My mom says that when I returned from those weeks-long expeditions to the Rockies or the Boundary Waters, I was, for a brief period, a normal, pleasant human being. The teenager who snarled at the mere suggestion that the dishes needed putting away was temporarily replaced by an easy-going young woman with confidence in herself and gratitude for the little things (like a dishwasher to remove said dishes from).
When I saw "A Michigan Receipt for Making Shortcake in Camp" in American Food Writing, I knew there would be no cheating it: this recipe would be made over a fire. If in this year of cooking historically I did not go camping, then I was prepared to make shortcake over the grills in Prospect Park.
As it turns out, Liz, a girl I'm so loyal to I may as well be her mutt, wanted just one thing for her 26th birthday: a camping trip. Nothing overambitious -- some of our friends, though equally loyal, are not as tolerant of creepy-crawlies -- just a night in a state park close to a Metro North station.
So last Saturday, after a fortifying Blood Mary in a patio bar near the Cold Spring station, we ventured forth into the Wilderness. We spent the afternoon doggy-paddling lazily around a lake, grilling hot dogs, drinking beers and white wine with ice from the cooler, and debating the relative merits of this tent spot vs. that one (a quandary when your campsite resembles nothing so much as a rock quarry, as Liz's sister Becca aptly put it.)
That night, we sat around the fire, just as our Liz had pictured, eating hamburgers, corn grilled in the husk, s'mores, and baked apples sprinkled with cinnamon that were so mushy they were like pudding. Anne, Liz's teacher colleague and friend, made them by wrapping the fruits in aluminum foil, tossing them near the embers, and letting Mother Nature do the rest of the work.
One nearly-sleepless night later (see above: rock quarry), and it was time for the Michigan shortcake.
The recipe, published in 1876 in the National Cookery Book, is comically rustic: it involves an Indian guide, a sapling refashioned as a rolling pin, a hot stone standing in for a frying pan, and the inevitable salt pork (historical cooking always gets back to salt pork). I imagine that what I would make of the "receipt" would be a hit-or-miss griddle cake: it could be greasy and flat or lifeless and bland or cakey and dense.
I wasn't willing to take the risk when our breakfast depended on it, so I turned to a book that a frontier woman can depend on: The Joy of Cooking. I took the Basic Pancake recipe as my starting off point. I doubled the recipe, which meant that adding the liquid mixture to the dry without overmixing was very difficult. Bill, Liz's boyfriend and a formidable foodie, reminded me that I was forming irreparable gluten. And so I was. As Bill noted, it's a short distance between pancake and bread, and so much of it is in the agitation of the batter.
There was nothing to do but pretend that gluten was my intention all along. I kept adding milk until it was a batter I could work with -- I got a whole quart in there (the recipe calls for 2 cups) -- but the result, once I got the charcoals and skillet at the right medium-hot temperature, were thick, hearty pancakes that are exactly what you want when you spent the night spooning with a small boulder.
Speaking of spoons, I added spoonfuls of fresh blueberries to some pancakes, and leftover apple mush to others, and leftover cooked corn kernels to others. On the side: great, local Canadian bacon from the Co-op and hot coffee ... from a nearby gas station. Hey, we're urbanites (who didn't bring our French presses).
As the "Michigan receipt" notes, when the food is "all seasoned with good appetite, nothing can be more delicious." And it was.
A New York Receipt for Making Flapjacks In Camp
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 quart milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 large eggs
1 pint blueberries
1-2 cups cooked corn kernels (from about 3 cobs)
1 cup cooked apple mush or applesauce
- Preheat charcoal brickets. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine wet ingredients in another. Slowly add the liquid to the flour, whisking gently to combine. Stir just enough to combine.
- When the charcoal brickets are hot, warm a nonstick frying pan. Brush with a bit of butter (I just rub it straight on the pan). Pour about 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan, letting spread to about 4 inches in diameter. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of blueberries, corn, or apple mush/sauce.
- Cook until bubbles begin to form and the sides of pancake pull away from the pan. The flip and continue cooking until the sides pull away. Check to be sure it doesn't burn! Cooking time will vary entirely on the fire, and is a constant struggle to get right (not gonna lie.)