Cakewalk

When something is easy or effortless, it is sometimes called a “cakewalk.” Suzy was first introduced to the term at her high school fair, where she bought a ticket, walked in a circle, music played, a number was called, and someone handed her a cake. She had to carry it home on her bike…but come on, it’s basically a free cake. If that happened every day, life would be a cakewalk, and I would eat a TON of baked goods. Anyway, I digress.

This weekenDSCN2675d’s cakewalk was a bit more involved–a six mile hike, two frybakes, 34 pieces of charcoal, a snake, and a windstorm—but it was worth it. We’d never made cheesecake or lasagna in the backcountry before, so we decided to do both while enjoying the brilliant fall colors. Our trail of choice was Racer Camp Hollow, near Great North Mountain on the Virginia-West Virginia line.

DSCN2669At the trailhead, we ran into a DSCN2673big group from the Georgetown University Outdoor Club, which hit the trail just ahead of us. It’s great to see other kindred spirits out enjoying nature, especially the next generation.

As for the meal, we assembled the ingredients ahead of time and froze them in ziplock bags. We also carried charcoal, a spatula, and two extra plastic containers for mixing bowls. Lastly, we carried a foil pie tin, which weighed next to nothing and worked well for keeping things warm by the fire.

As we crested the first big hill on our hike, I stumbled ontoDSCN2600 a snake right in the middle of the trail. Once I came back to earth– and Suzy stopped laughing–I realized it was fake, left by someone in the outing club to entertain fellow club members. I’m relieved to know that higher education is still paying dividends in this country, and that camping pranks have elevated beyond sneaking rocks (or beer) into a friend’s backpack. We thanked the outing club for the laugh when we passed their camp later. (Oh, and a belated thanks to KB for that backcountry beer in 1993.)

In late afternoon, we found a nice camp well up the trail, set up our tent, collected some wood, and set our sites on dinner. Souzz took the lasagna, and I took the cake (so to speak). For the lasagna, we used no-bake noodles, sauce, ricotta/spinach/eggs, sausage, and mozzarella. We carried the eggs pre-scrambled in a small plastic Nalgene bottle and added that in to the ricotta mixture at the last minute. Most of the rest was pre-mixed.

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Prep was actually pretty easy, about 15 minutes, and the cooking took about an hour and fifteen minutes (18 coals split top/bottom). It’s trite to say it was worth the wait, but it’s also true.  And we enjoyed a nice fire, garlic bread, and a few appetizers while we waited. I’d give this dish a full five sporks on the Souzzchef rating scale.

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sour cream cheesecake

original recipe, written on an envelope!

Cheesecake prep was similarly easy, maybe 15 minutes. We used a package of graham crackers and third of a cup of butter for the crust, and 12 ounces of sour cream, eight ounces of cream cheese, two eggs, a half cup of sugar, a dash of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half teaspoon of almond extract for the filling.  For the crust, we melted the butter over the stove and stirred in the crushed crackers. We assembled the filling, poured it in, and baked for about an hour and 20 minutes (eight coals on top, eight coals on bottom, adding some coals from the fire at the very end). For this dish, we used a “deep alpine” frybake (3 inches deep, a prototype not yet for sale but likely to be on the market soon).

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A wind break would have helped, as cook time was slowed down by a light breeze, but that at least helped cool the cake afterwards. We added cherry topping and we had ourselves a nice fall treat.

The only thing we’d change is to avoid freezing the sour cream ahead of time, as it lost its consistency during the freeze/thaw.  As a result, the texture wasn’t even…so I’m only rating it four out of five sporks. There’s got to be a way to carry along some makeshift refrigeration, perhaps wrapping the sour cream with the other frozen ingredients.  Still, the cake was very good.

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With dinner done, it was time to sleep.  Some years back, I took a mountaineering course and was told that I was sloppy with my gear–that one day something important was going to get blown away or covered in snow.  So my custom now is to pack camp tight before heading to bed, with everything bolted down in case of a surprise storm, an aggressive raccoon, or both (and I would totally post photos if a raccoon ransacked camp in the middle of a storm, as that would be kind of cool).

Lo and behold, the wind picked up in the middle of the night, and several times we were woken up by 35 mph gusts.  So many leaves were hitting the tent that I actually thought it was raining. We emerged in the morning to see that the wind had stripped the trees almost bare, and we had seemingly gone from fall to winter in a single night.  Two hikers that passed us in the morning shared stories of holding onto their tent fly with both hands, exciting stuff. 

We made coffee and a nice breakfast and marveled at how different things looked with all of the leaves gone.  The weekend wasn’t easy or effortless, but it sure had turned into a fun trip.  And then Suzy handed me a piece of leftover cheesecake. Did someone say cakewalk?

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Willow in the Kitchen

At dinner on Friday night at our favorite local Arlington restaurant, Willow, we got an unexpected menu idea while raving over our appetizer. Tracy O’Grady, Willow’s Executive Chef and co-owner, is an inspiration both inside and outside of the kitchen, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we were motivated to try to take a little slice of Willow outdoors. Suzy’s cousin Maureen gets credit for the idea, even going so far as to point out what gadgets we’d need to bring along to make it happen (Mo, we saved you leftovers).

So yesterday morning we loaded up the car and headed for the hills of West Virginia–to a favorite little spot up Waite’s Run near Wardensville–with our full kitchen kit and hundreds of pounds of ultralight gear.

Should I be worried that Souzz is reading about a moving sale?

After setting up a simple camp, we started working on our streamside feast.  We kicked things off with Tracy’s inspiration: penne pasta, home-made pesto, scallops, prosciutto, cream, parmesan cheese, and bread crumbs baked briefly (10 minutes?) in a fry-bake and then browned with a hand held torch. I can’t remember what Tracy calls her dish, but we called it fabulous…even if it wasn’t quite up to Tracy’s high standards.

Next time we won’t freeze the scallops ahead of time, as we had a bit of water build up that kept them from browning. Perhaps it’s easier in a commercial kitchen…or maybe extraordinarily talented professional chefs know things that we don’t?  But the dish still came out nicely, and the torch was a big key. We aren’t sure if we could pull this off in the backcountry, but we are going to try it on our next backpack.

We followed up the appetizer with Suzy’s trademark, Potato Gratin a al Savoyarde, which is a fry-bake dish consisting of thin-sliced potatoes, chicken broth, gruyere cheese, carmelized onions, and rosemary. Another key gadget to have along is a mandolin, which helped in evenly slicing the potatoes as well as the onions. It’s not very practical for the backcountry, and harder to play than a ukulele, but it’s easy enough to bring along at a roadside camp.

One thing that helps with fry-bake cooking when the ground is cold is to use a cookie sheet under the pan–which is more low impact, as well. For the potato dish, we put 7 coals on the bottom and 10 on the top and baked it for an hour. To time things out, you can just taste it periodically, as Souzz does, or you can geek out with an oven temperature guide (and suggested number of coals) by clicking here.

Lastly, the Pièce de résistance was rack of lamb–and now you know the only expression that I know in French. We seasoned it with olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic, and rosemary, grilled the rack over charcoal for ten minutes or so, and then put it in a frybake with a few coals on top to finish the job. It came out perfectly medium rare, although that was more luck than plan.

If we were to repeat this, we’d have cooked the lamb in the fry-bake start to finish, and I would have practiced more French ahead of the trip.