Like most people anticipating a first ocean voyage on a cruise ship, I worried that I would come home carrying 10 extra pounds. This concern grew out of a lifetime of impressions taken from popular culture that depicted such ships offering endless spreads to gluttonous passengers.
I imagined that I would be bumping into lavish buffets at every turn so that a casual stroll around the deck would be rewarded instantly with a plate of lobster quiche, or perhaps a crabmeat sandwich or two. I also pictured midnight dessert tables laden with an array of éclairs, cream pies, frosted layer cakes and mounds of butter cookies, all surrounding one of those delectably vulgar chocolate fountains spewing torrents of melted chocolate meant to be caught with a hunk of pound cake or perhaps a strawberry.
But now that I find myself a frequent trans-Atlantic passenger on the Queen Mary 2 because of a job I have taken as a lecturer, reality has sunk in, at least on this ship that provides a measure of British restraint. Three-course lunches and dinners served in the formal dining room offer small portions, and salads are always available. Among the six menu options, one can find “the spa meal,” dishes such as grilled fish that are noticeably light in calories.
This discrepancy between the sort of food I had expected to find on the ship and what I really found set me thinking about other misconceptions about ocean liners I had stored up over the years. The departure scene is one of them. Old movies had hundreds of passengers holding a bottle of champagne with one hand and waving goodbye with the other to loved ones far below while streamers and confetti floated through the air.
But the truth is that the docked ships are off-bounds to friends and families because security measures allow only passengers anywhere near the ships. I was struck by this when close friends wanted to drive from Vermont to the New York Cunard pier to see me off, and I had to disabuse them of the notion they would be able to send me off in style, all teary-eyed and waving.
Cruise ships have a romantic mystique, and I was not surprised to find myself thinking about Bette Davis as I did my morning two-mile walk around the deck. I love old Warner Bros. movies, and “Now, Voyager,” which stars Bette, is my favorite. That’s the one where she meets and falls in love with Paul Henreid during a sea voyage, and the film has what may well be the most imitated scene in moviedom. He puts two cigarettes to his mouth, lights them, and hands one to her, a gesture that once seemed sexy but now could be interpreted as a suicide pact. This plot is about lovers prevented from a complete relationship because the Paul Henreid character is married, thus causing Bette the heroine to utter my favorite movie line of all time, “Oh Jerry,” she says, “don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Cruise food: the luxury of currant scones
So I am a bit of a romantic. I find I am a sucker for several of the ship’s alluring venues. There is a champagne lounge that serves nothing but Veuve Clicquot, and I have been known to spend the evening there with friends, half expecting to see the cinematic ghosts of Davis and Henreid huddled together in a corner. I love going to the rustic Golden Lion Pub and am transported to a Thomas Hardy novel as I enjoy a ploughman’s lunch or fish and chips with mushy peas.
Most of all, I love the ship’s afternoon teas served in a room that oozes luxury, a sparkling golden décor with crystal chandeliers and a chamber music quartet contributing to the chic atmosphere. Waiters float around the room, pouring tea and serving teatime delicacies that put me in mind of a scene from the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” Of the treats being passed, I go for the currant scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Why wouldn’t I?
So I limit my shipboard indulgences to an occasional scone and try to order the spa meals as often as possible. Such admirable restraint means that I actually lost weight on my first trip, and established an eating routine I have followed on subsequent voyages. I had dreaded the thought of coming home bloated and full of self-recrimination, and instead found I had been miraculously saved when an impulse toward self-preservation kicked in. But this does not mean I swore off currant scones, for the minute I got home I tried to duplicate them, and here is the recipe.
Currant Scones a la Queen Mary 2
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¾ cup dried currants
½ cup buttermilk or whole milk or cream, depending on the richness you desire
1 egg lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
1. Heat oven to 425 F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. In large bowl mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
2. With pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture looks like coarse meal. Stir in currants, and add buttermilk (or whole milk or cream) and egg, and stir just until ingredients are combined. Do not overmix or scones will be tough.
3. On a lightly-floured surface knead mixture until dough is smooth. Form into an 8-inch disk. Using a 2½ biscuit cutter, cut into rounds.
4. Place scones on a baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Brush with milk. Bake until golden brown — about 12 to 18 minutes. These are good served warm or at room temperature and should be accompanied by strawberry jam and cream that has been whipped and sweetened.
Top photo: Currant scones with jam and cream. Credit: Barbara Haber