessin 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 Allegheny Front
Where are the Sods?
The human historyof 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.
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).
Fitting Tristan’s pack
At the trailhead
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.
At some point, the boys decided to “gamify” 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).
A muddy trail
Tristan puzzles over the best route
Nerf balls and mountain laurel
Below Blackbird Knob
Camp on the North Fork of Red Creek
Rock-hopping over the North Fork of Red Creek
Swimming on a hot day!
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 twofry-bakepizzas.
Antipasto on a frisbee
dough in the frybake
Sebastian hard at work
Sebastian proud of his work!
Sebastian, with Tristan photobombing, and me on the right. That’s two pizzas in front and wings behind me!
The final product
Who wants the first slice?
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 as’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).
Tristan finds the perfect stick
Tristan roasts a marshmallow
Tim samples a marshmallow
Ok, sometimes they catch fire
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?
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 likebananas foster, crepes suzette, andcherries jubileeburst 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 hasslowly 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 calledFlame on the Iceberg.
A more contemporary adaptation comes by way of the restaurant atAleyska, 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 Alyeskaalso 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 forgelatin sheets(I didn’t even know what those were) andmeringue 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.”
most of the ingredients
mixing in the chocolate
Raspberries ready for action
layer by layer
ready for the freezer
cooking up the puree
greasing the bowl and lining with wrap was key
soon to be an Alaskan moose…um, mousse
Blooming gelatin sheets
first layer complete
one step closer to puree
another mousse sighting
Once the dome of mousse and cake was frozen, we drizzled on the ganache and then coated the whole assembly thoroughly withmeringue. 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 Alyeska, Virginia style
A look inside
Most 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 aBaked 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.
1960s parlor games
That’s my cousin Nancy on the left, from 1961
My dad and cousin, from back when Baked Alaska was all the rage
Our friend Reto stopped through Virginia this weekend on his way back to his native Switzerland. As his home country boasts some amazing scenery, we were a bit surprised that he was interested in visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains during his stay. That was fine by us, though, and we had a nice little chalet in mind just a few hours to the west.
The word chalet was coined by the Swiss in the late 1700s, and it referred to the mountain huts of cattle herders. Traditionally, herders would bring dairy cattle up from the Swiss lowlands to graze during the summer months, and they would often make butter and cheese during their stays. Nowadays the word has been co-opted and chalet can pretty much mean any vacation house anywhere, maybe even a PATC cabin.
Our chalet of choice was Tulip Tree near Luray, a chalet with no power or water–probably a lot like some of the early chalets in Reto’s home country (but without the cows and fresh dairy). Tulip Tree is located in a valley just below Shenandoah National Park and is ordinarily easily accessible by a small dirt road. But it had snowed 2 feet last week, so there wasn’t anything ordinary about that road. We parked at the nearby Morning Star Lutheran Church (asking permission first) and backpacked our way in the last mile and a half.
The weekend’s fare was decidedly Swiss-American, with dishes like Sante Fe chili and buffalo wings bookended by a braided Swiss bread called zopf, cheesecake, and the centerpiece of the meal, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes. The latter is a cream sauce with beef and mushrooms served over Spätzle. Not only did we learn how to cook a few new dishes, we learned how to mispronounce a few new words, too.
For the zopf, Reto had carried a bag of flour all the way from Switzerland, so the pressure was on. It was a bit tricky to make, but Reto schooled us on the finer points and we stacked two frybakes top-to-top to create an oven. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a herder.
For the next two days we snowshoed around, we gathered wood, we cooked, we swapped stories, and we enjoyed being out of cell phone range. While the Blue Ridge is clearly not the Alps, Reto did share how difficult it was to find areas in Switzerland without cell access. It’s easy to forget how big a geography we have in this country, as Virginia is actually more than twice the size of Switzerland.
Of course, Switzerland has a few other things going for it, like mountains that soar to 15,000 feet, beautiful mountain chalets with stunning views (and power and water), and friendly folks like Reto. At least that’s what I herd.