Category Archives: Baking Events

Springerle Cookie Molds

Artfully embossed Springerle cookies evoke a sweet nostalgia. 

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Think of them as sweet little woodcarvings that you can eat. Springerle cookies — thick, cake-like, anise-flavored cutouts topped with intricate three-dimensional figures — date from medieval times in southern Germany. Yet you can make these “picture cookies” fresh right now wherever you are. All you need are a handful of molds and a few helpful tips from Connie Meisinger.

Connie Meisinger makes embossed-topped Springerle cookies and sells molds in more than 500 designs.

Connie Meisinger is the queen of Springerle (pronounced SHPRENG-er-luh) and an enthusiastic expert on the subject. Based in Elmhurst, Illinois, just west of Chicago, she owns House on the Hill, Inc., which sells more than 500 different Springerle mold designs. Pressed firmly into rolled-out cookie dough, the molds create embossed images such as birds, flowers, pine cones, fruit, harps, angels, snowmen, stars, baskets, houses, trees, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and more. Rolling pin versions create a variety of images with a single pass over flattened dough.

Springerle pine cone mold and cookies pressed with it.

I met Connie when she taught a Springerle making class at Susan Green’s Birmingham Bake & Cook Company near my home. Connie travels extensively to tell her story, share her recipes, demonstrate her techniques, and promote her line of Springerle molds (for a schedule of appearances visit houseonthehill.net/news-and-events.) She has been on TV shows including NBC Chicago on WMAQ Channel 5, ABC News Saturday Morning on WLS Channel 7, and The Martha Stewart Show on the Hallmark Channel. During presentations she tells her story while rolling dough, dusting molds with flour, pressing shapes into dough, cutting and transferring cookies to baking sheets, baking them and eventually letting everyone try samples.

The molds press intricate images into cookie dough.

House on the Hill offers many nostalgic designs.

Connie became an avid Springerle baker when her aging grandmother was no longer able to make the old-fashioned treats that were eagerly anticipated by her family during the holidays. She scrounged up harder-to-find key ingredients including anise oil and hartshorn (ammonia carbonate today but formerly a preparation made from ground-up deer horns) to go with the more readily available flour, sugar, eggs and butter in grandma Nini’s recipe. She found a few factory-machined molds that didn’t quite satisfy but that eventually led to her current career as a mold designer and distributor. Her extended family, glad to the see the tradition continue, rejoiced at the tasty results and gobbled every cookie she made.

On a lark in 1993 Connie submitted her recipe to the Chicago Tribune’s annual cookie contest. She was named one of several winners and got mentioned in the newspaper. Caroline Kallas, the owner of a little homegrown Springerle mold business called House on the Hill in nearby Lombard, read the article and contacted Connie to invite her to check out the merchandise. “I did, and I was hooked,” Connie says. “I became a frequent customer, collecting as many molds as I could afford. Caroline died in 1999, and three years later my husband and I bought House on the Hill from her husband. We’ve been running it ever since.”

The Showstopper Rolling Pin (top center) presses 25 different images. Photo courtesy of House on the Hill

The molds look like they’re hand carved from solid wood just as they were centuries ago. Modern versions, though still handcrafted, are made from resin and wood composite. Most are replicas of antique carvings, giving them a historic and traditional appearance. “Bakers in guilds back then had to be excellent woodcarvers too, so they could create their own molds,” Connie says. “When a lot of German families immigrated to America in the late 1800s, they couldn’t always bring big things like furniture, but they brought cherished cookie molds made of clay or wood or metal. Many of those heirlooms are in museums and private collections now. Sometimes we’ll borrow an antique mold from a museum and replicate the historic design to add to our selection. We also have a woodcarver create new designs.”

...then lifts the cutout to a baking sheet.

Connie cuts around a pressed angel image...

During her classes Connie offers interesting tidbits and helpful hints. Traditional Springerle cookies are flavored with anise, she notes, but she also uses orange, lemon and almond and is experimenting with a cherry-almond combination. It’s best to make them after the first freeze, she says, when humidity is low and the dough stays dry so it doesn’t stick in the molds. She says symbols play a big part in Springerle designs, ranging from pomegranates (once given as wedding gifts because their many seeds represented fertility) to depictions of great cathedrals (created as souvenirs for travelers who visited renowned religious sites).

The molds look like carved wood but are made of resin and wood composite.

By the time her class ended and I was nibbling a one of the pretty little white works of edible art, I could hardly wait to get home and try a batch of my own. If you’re interesting in making Springerle cookies and need some molds to get started, order some from the House on the Hill website, which has pictures of each design.

I recently learned that in German the word Springerle means “jumper” as in a jumping horse. I wonder if the unique style of cookie got that name because jumping horses were once depicted on them. Or because pulverized deer horn (deer jump too, right?) was once a key ingredient. Or because the dough “springs” out of the deeply carved molds or “springs” up as it bakes. I also read an account of how medieval Yule festivals among pagan Germanic tribes involved animal sacrifices in hopes of appeasing the gods into sending a mild winter, and that poor people who couldn’t afford to kill their livestock instead created token sacrifices in the form of animal-shaped breads or cookies.

I don’t know the definitive answer, if there is one, but I plan to ask Connie about it the next time she comes to town to teach her Springerle baking class. Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy some cookies and hope you do too.

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House on the Hill, Inc.

650 West Grand Avenue, Unit 110, Elmhurst, IL 60126

630-279-4455 or toll free (in the U.S.) 877-279-4455

email support@houseonthehill.net

See a catalog of Springerle molds and order online at houseonthehill.net

Find out where Connie Meisinger will be demonstrating Springerle techniques by visiting houseonthehill.net/news-and-events

Pristine white Springerle cookies might look too pretty to eat, but go ahead!

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Open House at Artisan Bakeries

Loaves at Artisan Baking Company, Fort Worth, Texas

Taste exceptional breads and show your support for artisan bakers during this widespread June 25 event.

by Bakery Boy

If you enjoy fresh-from-the-oven breads—crusty, aromatic, well-fermented, and hearth-baked by bakers who care dearly about making perfect loaves—then mark June 25 as a high holiday on your calendar.

The International Bakery Open House is one of many Breadville USA events planned this year by the Bread Bakers Guild of America

That’s the day the Bread Bakers Guild of America—an organization that fervently supports the artisan baking community everywhere—presents a massive International Bakery Open House involving 55 bakeries in 26 states, 2 Canadian provinces, and Ireland.

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International Biscuit Festival, Knoxville, TN

Celebration puts the humble biscuit on a pedestal May 27-28, 2011

by Bakery Boy

The Fat Elvis Biscuit, one of many versions of the tasty art form tempting visitors during the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville. Photos courtesy of the Biscuit Festival

I’d like to say I’ve never met a biscuit I didn’t like. I’ve eaten plenty of them, making my own on many a Sunday morning and seeking them out in my travels. True, a few needed a tad more jam to make them palatable, but even the driest and toughest variations mellow over time into something at least close to fond memories. Most of them time, biscuits rank among the glories that make life worth living. Call them simple fare, the perfect food, everyone’s favorite, or just too good to pass up—just be sure to call me when they’re done.

The International Biscuit Festival celebrates all things biscuits in Knoxville, Tennessee, this weekend (May 27-28, 2011). Held downtown in the Market Square District, the event designed to “celebrate the heritage of home cooking and southern culture” spares no effort in making biscuits the topic on everyone’s mind and the taste on everyone’s tongue.

Among the activities scheduled:

Biscuit Bake Off — Biscuit bakers submit their best recipes for traditional biscuits, dessert biscuits, most creative biscuits, and kids’ biscuits to a panel of expert judges. [Note: Surely a bakery blogger with a name like Bakery Boy (hint, hint) should be invited to judge this competition one of these years!] Finalists prepare their versions fresh on location for the decisive last round of tasting. Yes, you can taste samples, for a small fee.

Biscuit Songwriting Competition — Clever lyrics (mostly about biscuits) and a good beat go a long way toward pleasing this particular audience, but you might say they’ve already been buttered up for the occasion. Categories include rock, country, gospel, folk, hip hop and others.

Miss Biscuit and Mister Biscuit Pageant — To earn these crowns contestants need: Poise, defined as the ability to walk a runway while balancing a stack of biscuits on the head. A talent of some kind, any kind really, but think singing about biscuits or perhaps juggling them. A sense of fashion if you consider apron-modeling fashionable.

Biscuit Art Competition — Artwork portraying biscuits in all their multifaceted glory dominate this show. Clear some wall space at home for your must-have choices of paintings, pen-and-ink drawings, photographs, ceramic or fiber sculpture and more.

Throughout the two-day festival, opportunities to eat biscuits abound, so come hungry. If you’re like me, after a weekend of biscuit-based inspiration you’ll be vowing to whip up batches of biscuits at home more often.

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More about the International Biscuit Festival: www.biscuitfest.com

More about visiting Knoxville: www.knoxville.org

More about visiting Tennessee: www.tnvacations.com

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National Cornbread Festival, South Pittsburg, TN

Cornbread is king in this Tennessee town known for producing cast-iron cookware that’s perfect for baking cornbread.

by Bakery Boy

My skillet, made by Lodge Cast Iron in the 1950s, still serves my needs just fine. Photo by Bakery Boy

Ah, cornbread. If ever there was a staple food with as many uses as there are cultures using it, it’s cornbread.

Maize-growing Native Americans ate versions of cornbread long before Europeans reached the hemisphere. All across the South it goes naturally with barbecue and chili. Cowboys in the West pair it with pinto beans and ham hocks. In the Southwest adding jalapeño peppers creates a hot Hispanic edge. It’s a cornerstone of African American “soul” food. Whether doused with butter or honey or molasses, specked with diced onions or bacon bits or cheese, thinned with whole-wheat flour or fluffed up with eggs, cornbread is a crowd-pleaser in all its many forms. It can be deep-fried into hushpuppies, stewed into a pudding popular in colder climes, boiled into Italian-accented polenta, or molded around hot dogs on sticks to become county-fair-standard corndogs.

But the absolute best way to make cornbread is to bake it in a cast-iron skillet. And one of the best ways to experience that is to attend the National Cornbread Festival held at the end of April in the only place in the United States that still produced cast iron cookware: South Pittsburg, Tennessee, the home of Lodge Cast Iron and its perfect-for-cornbread cast-iron pans.

ALL ABOUT CORNBREAD

Young Danny's cooking skills earned him a blue ribbon. Photo courtesy of the National Cornbread Festival.

On April 30th and May 1st somewhere around 50,000 people will pour into South Pittsburg, a population 3,300 town 25 miles west of Chattanooga, for the 15th annual National Cornbread Festival (admission: $5 per day). They’ll all have one thing on their minds—cornbread.

South Pittsburg, which also dubs itself the “Tidiest Town in Tennessee”—community volunteers do clean the place up really well after such events—overflows with cornbread-themed everything during the festival. Bakers and cooks compete in a National Cornbread Cook-off sponsored by Martha White, Lodge Cast Iron, and FiveStar Range (top prize: $5,000). Entries range from the most basic recipes to attention-getting innovations such as adding smoked Gouda, sundried tomatoes, strawberry yogurt, sliced apples, peanut butter, hot dog chunks, M&M candies, or other ingredients.

Wholesome entertainment highlights this small-town event. Photo courtesy of the National Cornbread Festival.

At a series of tables on a downtown lane renamed Cornbread Alley for the occasion, you can taste samples of nine cornbread recipes ranging from “pork puppies” and “chipotle cornbread” to “chicken–and-chive flaps” and “tutti fruity cornbread balls.” Your $2 ticket for the tasting supports the nine local non-profit groups doing the cooking.

Like at any good small-town festival there will be a carnival, a food court, music, artwork, crafts, the awarding of blue ribbons to cook-off winners, the crowning of a Miss National Cornbread Festival beauty queen, and more.

ALL ABOUT CAST IRON

Sturdy Dutch Ovens are great for baking and cooking over campfires. Photo courtesy of Lodge Cast Iron.

Lodge Manufacturing Company has been making cast-iron skillets, griddles, and Dutch ovens in South Pittsburg for 115 years, a line that has gradually expanded to include deep fryers, grills, kettles, woks, pizza pans, muffin pans, and more. Naturally the company has a lot to do with putting on the festival, and most of what gets baked or cooked for the occasion gets baked or cooked in cast-iron.

You can see first-hand how Lodge Cast Iron is made during half-hour tours through the foundry on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the festival. There’s also a well-produced 11-minute video about the process on the company’s website. Click the “How Lodge Is Made” button on the www.lodgemfg.com home page to see how raw pig iron and recycled scrap metal—moved around by giant magnetic cranes and heated to an impurities-removing molten state in a 2000-degree furnace—becomes some of the highest-quality cast-iron cookware in the world.

Even if you miss the Cornbread Festival, you can still find Lodge cookware anytime at Lodge Factory Stores located in…

• South Pittsburg, Tennessee (504 South Cedar Avenue; 423-837-5919)

• Sevierville, Tennessee (105 Knife Works Lane; 865-429-1713)

• Commerce, Georgia (165 Pottery Factory Drive; 706-335-4875)

• Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (100 Legends Drive; 843-236-7849)

SING IT WITH A TWANG

Tennessee is known for music, so Tennessee-based Lodge Cast Iron designed a guitar-shaped skillet good for making cornbread, biscuits, scones, and more. See other cast-iron options at the online catalog at http://www.lodgemfg.com.

A country music song, the kind that gets stuck in your  head, accompanies a slide show on the National Cornbread Festival website. Among lyrics about pinto beans, cornbread, clowns, car shows, fun-runs, concerts, and the cook-off—delivered with deadpan honesty by local baritone singer and songwriter Neil Bennett—is this refrain that’s been repeating in my mind for days now:

The last weekend in April / There’s just one place to be / The National Cornbread Festival in / South Pittsburg Tennessee

See you there!

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National Cornbread Festival

April 30–May 1, 2011

Festival details: www.nationalcornbread.com

Lodge Cast Iron details: www.lodgemfg.com

South Pittsburg details: www.southpittsburg.com

For more about traveling in Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com

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Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post with sample recipes from the National Cornbread Cook-off.

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RECIPES Cornbread Recipes from the National Cornbread Festival

Here are three popular recipes shared during past National Cornbread Cook-offs, part of the National Cornbread Festival held the last weekend in April in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.

Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about the National Cornbread Festival.

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BERRY CORNMEAL MUFFINS

Submitted by Boy Scout Troop 63

1 cup flour

¾ cup cornmeal

½ cup sugar

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped fresh strawberries

1 (8 oz) container strawberry yogurt

¼ cup butter, melted

1 egg

Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, sift together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl gently toss strawberries in ½ cup of flour mixture. Whisk together yogurt, butter, and egg. Stir yogurt mixture into flour mixture just to moisten. Fold in strawberries. Spoon batter into prepared cast-iron pan. Bake 25 minutes.

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MEXICAN CORNBREAD

Submitted by Richard Hardy Memorial School Athletic Club

1 cup Martha White Yellow Self-Rising Cornmeal

1/3 cup melted butter

1 cup Mayfield sour cream

1 (8 oz) can cream-style corn

2 eggs

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese or Mexican blend cheese

1 (4 oz) can chopped green chile peppers, drained

Heat oven to 375°. Grease an 8- or 9-inch skillet; place over medium heat while preparing cornbread batter. Stir melted butter into cornmeal and add sour cream, corn, and eggs, blending well. Spoon half of the batter into the greased hot cast-iron skillet. Sprinkle batter with cheese and chile peppers; cover with remaining batter. Bake for 35 minutes, until nicely browned.

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BROWN SUGAR CORNBREAD

Submitted by the Christian Women’s Job Corp

1 cup unsalted butter

2 2/3 cups Martha White Yellow Cornmeal

2 cups Martha White All Purpose Flour

2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar

2 cups Mayfield milk

4 large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease two 9 x 4½ loaf pans and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together yellow cornmeal and flour. Heat butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat just until melted and whisk until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat; whisk in milk and then eggs. Pour into dry mixture, stirring just until blended, and divide evenly between prepared pans, smoothing the tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until loaves are golden and cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

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Recipes reprinted with permission from the National Cornbread Festival and Lodge Cast Iron.

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NATIONAL CORNBREAD FESTIVAL

April 30–May 1, 2011

Festival details: www.nationalcornbread.com

Lodge Cast Iron details: www.lodgemfg.com

South Pittsburg details: www.southpittsburg.com

For more about traveling in Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com

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Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about the National Cornbread Festival.

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Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival, Asheville, NC

Challah from Creme Patisserie in Asheville, NC

Sample great bread and learn a few baking techniques during an extraordinary convergence of bread bakers on April 2.

by Bakery Boy

A variety of loaves from City Bakery in Asheville, NC, will be among those available to sample during the Artisan Bread Bakers Festival's "Showcase" event April 2.

If you’re a big fan of good bread, you need to be at this gathering.

For baking enthusiasts, the Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival—April 2, 2011, in Asheville, NC—might as well be Shangri-La, Paradise, Nirvana, El Dorado, and Heaven all rolled into one. It’s an all-day tribute to crusty, chewy, aromatic, wholesome, air-hole-laced breads. It’s a participatory ode to time-honored, Old World, slow-rise techniques, and top-quality natural ingredients. It’s a showcase for dedicated bakers who consider their vocation to fit somewhere between an art form and a religion.

Expect to hear plenty of talk about wild yeast, whole grains, sourdough starters, wood-fired brick ovens, fermentation, organic ingredients, and other bread-centric topics. Also join in conversations about sustainable agriculture, organic farming, the slow food movement, and related subjects.

The two-part festival starts with bread tasting during a Bakers’ Showcase to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Whole Foods Markets’ Greenlife Grocery, 70 Merrimon Avenue. You’ll find loaves for sale too, ranging from baguettes to brioche, challah, ciabatta, focaccia, rye, walnut, raisin, spinach-feta, and whatever else bakers representing as many as 16 area bakeries bring to their tables. Local millers, cheese makers, and brick-oven builders will be on hand doing demonstrations. Admission to the showcase is free.

An afternoon series of workshops and lectures ($10 admission per session) takes place from noon to 6 p.m. at nearby Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech), 340 Victoria Road. This year’s featured presenters include:

Didier Rosada of Uptown Bakers in Hyattsville, MD

• baker Didier Rosada of Uptown Bakers in Hyattsville, MD (near Washington, D.C.), who will show home bakers how to make his signature pear buckwheat bread and share techniques for making sweet breads such as one he calls German almond butter bread

• baker, author, and Johnson & Wales University (Charlotte, NC) teacher Peter Reinhart, who will demonstrate making bread with sprouted whole wheat flour

• baker, author, and chemist Emily Buehler, who will lead a workshop about the chemistry of bread dough—explaining what actually happens during the mixing, kneading, rising, and baking stages—and demonstrate hand-kneading techniques

• baker Jennifer Lapidus—director of the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project linking local wheat farmers, millers, and bakers—who will talk about bread’s journey from planted wheat seed to steaming loaf, with emphasis on all that happens before the baker takes over for the final stages

Walnut-Sage bread from La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC

• baker Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC (topic to be determined, but one look at the gorgeous breads he makes, such as those shown at right, and you know it’ll be worthwhile)

Now in its seventh year, the festival was initiated by Steve Bardwell, an artisan baker who runs Wake Robin Farm Breads in the western North Carolina community of Sandy Mush. Area bakeries planning to participate in the Showcase tasting include Annie’s Naturally Bakery, Sylva, NC; Bracken Mountain Bakery, Brevard, NC; Carolina Mountain Bakery, Hendersonville, NC; City Bakery, Asheville, NC; Crème Patisserie & Confectionery, Asheville, NC (click here to see the Bakery Boy Blog profile of Crème Patisserie); Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, TN; Farm and Sparrow, Candler, NC; Flat Rock Village Bakery, Flat Rock, NC; Loaf Child Bakery, Marshall, NC; Rising Creek Bakery, Morris, PA; Simple Bread, Asheville, NC; Stick Boy Bread Company, Boone, NC (click here to see the Bakery Boy Blog profile of Stick Boy); Underground Baking Company, Hendersonville, NC; Wake Robin Farm Breads, Marshall, NC; West End Bakery, Asheville, NC; and Wildflour Bakery, Saluda, NC.

Festival sponsors include the Bread Bakers Guild of America; Lindley Mills in Graham, NC; Whole Foods Markets’ Greenlife Grocery; the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project; Slow Food Asheville; and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

For more information visit www.ashevillebreadfestival.com or contact key organizer Steve Bardwell at wakerobinfarmbreads@main.nc.us or 828-683-2902.

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Baking 1800s Style at the Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, TN

Using cast-iron pots over campfires beside his vintage chuck wagon, Lexie Dean bakes old-fashioned fruit pies, cornbread, and biscuits.

by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean prepares to serve cowboy vittles from Dutch ovens at his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon. Photos by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean bakes like it’s the 1860s. He bakes like he’s the camp cook on a cattle-drive, stirring up hearty grub for hungry cowboys on the dusty trail. He bakes like, at the latest, it’s the 1880s, just before railroads replaced cattle-drives and rendered chuck wagons obsolete.

Obsolete maybe but still appealing to hobbyists such as Lexie—who calls his rig the Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon—and others who keep chuck wagon traditions alive. They set up at festivals, rodeos, scout camps, church picnics, vacation bible schools, and anywhere else they’re invited to re-create authentic cowboy cuisine.

As he bakes biscuits, cornbread, and lattice-topped fruit pies to go with the chicken-fried steaks, beans, potatoes, and sawmill gravy that round out his menu, Lexie uses ingredients, tools, and techniques true to the period. He does this because he’s a stickler for authenticity, because people gather to watch how things were done back in those days, because he’s a fan of cast-iron cooking, and because he’s being judged.

Chuck wagon cooking, it seems, has become a competitive pastime as well as a nostalgic hobby.

CHUCKWAGON COOKOFF

Impressive sight: Lexie and Katy Dean cooking and baking with more than a dozen heavy cast-iron pots.

Look for Lexie wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, muttonchop whiskers, cowboy boots, and bandanna at the fourth annual Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in late February. He and Katy, his wife and trusty sidekick, will be busy among more than a dozen big, heavy, scalding-hot, cast-iron pots and a string of campfires. Their Ramblin’ Rose will be among six chuck wagon teams—with names such as Grumpy’s Grub, Cow Camp, Fairplay Cattle Co., Double X Ranch, and Wish Bone—competing for prizes, honors, and bragging rights. It’s a highlight of the 11th annual Saddle Up!, a four-day celebration (February 24-27) of the old American West that also includes Western music and dancing, cowboy poetry readings, mechanical bull riding, storytelling, and a cowboy church service.

As he geared up for this year’s Chuckwagon Cookoff from his home in Greenville, North Carolina, Lexie was glad to talk to the Bakery Boy Blog about 1800s-style campfire baking.

Lexie cuts strips of pie dough for a lattice top crust.

“First of all, everything I cook or bake is done in cast-iron pots,” he says. “For contests I take 12 of the big 16-inch-diameter Dutch ovens with the flat lids so I can pile hot coals on top [to get more even temperatures inside]. Each one weighs more than 30 pounds empty and costs about $120 to $160. I also take two 26-inch skillets, two 18-inch skillets, and two 10-gallon bean pots. Mine are mostly from Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and from Cabella’s, the big outdoor equipment company from Nebraska.

“Proper care of the pots is a big part of being successful at this,” he says. “You have to use them a lot to break them in and clean them well after every use. I wipe them with olive oil for storage. Other vegetable oils or any sprays will turn to a glue-like paste and ruin the pots. The acid in tomatoes will take off the finish. But if you treat these pots right, they’re great for camp cooking.”

While steaks, potatoes, beans, and gravy simmer, Lexie focuses on baking: yeast-style biscuits featuring a sourdough starter, thick cake-like cornbread suited to sopping up sauces from the main course, and his specialty—fruit pies.

PIE TIME

How Lexie designs his woven pie crust top.

“A lot of chuck wagon cooks make cobbler, but I like pie,” he says. “The difference is the crust. I put a layer of pie dough on the bottom and make a basket weave pattern for the top [see diagram].”

The main ingredient in the filling depends on what the contest organizers supply. “At these events you never know exactly what you’re going to work with. They might give you apples or peaches or dried apricots or blueberries. You have to be prepared for anything, just like camp cooks on cattle drives, where sometimes they had to cook whatever they could scrounge up.”

Flour for the Chuckwagon Cookoff comes from The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge.

Using rough measurements such as “handfuls” of sugar, a “dusting” of cinnamon, “just enough” fruit depending on what kind and how juicy it is, and “lots of” butter, Lexie mixed his pie filling more by feel and experience than by a strict recipe. Same with the crust, made from flour supplied by The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge, lard or vegetable shortening, a pinch of salt, and cold water.

Pies, rolls, and cornbread go into aluminum pans that go into cast-iron Dutch ovens perched over beds of hot embers and covered with more glowing coals. “I use hickory wood because it burns hot,” he says. “It’s hard to judge the temperature of charcoal and other types of fuel, but with hickory I have a pretty good idea. I put a third of a cord on my fire the morning of the contest, let it burn down into a humongous coal pit, and then get all the food cooking so it’s ready at noon, when it’s time to eat.”

COME ’N’ GET IT

Piping hot and ready to eat, one of the scrumptious glories of campfire baking. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Held at Clabough’s Campground in Wears Valley, the cook-off attracts chuck wagon teams from as far away as Georgia and Texas. Hundreds of people wander through camp to inspect wagons and watch cooks at work. Tempted by wafting aromas, many buy $10 meal tickets and line up for platefuls of grub at lunchtime. Judges gather under a tent for an official tasting before awarding prizes in several categories.

The Ramblin’ Rose wagon dates to 1868. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Last year Lexie’s Ramblin’ Rose won 1st place in wagon authenticity, bread, and potatoes categories, tied for 1st place in cornbread, took 3rd place for meat, and landed 1st in the coveted overall category. Not a bad day for a cowboy camp cook.

“On Friday it’s all about authentic wagons,” he says. “You don’t want anything showing that wouldn’t be found in the 1860 to 1880s. No cell phones or plastic coolers or aluminum foil that judges will see. On Saturday it’s all about the food and there’s a different set of rules. Cleanliness comes first, so it’s okay to have plastic wrap and coolers to keep the food safe.”

WHY DO THIS?

“We work hard to make every detail of our chuck wagon authentic,” Lexie says. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

“I’ve been a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America for a long time and starting cooking outdoors 25 years ago,” Lexie explains. “I saw a chuck wagon with a guy cooking the old ways at a charity event, and I was hooked. I started looking for a chuck box to outfit an old farm wagon that has been in my family for generations. It’s a 10-footer with a 12-foot tongue to harness four mules to pull it, built by the Fish Brothers Wagon Company of Racine, Wisconsin in 1868.

“Since I got the wagon from my grandfather, the Ramblin’ Rose has crossed the Mississippi River 34 times going to events and coming home,” he says. “Between contests and scout trips and church functions, I cook about 15 chuck wagon meals every month.”

Lexie works as a mechanical test engineer for NACCO Materials Handling Group, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heavy-duty lift trucks. “You know those crash test dummies you see in car commercials? What I do is something like. I try my best to tear up the lift trucks we make in order to see how we can improve our designs.”

Ramblin’ Rose includes harnesses for four mules to pull it. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

He’s much more cautious with his antique chuck wagon, carefully transporting it on a 35-foot flatbed trailer. “People see it going down the highway and wave me over so they can ask about it,” he says. “Anytime I stop for gas, someone wants to know what it is and where it’s going.”

For years, Lexie’s wife Katy has been his constant companion on this adventure. “If she ever gets tired of doing this, I guess I’ll go on by myself. Most teams have four or five people, but we do fine with just us two. If I had to, I think I could be a one-man show.”

He keeps going because of reactions from spectators. “I let kids climb on the chuck wagon for fun when I’m not cooking. At events people will look at it and say, ‘It’s beautiful!’ or taste my cooking and say, “It’s really good!’ or shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you!’ That makes it all worthwhile.”

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Email Lexie Dean about his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon at agldean@nmhg.com

Learn more about chuck wagon culture from the American Chuck Wagon Association

For more about the Chuckwagon Cookoff and Saddle Up! (February 24-27, 2011) in Pigeon Forge, TN: www.mypigeonforge.com/saddleup

For more about Pigeon Forge: www.mypigeonforge.com

For more about Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com

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