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August 12, 2007

Dreaming of the Mediterranean

edited to add recipe!


Do these look like boats on the clear blue sea?

Summer is slowly drawing to a violet-and-rose sunset of a close, but is it too late to dream of one more vacation? I didn't get to travel to Europe this summer, but I did the next best thing: I read David Shalleck's Mediterranean Summer.

Shalleck's book combines the best aspects of cooking memoir and travelogue, along with an utterly irresistible premise: sail the Mediterranean on a luxurious sailing yacht, stopping at the most beautiful villages and ports along the French and Italian coastlines, while eating classic Italian food prepared by the talented ship's chef. As I am not planning on buying my own yacht complete with private chef any time soon, this was pleasurable daydream-fulfillment of the highest order.

Shalleck stumbles upon the job of ship's cook at the end of a series of culinary internships he undertook in Italy, while he was seeking the experiences that would inspire and elevate his cooking skills. When he finds out that a wealthy Italian couple is looking for a chef to cook aboard their newly purchased yacht Serenity for the summer, he accepts - one of those impulsive decisions that leads to a seminal life experience - and an absorbing, fascinating story for the reader.

Cooking aboard a yacht presents challenges undreamed of by the cook on land. The galley is tiny and underequipped; there is barely any counter space, and the storage space for food is minimal. There are no gimbals installed beneath the stove to keep it horizontal against the motion of the yacht, meaning Shalleck has to watch out for sliding pans and sloshing water. Oftentimes the Serenity will be at sea for days, so food shopping must be planned carefully - there's no where to go if an ingredient is forgotten! Finally, Shalleck must serve as one of the crew members when he's not cooking, so he has to be able to perform all the same backbreaking tasks like lowering and raising the sails as everyone else, along with feeding the owners and crew.

Add in that the owners of Serenity are extremely sophisticated and demanding gourmands, and it sounds like the most daunting of challenges. Shalleck chronicles his fears at the beginning of the season, as he struggles to adapt to life at sea and refined palates of his bosses. He especially worries about coming up with dishes that will please the wife, or la Signora, as she is called. Shalleck portrays her as the kind of elegant, assured woman for whom only the best would ever do, and he comes to fear her standard greeting to him, "Cosa c'e di buono a mangiare?" - What good things are there to eat? as a sort of constant warning to stay on his toes.

However, as the yacht travels across the Mediterranean, stopping at ports famous and sigh-inducing, like Saint-Tropez, Monte Carlo, Portofino, Capri, Corsica, and Sardinia, Shalleck finds his footing and draws on his training and determination to become a inspired and confident chef. You see him seeking out the best of local delicacies at every stop, and turning them into elegant meals that have the owners applauding in admiration. He becomes a competent member of the crew, making friends with the charming, rakish steward. And when he is not cooking furiously away in the steaming hot galley, he manages to capture the romance of sailing on one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world.

One of my favorite chapters juxtaposes the luxurious life enjoyed by the very wealthy owners with the rather torturous experiences of the crew belowdeck. The Serenity has docked in Monte Carlo for the Grand Prix races, a favorite event of Europe's jet-set and also considered the official start of the yachting season in the Mediterranean. It is utterly exciting and glamorous, the town filled with the beautiful and chic, the thrill of the races filling the air, but for Shalleck the weekend turns into one huge nightmare when he is told by la Signora that he will be cooking for a party of a hundred of her friends - out of the tiny galley. The logistics of creating a multi-course meal by oneself in a kitchen barely equipped to cook for ten was enough to make me break out into a cold sweat. Yet, Shalleck acquits himself admirably with the help of the stalwart crew, in an amazing, I'm-glad-it's-not-me recounting of pasta, sauce, and dirty dishes everywhere.

Mediterranean Summer satisfies on many levels: you see Shalleck gain confidence in his skills as a chef, you taste the beauty of the French and Italian Riviera and the seasonal local cuisine that Shalleck learns to make, and you get the thrill of vicariously experiencing the privileged life the owners of the Serenity lead. Thoroughly enjoyable, the book is an instant vacation, a taste of la bella vita - and who couldn't use a little more of that?

Shalleck thoughtfully includes several recipes in the back of the book for dishes he described in his narrative, all classic Italian and all mouthwatering. One of them was for a torta di ciccolato caprese, or Chocolate Capri Cake - a dense, nearly flourless chocolate cake that is slightly nutty with ground almonds and intensely, sublimely chocolatey. Shalleck notes it was a favorite of la Signora - and I can see why.


Chocolate Capri Cake

adapted from Mediterranean Summer

serves about 12

12 Tbsp (172 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 oz (226 g) unsweetened or semisweet chocolate

3 oz (88 g) whole almonds, toasted

2 Tbsp(16 g) all purpose flour

6 large eggs, separated, room temperature

7 1/2 oz (200 g) sugar

confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and line with a circle of parchment pan. Be sure the pan has sides at least a couple of inches high as the batter will fill the pan almost completely!

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a bowl over a bain-marie. Set aside and let cool.

Grind the almonds together with the flour in a food processor until fine - do not let it turn into a paste.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a stand mixer until light colored and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Scrape yolk and sugar mixture into a large mixture. Fold in the melted chocolate mixture carefully.

Add in the almond flour and fold in carefully just until combined.

In a clean stand mixer bowl, whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Carefully scrape them over the batter and fold in gently.

Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake in oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cake cool on rack, then invert onto a plate and remove parchment. Invert cake back onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

This cake will keep for a couple of days at room temperature. I suggest keeping it in a covered cake dome as plastic wrap tends to stick to the top.

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That description of the galley sounds exactly like my kitchen. The cake sounds just how I like it, nice and chocolatey :)

This is a beautiful cake :) Flourless chocolate cakes are one my weaknesses, especially when served warm, with icecream!
I've been watching your blog for a while now, love it, your style of writing and the pictures! Thanks for sharing.

The cake looks fabulous, and I'm putting that book on my list of books to read!

This looks like one of my favorite chocolate cakes. I agree to the almost flourless...those are the best...the little flour adds just the right structure to prevent it from being too heavy but gives you the full taste of the chocolate.

I just finished reading this book. I was in the car driving cross-country, or I would have run into the kitchen to make this cake! It looks luscious.

The few recipes in the book are simple, but elegant. I can't wait to try some.

I just finished reading this book. I was in the car driving cross-country, or I would have run into the kitchen to make this cake! It looks luscious.

The few recipes in the book are simple, but elegant. I can't wait to try some.

Flourless chocolate cakes are my favorite. They are very rich, moist, and decadent!! Your photos are great! I love the outline of the fork. You are always so creative!!

I'm another flour-less but ALL-chocolate cake fan...I think I like it 'cause it isn't so cakey..

Mmmm, flourless cake is so yummy.

This is my favourit cake

Thank goodness you posted the recipe! The book looks like a good read too.

I absolutely love your blog.

I love that cake and yours looks wonderful! Gorgeous...

Now that looks rich, chocolatey, and GOOD.

Such an inviting piece of craft. Looks warm, chocolato and so tempting. Marvellous.

Just browsing the internet, your blog is very, very interesting.

Just wanted to let you know that your post is featured on BlogHer today -- see! ~ AK

You've missed your calling, Anita.. or at least your 2nd calling? You really should have been a book critic/reviewer - because you've just sold that book to at least one person. Me!

Oh yeah and that cake looks pretty good too. ;)


Its been so long since I have had a dense chocolate cake. This looks just perfect.

Love yr "fork" cocoa dusting..

That cake looks delicious no matter where it comes from!

wow looks so yummy!!!
can wait to try it.
have you ever tryed baking gluten free??
check out my blog.

thanks, Dylan

I have read quite a few things today about sailing boats and holiday and food. How interesting! I even just got an email from my godmother and cousin just 5 minutes ago saying that they are in the mediterranean on a cruise.What a coincidence to read very similar things. I love your write up of this book.; o )

I dream of a nice large kitchen with plenty of counter space and cabinets too!:)

Thank you so much for visiting and for the kind comments! This is a wonderful cake, hope you try it sometime!

Thank you! It's a great read, I hope you enjoy it!

Thanks! I agree, with this type of cake you get almost pure chocolate taste!

Glad to hear you enjoyed the book too! All the recipes sound so good, I can't wait to try the others!

Thank you! I love chocolate cake but it's so hard to photograph - I was just trying to spice up the picture a bit and I'm glad it worked!

This cake would probably be up your alley - it's like pure chocolate in your mouth...:)

I don't think there could be enough flourless chocolate cake in the world!

Thanks! This is one of my favorites as well!

Thank you so much, I'm flattered! I hope you enjoy the recipe!

Thank you! It was a delicious cake, I enjoyed eating it too!

It was really good and really rich - I could only eat a small slice at a time even though I wanted the whole thing!

Big Boys,
Thank you for the compliment! I love your site too, best of luck to your bakery!

Thanks for visiting and for the nice compliments - hope to see you again!

Thank you so much - I'm so thrilled to get the mention!

I'll keep it in mind as an alternate career:) Thank you, and I hope you enjoy both the book and cake!

Thank you! I thought it was a great recipe - couldn't get enough of it!

Thank you! It's hard to photograph chocolate cake without it looking like a big brown blob, so I was trying to be creative!

Thank you! I agree, it's great on sea or on land!

Thank you! I have never tried gluten free baking, so I will have to check out your blog!

What a lot of coincidences indeed! I'm glad you enjoyed the write-up, the book is the next best thing to really being on the Mediterranean!

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