Bake a Backcountry Cake in 20 Minutes With This Secret Technique
Master the bain-marie for baked goods on demand.
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From reflecting ovens to Dutch ovens to the clock technique, there are a half-dozen ways to make baked goods in the backcountry, and almost all of them are finicky, labor-intensive, or require you to build a fire. Since most of us don’t backpack with cast-iron pans or regularly make campfires at the end of a high-mileage day, freshly-baked treats aren’t often on the camp menu. But master the bain-marie, and you can churn out cakes at will.
Also known as a water bath, a bain-marie is just a small pot sitting in a larger, water-filled pot. You pour your batter in the smaller pot, cover it and the larger pot, and put the whole contraption on top of your canister stove. Because water boils at 212 °F, your food will never get hotter than that, eliminating the hot spots and burns that usually result when you cook food over a canister stove. I’ve used the technique to turn out cakes at base camps and on weekend trips, baking piping-hot dessert with almost no effort.
This recipe uses equipment you likely already have—a camp pot, a metal mug, and a normal canister stove—as well as pre-packaged, microwaveable cake mix for maximum convenience (the single-serve varieties made for mug cakes work great), and bakes in about the same amount of time it takes to rehydrate a camp meal. You can use normal boxed cake mix, but you’ll have to pack oil and egg replacers (ground flax seed is best) as well. Keep the cakes small—mug-size servings cook reliably and are perfect for one hungry person or two generous ones.
- 1 packet of microwaveable mug cake mix
- Shelf-stable frosting packet (optional)
- Pour your mix into a single-wall steel or titanium mug. Add 3 tbsp of water and mix; the batter should be wet but not soupy. Smooth top of batter with spoon. (If using boxed cake mix, you’ll want the mug about halfway full.)
- Using three or four small flat rocks, build a platform for the mug to sit on in the bottom of the pot. This is so the batter isn’t directly exposed to, and scorched by, the stove’s flame. Sit the mug on the stones.
- Pour water into the pot until it’s just below the level of the batter. If the mug begins to float, you’ve added too much. Loosely cover the pot with a lid or aluminum foil, leaving room for steam to circulate inside.
- Put the pot on your stove and bring it to a slow boil. Leave it to bake for 20 minutes.
- Uncover the pot (use care, as the steam can burn) and check the cake for doneness with a fork. Carefully remove the mug with a bandanna. Frost and serve warm.