Not just in the sense that I was inexperienced as a cook in a remote camp setting, but also because the terrifying plane (winged tin can, really) ride from St. John's to Schefferville, Quebec had left me more than a bit queasy.
The blood-red terrain surrounding the iron mine further amplified my sense of having taken a harrowing space voyage to Mars rather than just a few hundred kilometres north-west of the island I called home.
The camp manager, a man in his fifties with an ironically cheerful disposition, greeted me at the airport with a smile and a handshake typical of a friendly Newfoundlander eager to meet one of his own amongst gloomy surroundings. After unceremoniously dumping my luggage into the back of a derelict, Martian-dust-covered pickup truck, we began chatting about what had brought me there (money), what I expected of the camp (a mentor and a reliable WiFi connection) and what the camp could expect from me (my best).
I would quickly find out that I not only wouldn't have a mentor, as I was the only cook/baker on my shift, but the internet connection, along with any other means of communicating with home/Earth, was about as reliable as the promises of a politician.
The manager simply said with his now-expected grin that I would be "thrown to the wolves."
As a young, arrogant cook high on opportunity, I immediately rebutted by claiming that if thrown to the wolves, I'll be leading the pack eventually.
His smile faded.
In the weeks and months to come, I learned the hard way the camp was not at all what I expected. I was working 12 or more-hour shifts for a month straight in a kitchen that seemed either perpetually hot or freezing, depending on the time of year. While I had a few other qualms, they seemed petty compared to the main problem which made my time there a stone’s throw away from insanity – the food shipments.
Due to some issue that was always vague and ever-changing, the food shipments would sometimes either not arrive, arrive late, or most vexing of all, arrive incomplete. It was not uncommon for us to go days or weeks without crucial baking or cooking supplies such as flour or beef, forcing the cooks and bakers to improvise and create meals and treats from ingredients that could make the average chef shudder in contempt.
It was during one of these such predicaments that out of the engine of necessity I stumbled upon something great. After a groan to the sky at seeing my chocolate chips had not arrived on the food truck, I was forced to come up with a drop cookie that could substitute for the camp favourite: chocolate chip and walnut.
Normally under such a circumstance I would immediately turn to the cook’s best helper – the internet. As ill luck would have it, the internet – for the fifth time that week – was down and I was left only with what remained at the end of my wits to come up with a solution.
We had no baking powder, so the option for my peanut butter cookies was out the window. Whoopie pies were out of the question as I needed what precious cake mix I had left for the main desserts at supper. After wracking my sleep-deprived brain for a solution (knowing full well that every minute I spent trying to come up with a concoction worth baking was a minute less I'd have to bake for extremely hungry and irate old men) I decided I would just throw something together and if it didn't tickle anyone’s fancy, I would probably be saving them from diabetes anyway.
Other ingredients were in relative abundance. Frozen blueberries, raisins, coconut, toffee bits and some chocolate-covered coffee beans I had brought from home to keep me alert were among the options I had selected.
All I needed was a base.
One dough to hold them all and one dough to bind them (sorry), to catch up on the lost time from putting away the order and fruitlessly thinking of more mundane solutions to the shortage.
In my frustrated lack of caring I put together the following recipe for my base, barely putting any thought into it at all and hoping the result wouldn't cause an uprising. It would later prove so versatile (and just plain delicious), it would spawn a series of drop cookies that were not only very easy to make and control, but proved to be a crowd favourite at camp and elsewhere.
The 'Fine, Whatever' Cookie Base
(Cream together in separate bowl)
1 cup of white sugar
1 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of softened butter or margarine
1 large egg
2.5 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 heaping cup of main ingredient
(blueberries, coconut, M&Ms, partridgeberries, etc.)
Combine thoroughly in a mixer or by hand in a bowl with wet ingredients and spoon onto a parchment paper-covered oven pan, keeping each drop at least two inches apart.
Bake at 350 degrees Celsius for approx. 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.
That's it. It's worth mentioning that if you use blueberries as your main, the dough will be blue when mixed together and while nice, they don’t exactly hold their colour when baked and it can be hard to judge them visually for doneness. It's best to rinse your berries first (especially when frozen) to minimize the blue-brown colour and get a more golden-brown result.
You could add a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract to this mixture as well, but I often find – like my sense of peace at that camp in Labrador – the vanilla flavour is often lost in the maelstrom of other things going on there. You want to taste the flavour of your main ingredient rather than risk overpowering something that could be great.
What I love most about this base is that it's so versatile, there are almost endless possibilities for the different kinds of drop cookies you can bake. It allows for the most fun aspect of cooking and baking to come to full fruition – that of being creative and inventing something great and somewhat unique to make people happier.
Of course, you could also stick to the basics and use this base recipe to make some of the best chocolate chip cookies ever. Especially if you add another half a cup of chopped walnuts along with the chocolate chips.
The base itself can be turned into a chocolate-flavoured base by adding a few teaspoons of cocoa powder to taste. That goes EXTREMELY (I can't put that in bold enough) well with white chocolate chips. I mean, come on, a chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips? How is that not amazing?! Yup, you've found out my favourite drop cookie and it's worth your while to make it.
When I passive-aggressively opened the oven to observe this first batch of cookies I was expecting a failure. My first batch was with coconut and I didn't even have a name for it at the time. I thought with a degree of certainty that it would be flat, mushy, burnt to bits, or at the very least resemble some sort of creature from the original Star Trek series but instead...
It was glorious.
The cookies were perfectly shaped, round and symmetrical. The bits of coconut sticking out of the cookies like tiny upraised swords of victory were a beautiful golden brown, becoming lighter as they approached the main body, fading like delicious watercolor sunsets. The texture was soft and gooey, certain to crisp a bit as they cooled, locking in the moisture for a chewy and decadent result. I was beyond floored and invigorated with new hope. And each various batch I did afterwards yielded a similar greatness that I felt guilty for claiming creative rights to.
If you're wondering the precise reaction the camp residents had the next morning to the array of (let's be honest... weird) cookies there for them the next morning, most guests didn't take them and were pretty mad about it, like just about every other change that happened in their camp lives.
But, the few who did take them thought they were amazing and once word got around, they were in demand. Guests would ask me when the next batch of blueberry drop cookies or coconut dandys (I know) would be baked for them.
It just goes to show that, like a good building or a great relationship, the most important part of baking a good cookie is often a strong foundation, and maybe a bit of accidental ingenuity.