At age 12 I attempted to bake muffins. In the process, I managed to get flour throughout the entire house, slipped on a splodge of butter on the floor, and burned both thumbs on the oven rack. However, the wonderful aroma of baking wafted everywhere and when the timer rang and I withdrew the evidence of my efforts…well, let’s just say that it was the first and last time I attempted baking – except for one idle afternoon in a distant campsite.
African camp cooks are phenomenal. Give them a campfire and two large pots, and they’ll produce anything. No microwave oven or Lagostina…just two pots and a stack of firewood and off they go. Stews, soups and curries are obvious, but I’ve had a full Sunday roast with very respectable roast potatoes that would be the envy of highly-rated pubs! I’ve had spaghetti bolognaise executed perfectly al dente. I’ve even had superb fish and chips…you try deep-frying potatoes over a campfire! The possibilities are endless and their skills limitless. I’m not quite so blessed.
It was a lazy day on a long overland haul and a fellow traveller and I decided to bake a chocolate cake, as one does in the wilds of Africa! Neither of us had ever made a cake before. In fact, I think my muffins were probably the extent of our combined baking skills. Still, there was no lack of enthusiasm. We gathered together flour, cocoa powder, UHT milk, sugar, eggs and an oddly-hued margarine. We had no idea of quantities but just kept mixing until the colour and consistency looked vaguely familiar. We scooped our brew into a large metal pot and stood it on the fire. Then we went and wrote diaries and washed socks.
Several hours later we returned and removed the lid. The concoction looked just as when we’d finished our laborious mixing: a thick, gooey, brown mess. It did smell good, however. We added some wood to the fire and replaced the lid. The day wore on and our cake remained a congealed pudding. One by one our travel mates returned from their wanderings and asked what we were doing.
“Baking a cake!” we exclaimed proudly.
The announcement created great excitement and soon the entire group was impatiently awaiting our culinary masterpiece.
With light fading and dinner long since served, we moved the pot onto the grass. Our companions crowded around eager for the first glimpse of our mound of nirvana. The lid was removed and once the steam had cleared we peered in…to see the same semi-liquid congealed pudding gurgling back.
Our camp cook casually strolled over and looked into the pot, picked it up and put it back on the fire. He put the lid back on and then covered that with smoldering embers from the fire. He glanced at his watch before walking away. One hour later he returned. With supreme confidence he placed a stack of plastic bowls on the table along with forks. He removed the pot from the fire and, holding the lid firmly in place, flipped it over. Carefully removing the pot, sitting elegantly on top of the flat metal lid was our cake. Not the prettiest in the world, but mouthwatering to those of us who had been anticipating it all day.
We shyly accepted the group’s gratitude and congratulations but knew that if it wasn’t for the assistance of our professional, we would instead all be scooping spoonfuls of ooey-gooey sweet brown stuff!
But at least this time I hadn’t burned my thumbs!
Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009