Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cake In A Bag

Traveling has been interfering with posting. Lots of backpacking, so I thought I'd share this recipe for backpacking cake. (For the person who reached this blog earlier on a search for "backpacking cake" - come back! We've got your answer now.)

Baking while camping presents unique challenges. If you are car- or canoe-camping, and you have room in your luggage, you can bake directly in a Dutch oven. Unfortunately, you can't bake in a backpacking cooking pot because the walls are too thin. The cake batter would turn into a charred cinder crust surrounding undercooked goo.

Cake in a bag avoids this problem by steaming the cake, instead of baking it. You cook the cake batter in an oven food bag or slow-cooker liner on a steaming rack inside your cooking pot. Technically, I suppose that makes it a pudding, rather than a cake, but "pudding in a bag" just sounds weird.

This recipe is entirely a Matt creation. The goals for the cake were to:
taste good - It's not hard to make cake that tastes good after a hard day of hiking, but this cake is yummy even when made at home.
require minimal extra weight - Eggs, oil and other liquids are relatively heavy and require separate sturdy containers to transport safely. This recipe can be carried as a dry mix in a single plastic bag.
require minimal extra gear - In addition to your one-burner backpacking stove and cooking pot, you will need only an oven food bag, a steaming rack and a couple of ounces of extra stove fuel.
be simple to prepare in camp - It's hard for any food, no matter how wonderful, to receive the acclaim it deserves if it isn't ready until the mosquitoes have devoured the children.

Note that beauty is not a criterion. This cake is ugly! It is not browned, and it comes out lumpy, or even lobed, based on the contours it assumes in the plastic bag.

On the other hand, the cake does not have to be as ugly as this picture suggests. Just use a better glaze recipe (as included in this post) and employ moderation in the number of birthday candles you use.

The recipe for chocolate cake in a bag was inspired by a recipe in Light Muffins by Beatrice Ojakangas. (I recommend this cookbook. The recipes are good, and neither taste nor texture suffers appreciably from the reduction in fat.) Matt has also developed a recipe for a date spice cake in a bag.

Gear Needed

Stove- your usual one-burner backpacking stove and some extra fuel
(We've used a white gas stove in the past. We haven't tried making cake in a bag over an alcohol stove; we don't see why you couldn't, though you may have to increase the baking time.)

Pot - the pot you would normally use to cook for more than two people while backpacking (we have a very light 8-cup aluminum thrift store pot that works well)

Steaming rack -
  • We use a homemade chicken wire steaming rack that weighs about an ounce and packs compactly in the pot.

  • You can buy a backpacking cake cooker (the Bakepacker) but, at 8 ounces, it's too heavy for our purposes.

  • We've never tried a home steamer basket, but it might work (this kind would definitely work if your pot is big enough). Ours weighs in at 6 ounces and is relatively bulky, but you could take it car camping and experiment.

  • Someday, we plan to try using a magic wire puzzle. No clue what it's made of or how much it weighs, but you can't deny the cool factor, and the price is certainly right.

  • For the ultra-light backpacker, you could try using a loose pile of twigs. The oven bags are pretty stout.

Oven food bag - Glad and Reynolds are widely available brands of oven food bags

When Matt was first developing this recipe, I wondered about the safety of baking in plastic, since these bags are not marketed for that purpose. So I sent an email to Reynolds and got this response from someone named Ethel - "Unfortunately, we have never tested these bags for baking a cake by any method and could not recommend it." Those people have no spirit of inquiry. (And could her name really be Ethel? It sounds like the customer support person in India who has to say his name is Mike.)

We decided to forge ahead on the theory that, if these bags are safe for cooking fatty meat at 400 degrees F (a big if), they should be no worse for baking low-fat cake at 212 degrees or less.

Chocolate Cake in a Bag

serves roughly 8, depending on how many miles you've hiked (the recipe makes the equivalent of 12 muffins)

At home, mix in a heavy-duty gallon bag:

1/4 cup hazelnuts, finely ground (see note at end of post)
1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated
1 3/4 cups white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa (preferably
Dutch process)
3 teaspoons instant coffee
8 teaspoons powdered egg whites (or powdered whole eggs to equal 2 eggs)
3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk
4 tablespoons vegetable or nut oil (mixing the oil with the dry ingredients makes it fairly safe to travel with)
Optional: seeds and pulp scraped from one vanilla bean (vanilla powder would be easier; you want the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, which would be 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla powder according to one vendor)

Be sure to carry enough stove fuel for 35-45 minutes of cooking.

In camp:
  1. Fill your cooking pot with water to just below the level of the steaming rack and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer if your stove allows.

  2. Pour dry ingredients into oven bag. Add 1 1/2 cups water to dry ingredients and mix.

  3. Close oven bag loosely (to allow steam to escape, so bag won't burst). Steam, covered, for 35-45 minutes. To test for doneness, remove bag from pot, open and poke a utensil into the middle of the cake.

  4. Peel back the bag and serve.

Chocolate Glaze

Because it's not super-rich, this cake benefits from the extra moisture of a glaze. The easiest thing to do is use instant pudding. Try this recipe for something a bit swankier (in taste, not appearance).

At home, mix in a heavy-duty plastic bag:

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, ground
2 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons powdered buttermilk

In camp:
  1. When your cake is done, add 3 1/2 tablespoons of the boiling water to the dry ingredients in the plastic bag. Mix immediately and thoroughly by squeezing and agitating the bag. (The water must be near boiling to melt the ground chocolate.)

  2. Pour glaze over individual hunks of cake (to call them slices would be misleading).

Preparing Hazelnuts

Specifying finely ground hazelnuts in a recipe is a bit like a car repair manual saying "first remove the transmission."

I have yet to find a satisfactory method for removing hazelnut skins. The standard instruction to roast the nuts and rub the skins off with a towel is just a mean joke. Using baking soda in boiling water works beautifully, but imparts a baking soda taste. Most people don't find this offensive, but a few (like me) really have a hard time with it. While looking for a link explaining these methods, I was excited to find that someone suggested using plain boiling water. Definitely worth a try.

Grinding the hazelnuts is fun and easy if you have a good nut grinder. If you are thinking of buying one, I would suggest avoiding this type. Almonds will defeat it every time.

If you prefer, you can have someone else do the work for you and buy ready-made hazelnut meal.

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Blogger James Terrier said...

This is a great backpacking cake recipe. I like the fact that the cake is simple to prepare, requires minimal gear, and tastes good. I will try this recipe during my next outdoor expedition. Learn more on campfire cooking here:

May 21, 2017 at 10:17 PM  

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