I’ve just returned from a visit to my family in Australia. Early settlers there may have made this simple campfire bread. “Damper” as it is called, was made by the Outback stockmen or drovers who mustered their cattle to travel hundreds of miles to market.
Traditionally, the bread is made with water, salt, and flour and baked in a covered cast-iron pan over hot coals. The top of this pan is covered with hot ashes to ensure even baking. The result is a chewy, rather bland bread. It fills an empty stomach, but I decided to experiment.
Using only the staples I had in my pantry, together with herbs and a lemon from the garden, I made two loaves with different flavors. What differentiates damper from other bread is that it has no yeast. The drovers on the move had no time to allow the dough to rise, let alone time to capture the yeast spores in the air to make a starter. But in the home kitchen, there are several ways to make this bread rise without yeast. One is to use baking powder, and the other is to use the action of acid on baking soda to get a rise. I made two loaves. One was herb bread and the other a cinnamon raisin bread.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp baking powder (note: tablespoons, not teaspoons)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup warm water
A fistful of chopped garden herbs, e.g. rosemary and sage, parsley and thyme. Some lemon zest would be a nice addition as well.
Oil the inside of a Dutch oven with a round shape and lid about 10 inches in diameter.
Place this container in the oven and bring the temperature to 415 degrees F. You want the Dutch oven to be hot when it receives the dough.
Take the largest bowl you can find and mix in the flour, salt, and baking powder with a whisk. Whisking the dry ingredients aerates it. Then draw the flour mix back up the sides of the bowl so there is a well in the middle. Add the olive oil and start to mix. Pour in the water slowly, mixing as you go, and lastly add the chopped herbs.
Roll it all into a ball and knead a few times, rolling back and forth. My bread mixing bowl is so large I can knead inside it, which is helpful because it saves the step of flouring a kneading slab or counter. Shape the dough into a round ball, score it with a sharp knife and place it in the pan and put the lid on.
Bake with the oven door closed for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the very hot pan and take off the lid. Return to the oven for another 15-20 minutes or until nicely browned.
When the pan has cooled down a little, turn it out onto a board. This bread has a crisp crust and a lovely texture.
Cinnamon Raisin Damper
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp lemon juice mixed at the last minute with 1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries or a mixture of both
3/4 cup buttermilk (or use 3/4 cup milk mixed with 1 tsp vinegar to create "buttermilk.")
3/4 cup warm water
Grease the Dutch oven and place it in an oven set to 415 degrees F to preheat.
In your large mixing bowl (see above) whisk the dry ingredients, then add the raisins. Add the baking soda and lemon juice and watch it bubble slightly.
Add the buttermilk and start to stir, then add sufficient water to make a dough. The dough will be shaggy. I kept adding flour until I was able to get a nice doughy texture to knead.
Roll it into a ball and place into the hot pan, top it with the lid, and put it into the oven. Close the door and do not check for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes I thought this dough looked a little wet, so I lowered the heat to 375 and baked it for another 20 minutes. I figured it might need a longer, slower bake but in the end, it did not take long to become nice and browned at the top.
Turn out onto a board and eat with butter. Makes great toast.
In this cinnamon-raisin bread recipe, I tried to create a rise using lemon juice/baking soda and buttermilk as well as baking powder. The bread rose and tasted delicious, but it was denser than the herbed damper and while the bread rose just fine, the addition of the acid did not increase the leaven. Still, these dampers looked almost the same as yeasted bread and tasted great. Note that the cinnamon raisin damper has very little sugar, and no butter and eggs, so it has the texture of bread rather than a sweet loaf.
Breadmaking is always a matter of experimentation. Oven temperatures vary, as do tempers. Take your time and see what you can come up with to vary the taste of this yeast-less bread.