Island Time - Give us this day our daily bread

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Among several essential tools that add comfort to the extended cruising lifestyle is a bread machine

Among several essential tools that add comfort to the extended cruising lifestyle is a bread machine

For cruisers holed up in George Town in the Bahamas, buying bread is a parody of mythical proportions.

No sooner has the morning VHF radio net signed off than a mom-and-pop horde piles into inflatables and roars off across the broad, choppy harbor toward town. Looking like charioteers of old, each husband and wife stands to avoid dreaded wet-butt syndrome.

Of the pair, he invariably stands aftmost, controlling the outboard with a tiller extension. With his other hand he holds onto her, as she grips the dinghy’s bow line. (Island troubadour Eileen Quinn wrote a song about this odd practice called “The George Town Strut.”)

The rubber armada’s objective is basic — shopping — and first on the cruisers’ list is their daily bread. The preferred local provider is a Bahamian Earth Mother, known to all as “Mom,” who parks her bakery van down by the docks. With every fresh loaf Mom bestows a hug on the purchaser and calls on God to bless them. Daily bread and trespasses forgiven, all for a few bucks, while they last.

Other moms live on other islands. Lorraine’s mom of Lorraine’s Café at Black Point comes to mind, but like most Bahamian baking moms, she usually only bakes when someone calls in advance. Island grocers sell factory-made loaves, of course, but they come by ship from the United States and often have had a second boat ride before reaching some of the smaller islands. It can be pretty uninspiring stuff.

Years ago, on my first island escape, I learned some sad truths about bread in the islands. All the moms excepted, good bread can be hard to find, and not just in the Bahamas. The Spanish bake superb baguettes called “pistolas,” but they somehow failed to bring this skill to their Caribbean conquests, probably because they had left the Spanish moms home. Bread in the Dominican Republic, unless purchased from European bakeries in the bigger cities, is universally mediocre, while Cuba’s government-issued loaves taste as if leavened with sawdust.

For our latest cruise we wanted what the Bush Administration might call “bread security.” Rio, our Morgan Out Island 41, has a serviceable gas oven, but Kelly and I decided the best bread for the effort was the kind made in an electric bread machine.

Rise and shine

Bread machines are designed to plug into a standard household outlet. As such, they use fewer than 15 amps of VAC power. This is well within the capabilities of any generator and any boat equipped with a substantial inverter and bank of house batteries. Most cruisers, run their gensets a few hours a day to recharge batteries, and could probably bake bread at the same time without much affecting the charge cycle or overloading the genset motor.

Our Oster bread machine is a rounded rectangle measuring 14-1/2-by-10-1/2-by-11 inches, which means it would fit under settees and galley lockers of most trawlers and larger sailboats. We chose one with a hinged lid rather than a removable top and mounted it on a countertop using straps sold at marine stores to fasten down televisions. The bread pan’s orientation is horizontal, yielding traditional brick-shaped loaves.

A healthy supply of flour and yeast (specially made for bread machines), salt, sugar and water are all that’s needed to make bread. We left home with just a couple of packages of each ingredient knowing that they’re readily available on most islands and cost about what you’d pay back home. We don’t overstock flour and yeast because the high humidity could compromise their efficacy. Plus, we prefer not to invite guests from the six-legged tribe.

Assuming three loaves a week, a 4-ounce jar of yeast lasts us about two months; a 5-pound bag of flour about two weeks. In no time at all Kelly was turning out crusty French and sourdough breads, hearty wheats, and even crispy English muffin bread dusted with corn meal just like the packaged kind.

Bread baking and its cleanup are simple. Measuring out and combining the ingredients into the machine is more a science project than cooking (until you smell the bread baking). It only takes about five minutes to throw some ingredients together, press the start button, and voila! Kelly developed a systematic approach for cleanup: designate measuring cups and spoons whose sole function is to measure bread ingredients. Doing so means fewer dishes to wash, ultimately reducing water usage. When the bread is done, simply wipe clean the pan.

Today Kelly is making a standard 80-minute “quick bake,” which is the second fastest bake setting. Here’s where she gets creative: Using the recipe for the quickest bake setting (58 minutes), she selects the 80-minute bake setting to yield a thicker, browner, crustier crust. This is a clever alternative to the three- and four-hour sourdough and French bread settings. Those loaves are reserved for rare occasions when we’ve tied up at a marina with shore power. Another benefit of unlimited AC power is being able to preload ingredients and set the machine to start baking, say, at 5:30 a.m., so you are greeted at daybreak with the magical smell of a fresh loaf waiting for butter.

Company’s coming

Sooner or later, as you make your way through the islands, you will participate in one of two great social rituals of cruising — The Potluck Supper (the other, of course, being Happy Hour).

A loaf of just-baked bread or two, depending on the expected turnout, and a stick of butter is mightily appreciated among all those pots of rice and mysterious casseroles.

On the first extended island cruise, I also learned that the food from the U.S. that I missed most was pizza, particularly the sort typical of New York or Boston. When my longtime crewmember, Chef Charles, was aboard, he resorted to making pizza on the gas grill, patiently waving the flame from a propane torch over the top to melt the cheese.

As I mentioned, Rio has an oven, so now we make pizza about once a week, and Kelly’s pizza skills have earned her honorary Mom status. The bread maker, you see, has a setting for making pizza dough, and it does that preliminary task perfectly. Rio could be anchored off the beach at Great Guana Cay, but down in the galley, the aroma of browned crust, seared pepperoni, garlicky tomato sauce and melted mozzarella would convince a blind man he was sitting in Boston’s European Café in the North End.

Now I would love to continue writing, but Oster the bread machine just beep-beep-beeped. Like Pavlov’s pooch, I’m salivating. Bread’s waiting for butter, and we didn’t even have to harness our chariot to fetch it.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .