Fresh Bread Every Day

On the longer legs of voyages aboard my Westsail 42, Fiona, we usually run out of store-bought bread after a couple of weeks. From then on, we bake our own bread every day. And we do this without using the large oven, which is a voracious propane consumer. Instead, we bake the dough in something called a Swedish oven that sits on top of the stove and uses only one burner adjusted to a very low level. A secondary advantage is that we have that delicious fresh-baking smell emanating from the galley every morning, and we have warm bread for lunch. I have found that the crew look forward eagerly to the end of the commercial loaves so that we can start with the home-baked bread.

The Swedish oven

I do not know of a commercial source of Swedish ovens, but they are relatively easy to make. Mine is an ordinary aluminum stockpot modified by the addition of a central flue or chimney (see photo). The pot is 9 inches in diameter and 7 1/2 inches high with a good close-fitting, metal-handled lid (a plastic one will deteriorate). To make the oven, get a machine shop to cut a hole in the bottom to accommodate a thin-walled aluminum tube about 3 inches in diameter and 5 inches long. The tube must then be welded in place. The oven is held in position on the stove by metal fiddles, so that the flue is directly over a burner. My stove is not gimbaled, so if the boat is heeling, I also use a thin cord around the oven to keep it in place. The bread is baked by placing a long “sausage” of dough around the flue. To make the sausage, you will need a breadboard about 12 by 14 inches.

Making the dough

The quantities given here are sufficient for a crew of three, assuming a sandwich lunch and a small amount saved for gravy mopping at suppertime. I use a heavy mixing bowl to retain heat for the dough; it is made of enameled metal. I am indebted to my friend Louise Hanson for the recipe, who worked out the quantities while crewing aboard Fiona. You should get eight or nine loaves from a 5-lb bag of flour.

First warm the oven and mixing bowl. To do this, I remove the lid and invert the bowl over the oven for a couple of minutes, using a very low burner setting. At the same time, warm up some water in a kettle; when it’s hot, put exactly one cup in the bowl and dissolve in it a heaped tablespoon of sugar. Test the water temperature with a finger, if the water is too hot, it may kill the yeast. When it is warm, but not unbearably so, add a generously heaped teaspoon of yeast. Stir gently and let the yeast react for five or 10 minutes. I always feel sorry for the yeast at this stage — it goes from months in the dark to yeast heaven: warm and sweet. But in a short while, it is going to meet a nasty end as it is baked to death.

While the yeast is doing its thing, grease or oil the oven on the bottom and sides to a height of about two inches. Run a thin stripe of flour along a diagonal of the breadboard and dry the measuring cup. Now sift 2 1/2 cups of plain flour into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt and stir. You should achieve a doughy consistency that is not too sticky or too dry. Very small amounts of warm water or flour can be added if necessary.

Baking a loaf

Sprinkle flour on your hands and on the dough, and transfer it to the board. Form it into a sausage about an inch and a half in diameter and the length of the diagonal. Put the oven next to the board. Lift the sausage into the oven and twist the ends together so that it forms a large donut around the flue. Place the oven over the burner and put the lid on. If the temperature in the boat is below 70° F, give the oven a burst of low heat for a minute or two.

The plan now is to get the bread to rise so that it is spongy when baked. It usually takes about 30 or 40 minutes for the dough to swell enough to completely fill the bottom of the oven. Keep the lid on and don’t bump the oven. Inspect the dough occasionally; if it becomes thicker on one side because the boat is heeling, gently rotate the oven. You can use this time to clean up.

When the dough has risen sufficiently, light the burner. At first, a little trial and error will be needed to determine the exact flame size to get a well-cooked loaf that is not burned next to the flue. When baked, the loaf should have a crispy crust next to the flue but no charring. For the first 30 minutes of baking do not lift the lid, this may cause the dough to collapse. Always use a potholder when touching the stove after starting to bake, as the stove will get quite hot. My stove bakes the bottom of the loaf a little faster than the top, so after 45 minutes, I tip the loaf onto the board and put it back upside-down. After another 15 minutes, the baking is complete.

Serving suggestions

Let the loaf cool on the board for 30 minutes, then cut into quarters. Save one quarter for supper. I slice the other three longitudinally to make two open-faced sandwiches per person. I have also made bread with whole-wheat flour (use a little more yeast) and baked cakes. Oatmeal cookie mix with raisins and rum, and carrot cake mix are both popular and great for crew morale. Cakes should be baked on a low temperature with a well-greased oven. Make sure that the oven is thoroughly cleaned before you next bake bread, as cake mix tends to stick.

Eric Forsyth, a recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Award, is on his second circumnavigation aboard Fiona.

By Ocean Navigator