Camping With Julia

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BY SARAH BARTHELOW
ILLUSTRATIONS BY HILARY MCMULLEN

 

When I was in high school, I learned to make cinnamon rolls on the folding table we set up in the back hallway of Holly B’s Bakery. I’d don a navy-blue apron that proclaimed “Holly’s Buns Are Best!” while mixing together flour, water, and yeast for these eponymous treats.

I’d roll out a field of sticky, elastic dough after it had slowly risen between the warm ovens and ancient Hobart stand mixer. On went thick brushstrokes, heavy with melted butter, crumbled brown sugar laced with cinnamon, sliced almonds, and a sprinkle of plump raisins. I’d roll them up, tugging the dough loose off the table and pulling it toward me to get the spiral as tight as possible.

A serrated knife sliced the log into 1-inch rolls, and I placed them on a parchment-lined, over-sized sheet pan. The rolls came out oozing sugar around the edges, so hot they would burn my mouth as I peeled off a doughy strip, too intoxicated with smell to wait for it to cool.

 

As I grew older, the doughy morning ritual of cinnamon rolls followed me wherever I went. Unlike some baked goods, the recipe is forgiving, adaptable to everything from the high altitudes I encountered in Telluride, Colorado, to the foreign ingredients at my local grocery in England. It’s even possible, I found, to make these soldiers without an oven.

 

Last spring, I was deep in the woods on a five-day backpacking trip along the Washington coast. I woke up to pouring rain and 12 middle-schoolers eager to hike back to the vans. I rushed everyone to pack up their things quickly so we could miss the tide, but by the time we made it to the bank, the coastal river had risen too high, trapping us on its northern bank until the tide receded that afternoon. A dozen demoralized little bodies trudged back to the campsite to stand under a leaky tarp and play Duck, Duck, Goose.

From my pack, I pulled two cups of flour in a Ziploc bag. I warmed water over our small camp stove and poured it into the bag. In went a packet of yeast, and I mushed it all up until a sticky ball of dough began to form. I tucked the ball inside my down jacket and sat down to a game of cards. The rain continued to fall as the dough slowly rose inside the warm cocoon of my jacket.

An hour later, I stretched out the sticky dough on a plate on the damp ground. A few pine needles snuck in as I flattened it as best I could, poured on the sugar and raisins, and sprinkled the whole thing with cinnamon.

Awkwardly rolling the tube, I borrowed a sixth-grader’s pocket knife to slice off rounds and set them in the fry pan, slick with the last of our cooking oil. I fired up the jet boil and set the pan on top.

 

A rejuvenating aroma of spicy cinnamon and yeasty bread filled the campsite after ten minutes or so. Spirits began to rise as we had something to look forward to other than three more hours of rainy games. Turning off the stove, I lifted the lid to reveal a dozen slightly shriveled, partially doughy rolls. The middle four were burnt to a crisp on the bottom.

 

As Julia Child said, “I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.”

We ate those cinnamon rolls right out of the pan, the sweet, sugary middle burning our mouths as the hot dough warmed us from the inside out.

Sarah Barthelow is a freelance food writer and the voice behind the popular food blog Little House Pantry and weekly food podcast And Eat It Too! She grew up on Lopez Island and now lives in Seattle.

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