Ahhhh, there's nothing like the roar of a good campfire...
Some of my best childhood memories involve camping during the summers with my family.
As a kid, I remember the excitement of waking up on a crisp morning and crawling out of the tent into the lush green forest, exploring the outdoors during hikes and bike rides, drinking Tang by the bucket and eating s'mores by the campfire. I loved the soothing, peaceful feeling of being surrounded by nature.
These camping trips stopped around junior high, when I got a summer job and wasn't so interested in hanging out with the family anymore.
Now that I have kids myself, I wanted to start the tradition of going camping as a family again.
Our first attempt was a complete disaster. To celebrate my dad's retirement a couple of years ago, my extended family got together at a campground in southern Wisconsin. At the time, our daughter was 18 months old, and I was seven months pregnant with our second child. The night sleeping on the air mattress in the tent was just excruciating; I was totally uncomfortable and my daughter was so freaked out being in the tent that she cried (very loudly) the entire night.
My sister marveled the next morning how we were able to withstand it, and said they would have taken off in the middle of the night to sleep in a hotel if it were them. (Maybe they had been hoping that, since they were in the tent next to ours.)
We slept in a tent a couple of times after that with the kids, and they cried a lot, plus woke up extremely early - around 5:30 am each morning. Not fun for anyone.
So that scared us off of camping for a while.
Now, though, my kids are both a little older, so we thought it would be a good time to try again. This summer has been so busy that the only weekend that worked was this past one. We built in a virtual escape hatch by deciding to go to a county park on the outskirts of the Twin Cities metro area, Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, so that if the excursion didn't go well, we'd be able to easily cut the trip short.
I finally got serious about preparations on Friday, and suddenly blanked out about the food - what do people eat when they go camping??? I mean, besides hot dogs, mac and cheese and s'mores?
I quizzed my family and friends, who offered lots of good suggestions - pesto pasta, hobo hamburger pouches on the campfire, quesadillas, etc. But I was most intrigued by my sister's suggestion to try making pizza in a Dutch oven.
Coincidentally, on the same day, my husband emailed to me at work a link to a recipe for a black forest cobbler dessert in a Dutch oven. And so the deal was sealed; we bought a seven quart cast iron Dutch oven to try out these campfire cooking experiments.
I mean, like I've said before, why make things simple when they could be difficult? :)
Keep in mind this is on top of (1) bringing two young kids camping for the first time, (2) assembling our new tent for the first time, (3) using our camp stove, propane lantern, sleeping bags and other camping equipment for the first time; etcetera, etcetera.
I guess I just like the challenge of trying new things.
That old adage about never serving a new dish to a dinner party also probably holds true for preparing something new using a cooking technique you've never tried before on the first night of the first full-scale solo camping trip you've taken in over 20 years.
But this is exactly what I did. Some people never learn...
We got going late in the afternoon on Sunday, and didn't arrive at our campsite until about 5:30 pm. By the time we got the tent set up and everything else situated it was almost 8:00. Just the time to break out a new recipe!
The recipe for Campfire Dutch Oven Pizza called for browning the ground beef (we substituted mild Italian sausage) in the Dutch oven in the fire. At least that's how I interpreted the directions; the recipe wasn't specific about whether it should be directly in flames, on coals, or what.
Our fire was roaring hot, and it was pretty difficult to be sitting so close to the fire to stir the meat around. (Thinking back, at the very least, I should have done this over the cooking grate rather than having the oven directly in the fire). Our oven mitts actually caught on fire at one point.
After the sausage had browned, we removed the meat, layered the bottom with Crescent Roll dough and added the toppings, by this point using the propane lantern for light.
The recipe called for an awful lot of toppings, too much it seemed to me, but who was I to say, this was my first time trying the recipe.
We put the Dutch oven back into the fire on top of some hot coals, and then laid several red-hot coals on top, for more even cooking. It was certainly dramatic looking.
But how do you check it, with all of the coals on top? I checked it once, and my husband thought it was looking good, but I thought the cheese should have been a little brown so I left it on a little longer, and as it turned out, too long. (It didn't help that I was drinking wine by this point and not exactly paying attention to the time).
When we took it out, the crust was ruined, and so we ended up eating just the toppings like some sort of crazy messed-up casserole. Not what I had envisioned for dinner.
I called my sister the next morning for cooking tips. She told me that she only prepared the Dutch oven recipes over hot coals but not in the campfire itself; when camping she prepares the meals, then saves the wood fires for later. Ahhhhh....suddenly it started making more sense. My guess is that the temp was probably super-high (maybe 600 or 700 degrees?) from the fire, and no wonder the pizza got wrecked.
I had enough leftover ingredients to make a second pizza and I was determined to try to master this technique. So I tried making it again for lunch that day, using just the hot coals.
No shock and awe in this preparation. Just a quiet, austere look and lack of drama to the cooking proceedings. In fact, all of the ash made it look downright winter-y.
It was hard to believe that these coals alone would be enough to heat this massive Dutch oven and cook the food, but that's exactly what happened.
And the pizza's taste? Not bad, not bad. The crust turned out perfectly brown. I'd recommend the recipe if you're camping for several days and want to mix up the menu a bit - Campfire Dutch Oven Pizza.
Have you ever cooked in a Dutch oven over a campfire? Any tricks or tips to share?