I’m always boasting about my outdoor cooking capabilities. From grilling and open fire cooking to my favorite Dutch oven I do believe I know my way around the outdoor kitchen. On our own family campouts I am the defacto cook and I take great pride in filling everyone’s bellies with great tasting grub. As a boy scout leader I’m quick to offer to be the cook for the ‘adult’ patrol and I set the bar pretty high.
So it came as no surprise when the committee chairmen of the cub scout pack approached me about cooking dinner for the cub scout family campout this spring. My youngest son’s den had to help prepare a meal as one of their bear requirements so I needed to come up with something they could help with.
Now’s a good time to point out that I have a tendency to get carried away from time to time. This would be such an occasion.
I’ve been playing around with perfecting my crust recipe and Dutch oven pizza since last summer so it was an easy decision. Kids love pizza, it’s something they could help with, and I love any chance I get to show off the things a Dutch oven can do. The problem is unless you have the 17 inch bayou classic Dutch oven (largest one I’ve found so far) you’re making smaller personal size pizzas, and we’re talking about feeding quite a few people here. The conversation went something like this.
“So, how many people are you expecting?”
“Typical turnout for these things is about 20 scouts and 20 parents”
This is the point where most level headed folk would abandon the idea. Making 40 pizzas in one sitting at camp is a pretty big challenge. That’s a lot of pizza! That’s a lot of Dutch ovens! So of course my response was exactly what you’d expect.
“Let’s make pizza!”
I guess I’m not level headed.
I set about planning and quickly came to the conclusion that it was far too much dough to make at camp. Luckily pizza dough freezes and thaws well so I decided to make up all the crusts in advance. I had a few weeks so every couple of days I would make up a batch or two of dough and freeze 3-6 pizza crusts. I also frequently thawed and cooked pizzas to thoroughly document my times. There is no room for mistakes when feeding this many people. By the week before the campout I had the system down and was mixing, kneading, rising, and forming a dozen crusts in about 2 hours.
I also have a pretty good sauce recipe so I went ahead and made up a bunch of that in advance too. It cans well and the recipe scaled with no issues.
The only other thing I needed to figure out was the Dutch ovens. As much as I like them I really don’t need a lot of them. In fact, I only have one. Our den leader has another and volunteered to bring it. Doing the math on cook times and I knew I needed more. 40 pizzas * 8 minutes each = 320 minutes. I needed at least six Dutch ovens to get that down to feeding everyone within an hour and 8 would be better. Fortunately our cub scout pack has a boy scout troop it is aligned with. They lent us three and one of the leaders lent two more. Our cub master decided he needed one of his own and bought a brand new one for the event. That got us to eight. Now we’re in business.
With crusts and cheese made and the truck loaded up with Dutch ovens we were ready to head to camp. The weather forecast called for a dismal 48 degrees and raining. We did catch a break though, while it was cold and windy it never rained. That was the end of our good luck.
A Pavilion too far
The pack had reserved a pavilion at the campsite for the day to serve as headquarters at camp and it was the designated cooking and eating area. It was conveniently positioned 200 yards down a trail from the parking lot. An easy stroll rolling a cooler full of frozen crusts and dry ice, but a bit of a hike carrying Dutch ovens and charcoal.
It’s a good thing we brought a wagon. It’s too bad nobody brought a wagon. A little exercise is a good way to build up an appetite for pizza so with a few helpers we got the goods to the pavilion.
Thaw at Room Temperature
Challenge number two was the weather. All my trial thaw times had been done at room temperature, or about 70 degrees. This would have been perfect for the nice spring day I was anticipating, but things thaw a little slower at 48 degrees. It’s a problem easily solved by setting the crusts out earlier, but you have to keep them from drying out by oiling and covering with plastic wrap and that’s where the wind got us. Beside the chore of laying out all the foil in the wind it was pretty hard to keep the plastic from blowing right off the top of the crust. We eventually had to fold the foil up all around the crust like a foil pack.
No Ground Fires
This was the one that hurt the most. If you’ve never cooked with a Dutch oven before let me explain how it works. A Dutch oven is a large cast iron pot, usually 8 – 12 quarts, with a cast iron lid that has a rim on it. To bake you place charcoal on the ground, set the Dutch oven on top of it, and then cover the lid with charcoal. This way it heats from the top and bottom, like an oven. It’s a little hard to do without putting fire on the ground though and this park had a strict rule about it.
To get around it we used the large pavilion BBQ pit. Place the charcoal on the grill, Dutch ovens on top, and then more charcoal on top of them. We were able to fit 6 Dutch ovens on the grill, 3 on each side. I’ve done this before, but never in this quantity and never for pizza. It threw a pretty big wrench into the plan and burnt a few pizzas, but more on that later.
My original plan was to make a basic variety of pizzas and serve by the slice but since they are basically individual size our wonderful committee chairman had the great idea of letting the boys take orders. It was actually a pretty slick idea and I even made up an order form and printed it out on card stock. The den had a blast taking orders and preparing the pizzas.
So before things headed south this is what the operation looked like. I had pizza crusts laid out on tables, the boys were preparing them, and I had my six Dutch ovens going. I have to apologize, unless I get some pictures from other parents at the event this is the last one I took. It wouldn’t be an adventure if you didn’t have a major challenge to overcome and this was no exception. Things went south within 2 minutes of dropping the first pizza in and I didn’t take another picture after that.
This is the kind of thing you fear in your worst nightmares as the camp chef. You’re cooking food and then you smell it burning. We had just dropped in the first 3 pizzas and within 2 minutes they were charred. I really wish I had taken a picture of one; they were as dark as night on the bottom. We were too hot! That’s actually an accomplishment itself because good pizza requires a lot of heat but we were getting way too much.
The problem, we eventually figured out, was that because the charcoal was suspended on the grate there was no cool ground to absorb some of the heat. Top that off with the next batch of charcoal staging up under the grate and there was some intense heat on the bottoms. I bet if it had been dark the metal would have been glowing.
Now I want to pause for a moment here to describe the exact feeling I had at this moment. I had promised something big, cool, and exciting. The final tally that showed up for dinner was around 35 and they were all staring at me hungrily. And I was burning pizzas. The thought to jump the fence and run for my truck passed through my head, but I wouldn’t be worth my Eagle Scout Association card if I gave in to fear like that. Phil, the fine gentleman who volunteered to help me with the Dutch ovens snapped me out of it. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was somehow reassuring and we moved forward.
The next hour and a half was a blur. We moved the Dutch ovens to the ground. The bottoms had enough residual heat to cook an entire pizza so we started 6 up and went about removing coals from the grate to get our temperature down. Six pizzas cooked and we moved the Dutch ovens back to the grill, but now the coals had burned enough that we were too cool.
So that’s how it went. Move a Dutch oven to the ground. Put it back on the grill. Add coals to the grate. Remove coals from the grate. Barely cook a crust enough. Almost burn a crust.
We got the two extra Dutch ovens on the ground with coals on top and none on the bottom to comply with the ground fires rule. Often we had a crust done but the cheese wasn’t melted so we would move the pizza to one of those to finish the top.
And round and round the grill Phil and I went, checking and moving pizzas. It was not what I would consider to be my best work at all, but I was feeding people pizza. The pizza wasn’t bunt and it wasn’t raw. It would have to do.
To be honest, I was pretty disappointed in myself. I knew I could make the best pizza possible in a Dutch oven, but that wasn’t what I was giving people. The bar had been set high, by myself; like I said I get carried away sometimes. I hold myself to a higher standard than most people. This wasn’t the complete disaster I feared after burning the first three but I didn’t really feel like I succeeded either.
As we were getting down to making just mine and Phil’s pizzas someone came up to thank me for dinner.
“That was some really good pizza.”
They were being nice. I knew it, I would be doing it too.
“Thank you, sorry about the problems.” I responded meekly.
Then another one, and another.
“What’s the recipe for the crust?” “How did you make the sauce?”
“Did you really make all those crusts from scratch?”
“Seriously, you have to share that crust recipe”
“My son never eats more than one piece of pizza and he ate the whole thing! That was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had”.
That was when I realized they weren’t just being nice; they actually liked it! It still wasn’t my best work, but I had pulled it off. The thanks and praise went on throughout the evening. I rewarded them for their kind words with three cobblers and ice cream before bed.
I don’t know if I would do it on this scale again, at least not the same way, but it was a whole lot of fun! I think the pizza could of been even better but everyone seemed to really enjoy it so I’ll walk away calling this one a win. I’d like to thank pack 856 for having me cook for them and thank all the boys and parents who helped make it work. It was definitely not a one man show. The finished pizza did look and taste great!
I’m also looking for the next challenge; summer camp is right around the corner. If you have any ideas leave them in the comments below or just let me know what you think.