Book Review: “The Woods Cook”

Happy Labor Day! With Hermine at the doorstep I hope my fellow Southern New Englanders are hunkered down inside with their families today. Some of you might have seen the post on our FaceBook page where I recently purchased a copy of Tim Smith’s The Woods Cook, Outdoor Cooking With A Professional Guide. I bought it mainly because of Tim Smith’s reputation as a guide and my interest in logistics, trip planning and camp kitchen techniques. I absolutely learned some new things in that regard however, the thing I didn’t expect, was to rekindle my interest in baking. During college, I worked as a muffin baker on an apple farm and apparently there is still some aspect of me which still enjoys it. My wife and I had a house guest in town this past week so it seemed the perfect opportunity to test out some of the recipes this book generously provides. After reading the chapter on sourdough I was an instant convert and immediately got to work finding some starter and feeding it until I had enough to work with.

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While I waited for my starter to grow I figured I’d try out some non-sourdough type recipes. First up, I tried the coffee cake. Damn it’s good. Super eggy, moist, tasty delight. This is not like any coffee cake I’ve ever had before and I’ve had my share. I followed Tim’s instructions to a T (except for a brown sugar topping) and it came out great.

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After the success of the coffee cake I was motivated to try something else. Being a person of Scottish decent the shortbread cookies caught my eye. Before long I was mixing the ingredients in my large stainless bowl and dropping small balls of shortbread dough onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later I pulled them out of the oven and wallah! Done…well done. Yeah I burnt them a little bit but they were still delicious.

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The coffee cake and shortbread satisfied everyones sweet tooth and by now I had enough sourdough starter to work with. I decided to go for the gold and began assembling the ingredients to make my first sourdough bread. First the dry stuff, then the starter and oil, after a few moments the dough began to come together in a beautiful, elastic, sticky mess as I kneaded it with my hands. I failed to follow the instruction about “rolling it up” and dumped my dough straight into a bread pan and let it sit for a little over an hour. I popped it in the oven for another hour and soon after that the first loaf of sourdough bread appeared from the oven.

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As the book warned, I had a slightly uncooked center due to baking it in brick form but it was still outstanding. One of the things I like about this book are the stories Tim Smith tells about different things that have happened to him around the cook fire. After tasting the sourdough I can relate to a particular tale he tells about one of his students and their sourdough habit. (get the book if you want to understand what I’m talking about) I definitely caught the bug because the next day I was whipping up a new batch of dough, this time breaking into four smaller round loaves and baking them for half the time. They came out of the oven near perfect, but I still made a few small mental notes on how I could improve upon the next batch.

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I’m now on my third batch of sourdough with plenty of starter to go around. As long as I continue to feed the starter there’s an infinite amount bread, biscuits, pancakes, pizza crust, etc that could be baked from it. That’s pretty cool…Now I need to move outside and practice baking these recipes on the open fire but I think I’ll wait for Tropical Storm Hermine to pass first.

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This book is not all about baking. It’s filled to the brim with useful information that’s easy to digest. Jack Mountain Bushcraft Alum and cast member from History Channel’s Alone, Sam Larson, recently commented “Great reference to keep on hand as well” and I agree. I plan on keeping this book with me in camp and incorporating it’s techniques and recipes into my own. I also hope to get up north soon and actually take a course at Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. I know in the past, Tim Smith and Derek Faria have put on camp cooking demos and other workshops, check them out if you get a chance.

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