Make a little culinary magic – on your next camping trip or in your own backyard.
By conservative estimates, I believe I have taught over 1,000 adolescent and teenage girls (and more than a few grown women and men) how to make pineapple upside-down cake in a Dutch oven. Nearly fool-proof and dependably crowd-pleasing, it is a camping staple in my family: my kids, their friends, my Girl Scouts, and a long string of Counselors-in-Training have all come to expect it as a God-given right – if I take them anywhere near a campfire, they will get pineapple upside-down cake.
Before I outline the process, I’ll tell you what I always tell people when I teach Dutch oven cooking:
“When the lid is on that big round thing, it is NOT a pot!
It is an OVEN!”
Say it with me – “A Dutch oven is NOT a Pot!” Make that your mantra. With a little practice, you can learn to regulate the temperature of your Dutch oven very closely and then you will be able to cook almost anything in it that you can make in your oven at home.
Essential Equipment for Dutch Oven Cooking:
- Dutch Oven – At the risk of suffering the wrath of all that is holy in the camping world, I have to admit that my favorite Dutch oven for baking is… (shhhh)… aluminum. Yep. There, I said it. I feel better now… I think. I’ve cooked in a lot of Dutch ovens, and while you can’t beat cast iron for giving you a perfect brown and sizzle, when it comes to delicate baking, I much prefer aluminum. I can regulate the temperature more accurately (this is, admittedly, a personal thing) and I feel like the baking process is “cleaner.” As a bonus, it only weighs about a third of that of a similarly sized cast iron version.
- Lid Lifter – These nifty gadgets came out when I was a kid, and I remember when we got ours my Dad thought it was absolutely the “cat’s meow.” Not only does it allow you to carry your (often very heavy) Dutch oven safely, but it holds the lid so steady that you can lift it to take a peak without getting ashes or disturbing your coal/briquette distribution. I won’t cook with a Dutch oven without one.
- Heat Resistant Gloves – Because fire is hot.
Not Essential, but Nice to Have:
- Heavy-duty Tongs (For placing coals/briquettes.)
- Dutch oven storage/carry bag
- Dutch oven lid stand
- Charcoal Chimmey Starter
The following directions assume that you are outside in a camping environment, but there is no rule that says you can’t make it at home in your oven. (OK, honestly, I do have a rule – I only make this when we have a campfire: that’s one of the things that make it special. But you can make up any rules you want.)
Dutch Oven Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
For one 10-12 inch Pineapple Upside Down Cake, you will need:
- 1/2 cup butter
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1 large can pineapple rings reserve juice
- 1 Yellow Cake Mix
- Eggs probably 3, or as many as your cake calls for
- Vegetable Oil as cake mix requires. I usually use ½ oil, ½ plain or vanilla yogurt
First, double line your Dutch oven with aluminum foil. I use the extra-sturdy, extra-wide variety.
Melt the stick of butter in the bottom of the Dutch oven, either by sitting it over coals or on top of a camp stove. When the butter is completely melted, throw in the brown sugar and stir until it is beginning to melt. It should be thick, but not clumpy.
Set the pineapple rings in the bottom of the Dutch oven on top of the brown sugar mixture, reserving pineapple juice. If you are using a 10-inch Dutch oven, you will have one extra ring of pineapple. Give this to your favorite child.
Make cake following the directions on the box, using the reserve pineapple juice and adding just enough water to achieve the required amount of liquid. I always just use the pineapple can to measure the liquid – it makes one less dish to wash.
Carefully pour the cake batter over the pineapple and brown sugar mix.
Put the lid on the Dutch oven. On calm, moderately warm day with no wind, you will need about 12-13 briquettes on top and 10 on the bottom for a 10-inch Dutch oven.
And yes, I said briquettes. I have cooked many times with coals from my fire, but briquettes allow you to very specifically set the temperature inside your oven, thus insuring perfect results.
Bake the cake for about 30 minutes. Don’t lift the lid to check it for at least the first 20 minutes or you will just let all the heat out. I usually check it the first time when I can smell the cake baking. The cake is done when it is bouncy to the touch. When the cake is done, remove it from the coals and remove the lid.
Time for the Magic!
OK, this is the tricky, magical part. (And do not wait to do it until the cake cools or the magic won't work!) You need to put the cake on a pan or a board or a cutting mat or something big and flat that you can lift easily. Using two hand, carefully lift the cake out of the Dutch oven and set it, in the foil liner, on this first big flat thing. (Be sure to use something to protect your hands - this is hot work!)
Then you need another big flat thing to put on top. For this, I usually cover my camp cutting mat with foil, because this is ultimately what you cake will be served from.
Now, gather all the kiddos around, because this is usually pretty impressive. Peel back the edges of the foil from the cake sides but leave the bottom alone. Set the second big flat thing gently on top of the cake. Put one hand underneath and one hand on top. Say “1-2-3” and flip the cake in one smooth, fluid motion. Flourish is optional.
Carefully peel away the foil from the now top, and stand back to accept appreciative “oohs” and “aawws."
Tips for Purchasing a Dutch oven
- Physical Features:
When purchasing A Dutch oven for camping, make sure to get one with “feet.” When cooking with briquettes or coals, it is essential that your oven sit above the coals, allowing for appropriate air-flow. You also want a lip around the lid’s edge. (DO NOT purchase an oven with a rounded lid thinking you can just rest the coals on top. They will fall off.)
- Size: At one time, I cooked for a family of seven, and a 12-inch oven was essential. Now, with only three to five of us on any given camping adventure, a 10-inch is more than enough. If you have a big family and healthy appetites, you may want to check into a 14-inch oven. Anyway way you go though, be sure and buy a quality product, because in the case of Dutch ovens, you definitely get what you pay for.
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