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Eating in Plein Air - Dessert with Your BBQ by Ron Skaar


Eating in Plein Air
Dessert with Your BBQ or Picnic
by Ron Skaar

by Ron Skaar

Cookouts, barbeques, clambakes, fish fries and wienie roasts have been gathering people around food for centuries. They are all synonyms for the picnic, a word which derives from the French pique-nique. It was first used in the 1600’s, to describe gourmands who brought their own wine when dining at a restaurant. By the end of that century the word begins to signify anyone who contributes something to a meal.

Picnic roots go back to medieval times when elaborate hunting feasts were staged by the nobility. These were refashioned thru the ornate al fresco banquets thrown by the wealthy, during the Renaissance. By the 14th century the picnic was evolving into “a pleasure outing at which a meal is eaten outdoors” as described in Webster’s dictionary.          

The picnic became new-fashioned social entertainment, to which guests contributed a share of the provisions. Hampers full of crystal, china and silverware accompanied the smoked hams, baked meats, pastries and brewed beverages. By 1748, Lord Chesterfield recounted that “card playing, drinking and conversation” had become a practice at these elegant meals eaten outdoors. 

After the French Revolution, the lavish parks of the nobility were thrown open to the public. Those en plein air picnics, made famous by Impressionist painters, were staged soon after. In England, the Victorian era heralded these outdoor outings for everyone, ending the class boundary. Mrs. Beaton’s “Book of Household Management” says to provide “cold roast beef, four meat pies, four roast chickens, two roast duck, four dozen cheese cake, one large cold plum pudding, cold beer, claret and sherry” among other supplies, for forty guests at a nineteenth century picnic.

In America, the landed gentry pursued the aristocratic sporting life they had known in England. Over the years, the hunt progressed into an all-day recreational event embracing the whole family. Baskets were packed with fried chicken, deviled eggs, watercress-tomato finger sandwiches, butter pickles, homemade breads and pies to enjoy outdoors. By the 1860’s the eating out-of-doors craze erupted in America.

Consequently, during the Civil War, at the First Bull Run, innumerable civilians armed with picnic baskets found their way to hills overlooking the battle. The engagement was not the “picnic” that was anticipated. The naïve participants scrambled wildly to get away, further hampering the Union armies own hasty retreat.   

A picnic described in “Julia Child & More Company” happened during World War II. The Duke of Suffork and his band of volunteers were on their way back to London, after defusing live bombs from the docks at the Channel ports. Suddenly, his Rolls Royce, popped out from beyond a hedge. It was laden with crystal, silver, damask and a butler who unpacked and served a noble feast. This “pleasure outing” had the three thrills Julia required from a picnic: surprise, luxury (i.e. no paper or plastic) and plenty.

A unique variation, of an old classic is the recipe included today. The cake is simple to make and bakes quickly. The dessert is an excellent finale to any special meal, including (Happy Fathers Day Arnie!)  or July 4th, adding blueberries for extra color.



Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter 2 round 10-inch cake pans.

Sift together:

6 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 cup granulated sugar

In mixer on low speed add:

1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

When mixture resembles oatmeal add:

1 cup buttermilk

Divide mixture between the pans and carefully spread evenly. Dust the top of one cake with 2 tablespoons granulated and 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar. Bake cakes for 15 minutes. Remove cakes cool briefly, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Hull and slice 3 pints strawberries, sugar them to taste. Whip 1 ½ cups heavy cream with 1 teaspoon vanilla and ¼ cup confectioners sugar until thick (or use real whipped cream from can). Spread whipping cream on bottom layer and top with ½ the strawberries. Put the other cake layer on top and place more strawberries on top, pipe large swirls of cream  around top and bottom edge. Embellish with your favorite fudge sauce and chocolate dipped berries. Serves 10.