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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Gather 'Round the Campfire

September 14, 2015

Of all of the interesting and evocative aromas in the world, campfires and the smell of a fireplace are easily in my top five. There is something that appeals to the hundreds of thousands of years of my primal heredity in me that loves the smell of fire.

As the weather begins to cool we turn our thoughts to the most essential of all primeval elements— fire. We love a roaring fireplace. It’s visually appealing, it’s comforting, it provides warmth, and it smells good. Who doesn’t love the smell of a fire?

My wife and I were staying at a boutique hotel in New York a few years ago. The lobby was warm and comfortable, but what really sealed the atmosphere were the candles that were burning throughout the lobby which were all the same fragrance— fireplace. While celebrating an anniversary several years ago as guests of resort in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, we I were amazed that every time we returned to our cottage, a fire had been lit— or stoked— in the fireplace. Those five-star places knew what we in South Mississippi have always known (and for a lot less money)— there’s something about a fire that is special.

I have a long history with fires. As a kid, I was the primary fireplace attendant in our family. I fetched the wood and built the fires. I try not to ever brag about anything, but I will say that if there was a Masters degree program in fireplace maintenance— the building, stoking, and upkeep of a fire in a fireplace— I would be teaching the class.

I’m pretty good with a campfire, too. What I am not good at is cooking food in and around campfires.

Granted, I’m not a big camper. I camped out a good bit as a kid and in my early twenties, but not so much these days. My wife’s idea of “roughing it” is staying in a hotel that doesn’t have room service. So I don’t have a lot of experience cooking around campfires. I’m sure I can do it. I like walking around the REI store looking at the products people use when camping out. I am just not interested in using them.

Even the most basic of all campfire foods— s’mores— is not appealing to me. At all. Seriously, I don’t “hate” many foods, but I am a walking-the-fence-on-the-borderline-of-hating-s’mores kind of guy.

A quick refresher course for anyone who might not have been alive and paying attention in the last 120 years— a s’more is a graham cracker topped with a chocolate bar (typically a Hershey bar), and then topped with roasted marshmallows. I like all of the components and ingredients of s’mores, I just don’t like them combined and I especially don’t like it when some of them are cooked over a fire.

I was watching college football the other day and an advertisement for a s’mores cooker came on during the break. The device was like a smaller version of one of those fish cookers— two hinged metal grates with two long metal handles. S’mores are stupid, but a device invented to cook them makes absolutely zero sense to me.

The main problem with s’mores is, well, really everything. The graham crackers crumble and the marshmallows are never hot enough to even warm the chocolate, much less melt it. But the example the s’mores cooker showed on television was more like a sandwich with two graham crackers on the outside and the chocolate and marshmallow on the inside. There’s no way that’s going to work over a flame. I don’t know what burnt graham crackers taste like, but I know I don’t want to find out.

The few times I have been in a situation where people were cooking s’mores, I just ate all of the components separately and uncooked. I like marshmallows. I kind of like roasted marshmallows, but I’d just rather eat them cold out of the bag. The same goes for Hershey bars and graham crackers.

A few cookbooks ago, I was working on reinventing classic home recipes. I wanted to tweak the s’mores concept because, as I stated earlier, I like all of the individual components, just not the finished product. My recipe-testing partner at the time, Linda Nance, came up with a great idea. We called them S’mores Squares and it ended up being her favorite recipe in the book.

Give me the fire, give me the aroma, just don’t give me s’mores (unless they’re S’mores Squares).


S’more Squares

2 cups      graham cracker crumbs

3 /4 cup    melted butter

1 cup         sugar

1 pound semisweet chocolate

1 /2 cup sugar
1 1 /2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 1 /2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 jar Marshmallow Fluff (7 ounces)

3 cups marshmallows

For the crust:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Spray the inside of a 9 x 13 inch baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. In a bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press mixture firmly into sprayed pie tin, covering bottom and sides.

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For filling:

Combine chocolate, sugar and heavy whipping cream and melt in a double boiler. Stir until melted. Pour 2 /3 of the chocolate mixture onto the crust distributing it evenly. Set in refrigerator and allow this layer to harden while preparing the second layer.

For the second layer, add the Fluff to the remaining chocolate mixture and mix with an electric mixer until smooth. Pour this mixture on top of the firm chocolate layer and spread it out evenly.

Using a wet, sharp knife, cut the marshmallows into thin discs (three discs per marshmallow). Arrange the discs on top of the chocolate marshmallow layer. Refrigerate for one hour.

After the squares have been refrigerated, brown the marshmallows underneath a hot broiler. Allow to cool once more.

Dip a sharp knife into hot water and carefully cut into squares.

Refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Yield: 24 squares

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