We had a plan.
We were going to make bread. On sticks. Over a fire. In the woods.
In mid-October we went camping for a weekend, and I got it into my head that I wanted to make bread outside. We’re not strangers to cooking out-of-doors, but baking bread sans a kitchen is something that neither of us have ever done. Certainly, we could have baked a loaf of bread before we left, but we wanted warm bread for a cold evening. And baking bread while camping meant we would use ingredients that would have otherwise gone bad and a campfire that was already roaring, not an oven that needed non-renewable resources.
I found a recipe (which I didn’t exactly follow). I made preparations: I measured out the flour (part spelt, part rye), the yeast, grated carrots and wrote down the directions.
Directions written on the flour bag.
On our second evening in the woods, as the sun (which hadn’t risen very far that morning) began to fall, we started making supper. I fetched our supplies: spices, herbs, oils, knives, cupboard, spoons. The yeast had to bloom before it could be mixed with the flour, and it had to be combined with honey and salt. When I reached into our supplies crate, I realized we hadn’t packed measuring spoons. Usually we find them unnecessary while camping – we estimate, we eyeball – but when I make bread I tend to be fanatical about the measurements. Instead, I had to guess the quantities of honey and salt and hope that they were close enough.
I set the yeast mixture close to the fire so that the warmth would help it activate. A few minutes later, when the yeast looked creamy and slightly bubbly, I added it to the flour and grated carrots – everything went straight into a bag. Then I kneaded it all gently and set the bag by the fire, since I was afraid the chilly air might hinder the dough’s ability to rise. Our fellow campers asked me what was in the bag and they were all rather surprised when I told them: bread dough.
And then it started raining.
Maybe the dough needed a little longer to rise, but we started to wrap it around metal marshmallow sticks anyhow (no time to look for tree branches). Tim and I both crouched by the fire as it continued to drizzle, holding our sticks over the flames. The dough browned, it blackened, it bubbled, it charred. We knocked the sides to check for doneness; when it sounded hollowed, it was supposed to be cooked through. We joined the other campers under a tent, tasted our experiment and shared. “More salt,” Tim said simply, and I agreed.
Because of the rain, because of the cold, most of the dough went unused. It remained in the bag, sitting out in the cold all night long.
But in the morning, there was breakfast to be made. Before I knew what he was doing, Tim had borrowed a Mountain Pie Maker from one of the other campers. He pressed the bread dough into each side and filled the middle with dates, sucanat and peanut butter. Then he held it over the fire for I don’t know how many minutes (I was too busy boiling water for tea, making oatmeal and keeping my fingers warm). His first try did not release easily from the metal. So he tried again, this time greasing the inside with coconut oil; this time adding cinnamon. This time, it worked: a perfectly enclosed pocket of warm sweetness.
But we still wanted bread on a stick.
A few evenings later – with access to a kitchen – we gave the recipe a second go.
Rosemary and Thyme.
For our second attempt, we added herbs. As I was measuring out the carrots, I told Tim that this batch did need more salt than the first, but it needed more flavor too. He started to dig around in the spice cupboard. “Cinnamon? Nutmeg?” he asked. “No, something more savory,” I said. “Thyme, maybe? Sage?”
And then I realized: we may be on the edge of autumn but there are still herbs in the garden. So I slipped out the back door, called after Tim to follow if he wanted to, and collected rosemary, thyme and sage. I should have fetched some parsley too, for the sake of a song reference, if nothing else.
Finished bread, removed from the stick.
The dough rose in the warmth of the house. We tasted it; still needed more salt and a little pepper. A fire was lit. And it didn’t rain. It was a beautiful evening, actually.
We sat by a fire pit and – as we were roasting our last spiral of bread – we dreamed up how we could changed the recipe, all the ways we could tweak it. For one, it seemed highly versatile when it came to “mix-ins.” In place of the carrots (and the seeds/nuts the original recipe called for) we thought of adding:
Raisins, apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, ginger.
Cocoa nibs, dried cherries, and almonds (or macadamia nuts).
Molasses in place of honey, fresh grated ginger, cloves, apple, pumpkin seeds.
Finely chopped kale, fresh basil, walnuts, garlic, a little lemon zest. Then brush the dough with olive oil before baking.
Recipes aren’t all bad, but they’re not the rules. They’re guidelines, suggestions, sparks of inspiration.
The recipe I found put me on the path to making some wonderful bread. But I didn’t have nuts or seeds on hand, and there were carrots in the fridge that needed to be used. Some other time, perhaps we’ll try again – maybe we’ll add kale instead of carrots and throw in some red onion and chipotle peppers. Recipes can make it appear that cooking is static. It isn’t; it’s fluid. Often, you can toss in what you have and leave out what you don’t (except for things like baking soda – I don’t recommend leaving that out).
Also, mistakes and mishaps are not the end of the world. We could have thrown the bread dough out before we left the campsite. But we knew the cold night had retarded the development of the yeast; it might still be useful. So Tim repurposed it – he made it his breakfast, instead of part of his dinner.
This idea is at the core of gastronomic permaculture. Meals are not made in a vacuum. They are informed by the foods that previously made their way into your hands, and the remains of a meal can be a beautiful thing – even if it was not a success. What you eat today can come from what you cooked yesterday.
What might seem like the end of the story can become the beginning.