Pass/Fail: Bake in the Backcountry

The challenge: Make a dozen cupcakes with an ultralight stove.

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When I told my friend Bird I wanted to try baking on my dinky ultralight stove, he snorted. Sure, he said, if I had an Outback Oven or some other fancy equipment, no problem. But with only my heat-blasting canister stove and a small pot? No way. He reminded me that, though a longtime backpacker, I was a total culinary novice: If I tried to bake, I’d be eating raw batter and scraping burnt bits off my pan for weeks.

I’d always feared the inconvenience of packing in extra fuel—and packing out any failed attempts—but I was sure a little research and persistence would reveal just how easy it was. Besides, being able to bake bread or cinnamon rolls seemed like a good skill to have if I ever got tired of tortillas and smashed bagels on an extended trip. But I’d start with something simpler (and a little more exciting): dessert.

So I told Bird I’d make him a couple cupcakes just to shut him up. He shot back with a challenge: join him on an overnight and bake him a dozen using only the gear I already owned. That meant an MSR Pocket Rocket, a camp pot, and a lid—no fancy pot cozies. And, to simulate the stakes of true expedition baking, we agreed that I wouldn’t carry extra food as backup. If I failed, I’d dine on what Bird considered an appropriate penalty: a can of sardines. We shook on it.

I was about 50 percent sure I could pull it off. I looked up a few methods online and determined that steaming would be my best bet given my limited gear-—and my fear of burning my cakes. If I could build a platform to keep the cupcakes above a layer of water, I could fill the pot with heat via steam. I knew my stove would get hot enough to set an egg, but how well would my aluminum pot mimic the gentle convection heat of an oven? And how much fuel would I actually need?

At the store, I read cake mix labels. Cupcakes needed 350°F for about 15 minutes. Not too bad. I went with vanilla mix and chocolate icing. (I skipped the Funfetti—this was a serious bet.) The total, including foil wrappers, was about $5.

When I got home, I spooned icing into a zip-top bag, then pre-mixed the batter with oil and eggs in a separate bag and stuck it in the fridge. On a long trip I’d swap in an egg substitute, but the real thing would do for an overnight.

I met Bird at Wharton State Forest, New Jersey, at 10 a.m. He waved a can of sardines. “Can’t wait to watch you choke these down,” he said. Just looking at it made me feel queasy.

We set out on a segment of the Batona Trail and wound our way through the swampy Pine Barrens. I enjoyed the walk, but Bird did a good job of keeping my mind on the challenge at hand. “Have you ever made a cupcake in your life?” he teased. I hadn’t. I told him to quiet down.

After 5 miles, we made camp by a pond. I laid out my tools: The batter, the icing, the foil cups, the fuel, and the stove. When I pulled out my pot, Bird laughed.

“Where did you get that?” he asked. “Fisher-Price?” I reddened. The 7-by-3-inch pot had looked bigger at home.

I told Bird to go fishing. Instead, he sat down on a log beside me. I put him out of my mind and went to work.

I added half an inch of water to the bottom of the pot—any more than that wouldn’t leave enough room for my batter to rise. Next, I needed a platform. I assumed a flat rock would be easy to find, but a 20-minute search turned up none big enough for two cupcakes. I’d have to cook these suckers one at a time. I did the math: 12 cupcakes at 15 minutes each equals 180 minutes. I looked at my 8-ounce fuel canister and tried to convince myself I liked sardines.

I set the water to boil and filled a foil cup half-full of batter. When the pot started to rattle, I turned the heat down low to conserve fuel.

I opened the lid, dropped in the cup, set a timer, and waited. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Mosquitoes landed on my arms. Bird sat on the log and smirked.

It took everything I had to resist checking it every 30 seconds, but every crack of the lid meant wasted fuel.

After five minutes, I peeked—and saw a minor miracle: A tiny yellow mound of batter, starting to rise. I beamed.

Now all I had to worry about was timing. The box had said 15 minutes, but this was no home kitchen, and I had no way of telling the temperature inside the pot. At 12 minutes I opened the lid.

The steam billowed away like a curtain, unveiling a perfect cupcake. I pumped my fist and Bird’s smirk faltered. I handed him my minor miracle.

“Hey man, would you mind putting icing on this fresh-baked cupcake?” I wanted to gloat more but didn’t have time: I had 11 more cupcakes to bake.

Over the next hour and a half, I made cupcake after cupcake. I learned that at eight minutes, they were still gooey on the inside. By 13, the steam made the top mushy. Luckily, the rules of the bet never specified they had to be perfect.

By the last cake, I shook my canister. It felt light, but not empty. I grinned and dropped in the batter. Ten minutes later, I’d completed my dozen with gas to spare.

That night, Bird and I ate four cupcakes each and saved the others for breakfast. He tried to make light of his loss and said he was glad to have me along—it was the first time he’d had a personal baker in the backcountry.

The Verdict: Pass

I nearly ran out of fuel, but all 12 of my cupcakes were edible (especially with a little extra icing).