I found myself in charge of designing a program for thirty 6 to 12 year olds for the annual Latvian 3x3 camp in Gaŗezers, Michigan, and although coming up with ideas was easy enough, implementation was a different matter. Our assigned space was one of the new Avoti classrooms (used by the 6-week summer high school program), but as a couple dozen kids buzzing around me in an enclosed room lacked appeal, we spent the majority of our time outdoors. In addition to hikes and nature walks, one of the most successful activities was a morning in the kitchen… outdoors!
The Saulgrieži (indoor) kitchen was being used by the Latvian cooking class for adults in the mornings, and although we could have tried to squeeze in 10-15 kids one afternoon, the space is just too tiny. My mother was the first to suggest cooking outdoors, and once I had convinced her to be the guest teacher, a plan quickly fell into place; we would make bread.
Although the bread recipe featured in this post isn’t Latvian, per se, bread has always been honored and appreciated within the Latvian culture. Traditional rye and barley breads nourish not just the body but also the soul, and hold a special place in the lives of many latvieši both in Latvia and abroad.
Nāc, Jumīti, mūs’ mājās,
Še būs laba dzīvošana:
Došu maizi, došu zirņus,
Saldu alu nodzerties.
The day before our campfire bread baking activity, we gathered wood for the fire and found small saplings to cut down and strip of bark for cooking sticks. The afternoon in the woods featured many lessons: how to identify poison ivy, how to find dry wood, teamwork, and which species of tree to harvest (and which to leave). By the end of the day we had a stack of firewood ready, and the next morning all that was left was to build a fire and start cooking.
There is an art to building a fire, and although I’ve found that offering the students some suggestions will help speed things along, I prefer to let them learn from experience. The kids worked together to stack their ugunskurs, and with a little help we soon had a hot fire burning. I threw on some bigger logs, and then we stepped over to a picnic table to make the dough – the fire would have to burn down to coals so that we could cook on it.
My mother had found a recipe that could easily be made in Ziploc bags. Similar to the bannock that originated in Scotland and Ireland centuries ago, it is an unleavened bread and features only a few simple ingredients. To exclude the possibility of illness from bread that hasn’t cooked thoroughly we skipped the eggs, and by sticking measuring spoons and cups in with each ingredient, we nearly eliminated measuring error from the equation. Here’s the recipe we used…
Stick twist bread (cooked on a campfire)
1 tablespoon sugar
2/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt to taste (less than 1 teaspoon)
¼ cup milk
1 ½ tablespoons canola oil
1. Mix together dry ingredients in Ziploc, then add milk and oil. We helped measure out the liquids so that it wouldn’t get messy.
2. Press out all the air from the bag and seal, then knead until all ingredients have been combined.
3. On a flat surface dusted with flour (or simply in your hands), roll the dough out into a long ‘snake’. Flatten, then wind around your cooking stick.
4. Cook over the coals of the fire until done, then serve!
The result can be called stick bread or twists, as the dough is wrapped around a clean stick; we stripped green saplings of bark and whittled them down for our cookers. The key is in getting the dough to the right consistency: not too dry (it will fall off the cooking stick as it warms and dries out) and not too wet (too sticky to work with). But kādreiz tā gadās, and when losing the dough to the fire seemed imminent, we would place the half-cooked bread on some aluminum foil to allow it additional baking time over the coals.
Placing some larger logs around the coals eased the baking process, as the children could rest their cooking sticks on the logs while still keeping them close to the heat. By rotating the stick often and toasting the bread over hot coals instead of open flame, the bread cooks evenly. It’s done when it has a deep golden-brown exterior and sounds hollow when tapped – around 5-10 minutes, depending on the fire and thickness of dough. Last of all, a drizzle of honey over the finished product really sweetened the deal (although I found the bread tasty without). I imagine cinnamon, Nutella and jam could also serve as toppings in a pinch...