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.

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.

It probably peaked in popularity during the 1960s as a dinner party treat. The 60s were 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.

Since then, the dish has slowly faded into obscurity, with cruise ship mass-marketed dessert menus perhaps the lone holdover (along with packraft 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 Alyeska, a ski resort in Alaska (of course), just south of Anchorage. The pastry chef at Alyeska, Executive 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 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.

High Society

Our goal with this blog is just to have fun, of course, and we never expected to collect a ton of followers (and those of you not reading this have not disappointed). As I often say, “aim low, fail anyway, and then lie about it.” That said, I was curious as to whether or not there was anybody else out there writing about outdoor cooking–in particular dutch oven cooking. So I Googled away for a grand total of about three minutes, and here’s a sampling of what else is out there, listed in ascending order of incredulity.

First and foremost, it’s worth sharing that there are a few sites that share recipe collections and provide useful information, most notably Dutch Oven Dude, and a guy in Northwest Canada that puts up Youtube videos on outdoor cooking and survival skills. Some good stuff there, but fewer sites than I might have guessed.

Moving down the line, I was surprised to find an organization based in Salt Lake City, called the International Dutch Oven Society, with more than a thousand members.(!) On top of that, Japan has it’s own Japan Dutch Oven Society, and Arkansas apparently needed its very own state-level Arkansas Dutch Ovegildan Society. Now I’m all for advocacy and kinship, but I’m not sure all of these competing Societies are really necessary for a piece of cookware. It conjures up memories of Gilda Radner as Emily Litella talking about the National Canker Society.

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Photo: Jason Slemon

But what takes the dutch oven cake is this: in 2005, the Texas State Legislature passed a resolution proclaiming the dutch oven as theofficial state cooking implement,” joining other items such as the state “epic poem” (Legend of Old Stone Ranch) and the state “flying mammal” (Mexican Free-tailed Bat). 

Where in the heck was the skillet lobby when this was happening?

Going Dutch

Apparently the term “dutch oven” came about because the Dutch were very advanced at producing cast metal cookware in the 1600s (who knew…well, besides Wikipedia?). 

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Our buddy Geoff with peach cobbler, 1988

We started with our first dutch oven way back in the ’80s: two pie tins connected with binder clips. It worked ok, but there’s a reason that REI doesn’t sell binder clips. We graduated to a cast iron dutch oven (21 pounds, not very practical), and then to an aluminum version (5 pounds, almost practical), and finally to the Banks fry-bake (just over a pound, pure genius). The fry-bake is arguably the finest kitchenware ever made, and we don’t think that’s hyperbole–a word which incidentally was also invented by the Dutch (ok, not really).

Anyway, we are big fans of the fry-bake for everything from toasted bagels to enchiladas, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed our backcountry kitchen forever. No matter how hard we try, nothing ever seems to burn in that thing.  Nothing.

On just about every trip, from floats to backpacks to car camping, the fry-bake finds a place in our kit. One bite and you’ll know why.

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Suzy and Sara with Cheat River Tortilla Pie at Teeters Campground, West Virginia. Use no-bake noodles and the lasagne recipe on the box (so much for big secrets from this blog). For ricotta mixture, add about 1/4 cup of parm cheese, 2 eggs (beat them first before adding), and a half bag of chopped spinach (be sure to squeeze as much moisture out as you can before adding).