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If I had to take a guess I would say that marshmallows are the number one food 'cooked' over a campfire. It's just so easy! You stuff it on the end of a stick and voila your 'cooking' project is ready. Even young toddlers can handle this one, which I suppose contributes to why it's so popular. It's a chance for them to experiment with the heat of the fire, with how that heat changes the closer or further away they get, and with how easily things can burn, even without putting them directly into the flame!
And there's no one way to roast a marshmallow. Almost every roasting session includes a debate about what's the 'best' way to roast a marshmallow (As far as I'm aware the debate has never been universally settled). I like to think of all of this as playing. Campfire cooking gives the opportunity for us to play with our food! And the interactions we have with others in the process are part of that play too.
Once marshmallows are mastered, it's great to graduate on to more complex cooking projects. Maybe that's bread on a stick. This is similar to marshmallows but with a few extra steps. Instead of just poking a stick in, participants can get the chance to mix the dough, roll it out in their hands, and practice the tricky method of getting the dough to attach to their stick. Some roll it out like a snake and wrap it around the end of their stick in a spiral. Others might roll it into a ball and shove the stick through in a marshmallow-like fashion. Again, it allows participants to be playful - to be creative and experiment with their own ideas. Then eating the bread made on the stick is an adventure in its own right. Do you fill it with jam? Drizzle it with honey? Smother it with Nutella? Shove in a hotdog and squirt it with ketchup? Or what else? There's so many possibilities to play with...
Popcorn is a simple, but exciting project too. In my experience it always takes longer than you think it will to pop. You stand there holding the kernels over the coals for long enough to start wondering whether the kernels you're using are duds... Until you hear that first 'POP!'. And then another and another until the air is filled with the noise of continuous tiny explosions. And then it finally settles into the occasional 'Pop', pause.... 'Pop', Pause.... When the pause seems to last forever, that's when you know it's ready.
Listening for those pops almost becomes a game, helping you make the judgment for whether to take the kernels off the fire or not... A game in which we get to play with sounds by listening out for pops between pauses. The game could even keep going post-popping by giving participants the chance to season their own popcorn. I've heard this described as 'popcorn wars', where participants become 'contestants' who select their own special popcorn seasoning ingredients. Then they can all act as judges to see which seasoning combinations are most enjoyable. And so playing with sounds can become playing with tastes...
Perhaps one of my favorite cooking projects, introduced to me by a dear friend, is making chocolate orange cakes. I think it's because of how it always surprises people that it's even possible to bake a cake over open flames. The assumption is that you need an oven to provide an even baking temperature to bake a cake well. And that's kinda true... Unless you're playing.
Chocolate orange cakes involve using the scooped out half-section of an orange as the vessel to cook chocolate cake batter in. As it cooks, it picks up the orange-y flavour quite nicely! I suggested chocolate orange cakes to a group recently and they were very receptive! To make them, we set up a food prep area on a makeshift table and soon the children arranged themselves into an assembly line. One person tore aluminum foil into large squares while another person scooped cake batter into an orange section. The batter scooper then passed the batter-filled orange on to another person who placed it inside the prepared aluminum foil square and pinched up the corners to make a little cake parcel. Another person was the transport - they went back and forth between the table and the fire transporting the little prepared cake parcels to the grill that was placed over the flames. This involved experimenting with ways to place the parcels down on the grill without singeing oneself from the heat and finding spots over the fire that weren't too hot or too cold, but just right...
Once the cakes all made it safely through their travels to the fire, we waited... After some time had passed we peaked inside the foil to find that the batter was still raw. So we waited some more.... And then checked again. This time we discovered some of the cakes were cooked, some were still raw, and some were definitely burning!!! It became a game akin to whack-a-mole where we were checking foil parcels frantically, trying to guess which ones might be ready and removing them from the fire before they burned! For the most part our cake making session was a success (we only suffered two tragic cake casualties). Luckily, enough cakes survived to feed the hungry children who had enjoyed playing our cake-making game.
Like any form of play, outdoor cooking is intertwined with a vast array of learning experiences. It involves experimentation, creativity, team work, and possibly most significantly, risk. There is always risk with fire. Yes, it can burn. But perhaps that's a lesson best learned through burnt marshmallows and orange cakes so that a child knows what precautions they can take to avoid burning themselves. I think it's safe to say that in the world of outdoor cooking, the likelihood of a burnt marshmallow is far greater than a burnt finger. And so are the opportunities for learning.
Have you taken part in any exciting cooking projects or have any great recipes to share? Please leave a comment - I'd love to hear about it! :)
Also, I've created a Pinterest board with ideas for outdoor cooking projects, including a recipe for chocolate orange cakes, which you can find here!