The Challenges of Baking at Sea

A brief history of maritime baking, from hardtack to petit-fours, with the occasional disaster along the way

baking at sea
Baking at sea is not without its share of complications, like sudden course corrections in the middle of frosting a layer cake.Alex Testere

Bearing away!” I could hear my fellow crew members scrambling on deck as our 40-foot yacht heeled over sharply in a violent jibe, and an unexpected gust of wind set the sails fluttering and the hardware jangling. A sudden course correction like this one—the maritime equivalent of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift—was enough to knock me off balance in the kitchen galley below, where I watched, horrified, as an unsecured chocolate layer cake went flying off the counter and across the cabin. Splat. Moist chunks of cake and sticky globs of icing landed on sleeping bags and portholes and foul weather gear. It was meant to be a reward for crossing the Gulfstream, the warm current flowing through the Atlantic Ocean between the New England coast and Bermuda, during a sailboat race that should have been, pardon the obvious metaphor, a cakewalk. The crew was not happy with me and, next morning, I found a dead flying fish left on the stove. (Sailors have a weird sense of humor.) I swabbed crumbs and buttercream for days. For a few years, offshore racing was a natural extension of my work as a yachting journalist, and cooking was how I usually got invited onboard, wooing my way across oceans with sheet pans of lasagna, ham dinners, and baked-from-scratch cookies. On one stormy trip, I roasted a whole turkey. Guess what happens when you’re basting a 20-pound bird as a boat slams through oncoming waves? Hot pan juices slosh like the high seas; it can be a genuine hazard to open an oven in rough weather on a small boat. Cooking in a narrow, poorly ventilated space does nothing for digestive equilibrium, either. In short, I would occasionally heave ho. On one of the last nights of one particular voyage, as we raced toward port, the force of each wave finally took its toll. The propane gas stove sheared off its four-inch-thick steel gimbal pin and crashed to the floor. That meant no more hot meals until landfall for the 25 grizzled, soggy, exhausted men who depended on me to keep them fed.

Cooking at sea has always been problematic, but baking, with its idiosyncrasies of temperature and texture, is an even greater trial, whether it's keeping flour dry and pest free, or avoiding a mutiny when weevils inevitably prevail. But before anyone thought to actually bake on board, the first baked goods carried along were a far cry from my chocolate cake. Egyptian sailors ate a brittle millet loaf; Roman galleon crews had bucellatum, a precursor of hardtack. According to the Royal Museums Greenwich, the provisioning of hardtack, or ship's biscuits, appears in documents dating to the Third Crusade, when Richard the Lionheart departed from England in 1190 with his ships carrying "biskit of muslin" made from a mixed meal of barley, rye, and bean flour. During the next few centuries, most vessels, merchant or naval, continued to purchase pre-made biscuit from maritime victuallers, though sailors were occasionally treated to better fare when in calm ports. In Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of Empire, she references the ship's mess on the warship Mary Rose, anchored in Portsmouth Harbor on Saturday July 18, 1545, which included boiled salt cod, cheese, butter, and a half loaf of bread: "This made a welcome change from the hard and worm-eaten ship's biscuit they had to make do with when they were at sea." Then, a galley might consist of copper cauldrons suspended over fireboxes resting on sand, as well as stoneware, knives, and other rudimentary utensils. Provisions were also basic: long-lasting salted beef, pork, and particularly cod, caught off the coasts of Iceland and Newfoundland. At the Museum of Food and Drink earlier this year, Edible History duo Victoria Flexner and Jay Reifel prepared a 16th century "First Mate's Cod Pie" for their Secrets of the Trade Winds dinner. According to Reifel, this isn't the kind of pie you'd find served in a roadside diner, but rather a savory dish cooked in an inedible, reusable crust known as a coffin. "It's made often with nothing other than flour and water and actually took the place of the cooking vessel," he said. "Another advantage of these is that they sealed and preserved the contents and, because of the thick walls, often cooked the contents quite gently."

Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1677: “Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else.” While serving as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty in the 1670s, Pepys created the first comprehensive table of rations for the British Navy: “One pound daily of good, clean, sweet, sound, well-baked and well-conditioned wheaten biscuit plus a galleon of beer and other victuals.” These basics were mostly still beef, pork and cod, but eventually oatmeal, dried fruits, sugar, limes, and cocoa were added.

By the late 1700s, meals were able to improve even further as vessels were equipped with sheet-iron “firehearth” galley stoves, set on a heatproof stone or brick slab, with a hot water tank, ovens for baking, and heating surfaces protected by iron railings. Around the same time, dessert appeared on a shipboard menu—if you could call boiled pudding a dessert. Common mariners were resigned to meager rations, but guests at the captain’s table were treated to finer dishes. On a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope in 1797, adventuress Lady Anne Barnard documented a dinner of stewed cabbage, pork pie, duck, corned beef, all “removed by an enormous Plumb (sic) Pudding.”

As the Age of Sail shifted to the Age of Steam at the turn of the 20th century, advances in kitchen technology—especially steel-clad, fireproof equipment—meant first-class passengers on ocean liners dined similarly to those on Continental terra firma. Scrolling through vintage cruise liners menus, I discovered a crème au chocolate gateau served on the R.M.S. Noordam on June 20, 1907. These chefs were turning out haute cuisine on the high seas, finishing meals with lady fingers and petit-fours.

By 1907, chefs were turning out haute cuisine on the high seas, finishing meals with lady fingers and petit-fours.

But how, exactly? These weren't some flour-and-water crackers dried so hard you could bean a passing albatross. A coffin containing chowder. Or a boil-in-the-bag suet ball stuffed with dried prunes. (Curiously though, plum pudding had staying power. It even appeared in the second-class dining room that last fateful day on the Titanic.) On a more recent, and certainly less eventful cruise, I toured Silverseas' Silver Shadow galleys, which cater to 360 passengers in four restaurants and four bars, as well as 24-hour room service and lounge snacks.

“Baking at sea has its challenges,” said executive chef Grant Chilcott. “The factors that influence our pastry chefs and bakers are varied. While our kitchens are now the same as professional kitchens on land, humidity or movement of the vessel can be particularly challenging when trying to set liquids or bake in ovens. If there are temperature variations or humidity changes, air conditioning and extractors can make up for this. Our baking ovens are professional, meaning they have steam and dry heat and are always checked and calibrated.”

We navigated around stainless steel stations where the staff prepped lunch. Chilcott opened a storage room door for a peek at the stacked shelves. “Although the galleys are well ventilated and their temperatures controlled, humidity can also affect ingredients like sugar, flour, chocolate and salt, so we store them in airtight containers to prevent them becoming damp.”

In the pastry department, Chilcott explained it’s one of the busiest onboard, with bakers working around the clock to produce bread, breakfast pastries, croissants, cakes, soufflés, macarons, and ice cream. The day crew was prepping desserts for tea service. One assistant positioned tiny marzipan carrots, complete with bright green tops, on cake slices; someone else browned meringue on cream puffs with a brûlée torch and dusted each with confectioner’s sugar. At another station, icing was mixed with a massive Robot Coupe MP 450 Turbo 18-inch Immersion Blender. It’s known in the trade as a “Rambo.”

Chilcott continued: “Since the galley moves with the ship, one area that is most challenging is weighing ingredients, especially in small quantities. If you have ever weighed yourself on board, you’ll find yourself somewhere between heaven and hell. The ship rises and you are suddenly very heavy; on the reverse, as she pitches, you are as light as a feather. Now try that on a digital scale—the reading never stabilizes. To counter this, we often use volume as a measurement, as this is not affected by movement. But different ingredients have different densities, so you need to trust your recipe.”

“What’s the most complicated pastry in your repertoire?” I asked.

“Gateau Saint-Honore. It’s a very technical cake to prepare. It has two types of pastry—puff and choux—as well as praline buttercream, Chantilly cream, caramel glaze. Topped by a sugar cage. The cream is piped with a special nozzle that creates peaked quenelles across the top of the cake. There are times when the cream or the flour varies from the previous provisioning, so we adjust to get the best result we can. The baker may have to add a little more yeast or a little more water from one week to the next.”

“And when the seas get really rough?”

“In the event of movement, the chefs must secure any trolleys and ensure that equipment is not able to roll or fall off the work benches.”

I neglected to mention my cake accident.

Shortly after, I walked into the Panorama Lounge, which had a sweeping stern view of the ship’s wake. Afternoon tea was underway. A pianist sat at the baby grand. The wait staff fussed over tiered silver trays and teapots. And the pastry display did not disappoint. On occasions like this I am often overwhelmed by choice as a certain anxiety mounts over the cream-filled eclairs and boozy baba au rhum.

Not this time.

The chocolate cake had my name on it.