For some months now I’ve been threatening to revive a backpacking trail food bar recipe I came across back in the very early 70’s just after I came back from Vietnam. It came from Whole Earth Catalog, back when that was a new and grand idea. I remember ordering one thing from that first edition, a flute from the Melody Flute Company which cost about $2.50 plus a little for postage. I’ve still got that flute here in the desk drawer and it does go with me on hikes. From time to time I’ve played a decent tune on it but I’ve never been good, just loud.
The other thing I got from that catalog was the trail food bar recipe, which was designed for hippies who were living cheap. I don’t remember much of it except that it was based on dry milk, white sugar, oatmeal and jello mix. I chose raspberry because I like raspberry, and I whipped up about ten pounds of that stuff, poured it into bars, shoved it in my backpack and took off across America. Several times. I recall that the stuff was kind of hard but kept you going pretty well. I’ve looked and looked for that recipe and have never found it again, which is fine because now that I’m older and better at cooking I’d never use it anyway. I just wanted a good look at it, a starting point.
I decided I’d just start anyway, because it can’t have been much more than the ingredients in the photo above and probably not even that. From my candy-making and wine-making periods I recall some tricks about invert sugar and caramelizing that I didn’t know in the early 70’s. At this point in my life I’m interested in things that taste good, as well as good nutrition, and I thought I’d try a batch of this with that in mind. On the trail, calories are calories. You eat what you have. There’s much prejudice today against white sugar, and I do tend to agree with that for everyday life. In the woods it’s fuel, and if you have real food to go along with those extra empty calories it works just fine.
Sugar’s a complicated fuel, though. Seriously, white sugar is a complex sugar, and for efficient and fast use it needs to break down into simple sugars before you eat it. Otherwise there’s a delay involved while that happens internally. With one type of sugar you get all the sugar results in one short rush, a surge up and a crash down, which isn’t fun. A good trail food will have simple sugars, complex sugars, carbohydrates and proteins, all of which are digested at different rates and available as steady energy for the long haul. That’s what I’m working on here.
The bars turned out good — a little sticky but I can deal with that and I do plan to adjust the recipe in the future by adding a little more of the dry ingredients or taking the caramelizing to a slightly higher stage. This is the “softball” stage, and I might have been better off going hardball on it. Oh well, all that changes with the weather anyway. You’re not supposed to make candy when it’s raining outside, and this is the first day it hasn’t rained in about twelve days. I’m taking what I get.
Backpacking Trail Food Bar Recipe
1 1/4 cup sugar
Juice of half a lime
1 6 ounce packet raspberry jello
1 cup powdered milk
3/4 cup water
2 cups regular oatmeal
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 tsp salt
Combine dry milk, raspberry jello, and water in a small mixing bowl. Stir with a whisk until the mixture is smooth.
Put sugar in 1 quart saucepan and squeeze lime juice over it. Stir and set the pan on medium low heat. Sugar liquifies as it heats, becoming slightly caramel brown as it approaches the right temperature (at least 250 degrees F, not over 260). Stir constantly to keep the syrup from burning.
Add the contents of the mixing bowl to the pan and slowly reheat. Because of the water in the mixture the contents won’t get above 212 degrees F for quite awhile but will overflow if not constantly stirred. Cook on low heat to avoid spitting and burns, reduce until the contents form a medium syrup. Remove from heat.
Combine oatmeal, raisins and sunflower seeds in the mixing bowl. Add the raspberry syrup and stir thoroughly. Line baking pan with aluminum foil, coat with butter. Pour the mix into the buttered baking pan and spread it in an even layer in the pan.
Cook at 250 degrees F for 25 min. Let cool to room temp and then chill in the refrigerator for a few hours. Cut into bars, wrap in waxed paper and aluminum foil. In cool weather that might be enough, but the bars will definitely melt when it’s hot. Put them in ziploc bags to avoid sugary-coated camping gear.
And oh yes, they will definitely attract bears.