Two weeks back from a 12 day cruise through the Mediterranean and I’m trying to hold on to the post-vacation glow (figuratively and literally – I got quite a lot of sun). I’m really excited to share some vacation photos and dessert inspirations with you all over the next couple of weeks!
So the reasons we decided to do a cruise? Well, given our limited vacation time this seemed like an efficient way to see a large part of the Mediterranean – especially the Greek isles. Also, sadly, I’m a little past the age of backpacking through Europe on twenty dollars a day – I must admit I enjoy having my own bed to fall into at the end of the day. Although hubby Mike and I, being cruise neophytes, were a little apprehensive at taking such a long cruise, it turned out to be a great experience. Itinerary played a big role: our cruise embarked from Rome and wound its way down the Italian coast and through the Greek isles and up back to Venice. Since we were in a different port every day, we were pretty much constantly on the go – the way we like our vacations.
We flew into Rome a day before the cruise left. The last time I was in Rome I spent an amazing week in one of the world’s great cities; this time I was excited to be sharing it with my hew hubby.
Authentic German bretzel at the Frankfurt airport where we had a layover before flying on to Rome.
Totally punch drunk after about 20 cumulative hours of flying. The wine you see on the table probably didn’t help, but we were really eager to finally get our vacation started – with a late night dinner at a traditional, wine bottle lined- Roman enoteca.
Fantastic spaghetti alla carbonara. The waiter also treated us to our first shots of limoncello on the trip.
Trevi fountain at night. It is pretty much tourist central – even at 11 PM! We stayed just long enough to toss in the requisite coin and then took off, finding our way through the narrow cobblestone streets back to our hotel. Wandering down the lamplit streets of a foreign city in a still-warm summer night – I can think of few things more romantic.
We had half a day the next morning before we had to take the train to Civitavecchia to board the cruise ship, so we crammed in as much of Rome as we could. We had to skip the Vatican, but Mike definitely did not want to miss the Colosseum. When we got there we saw some interesting action going outside – some workers were involved in a remarkably acrobatic and elegant synchronized unrolling of some fabric over the Colosseum walls – I believe it was for some event.
Interior view of the Colosseum.
The Pantheon. The engineer in me stills thinks this is one of the most amazing buildings in Rome.
Buildings lining Piazza Navona, one of my favorite piazzas. I love the colors of the buildings in Rome and how they all have shutter-lined windows.
Time for something sweet! The entrance to the famous Il Gelato di San Crispino and arguably the best gelato in Rome.
Very happy to be having my second gelato in 12 hours. It was also gloriously hot, if you can’t tell from the photo.
Two of my favorite gelato flavors – fragola (strawberry) and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate bits). Note that San Crispino’s version of stracciatella has chocolate in the base as well.
All too soon we had to say ciao to Rome. A 1 1/2 hour train ride later, we arrived in Civitavecchia and boarded our cruise ship. Above, the view of Civitavecchia as our cruise ship left the port. Not as exciting or romantic as some other ports, I suppose, but at least we were on our way. Next stop, Monte Carlo, France, and then back to Italy before heading down to Greece.
When I think of all the sweets I had on vacation, gelato is, unsurprisingly, a clear standout. It seemed like every other tourist in Rome was eating a cup of gelato, or heading into a gelato shop. Hard to blame them.
What differentiates gelato from ice cream is its dense, yet super creamy texture. This is mainly the result of two things: gelato is churned so that very little air is incorporated, so it’s less fluffy than its ice cream counterpart; two, gelato at the gelaterias is stored at a higher temperature than most ice cream, so even though its dense it doesn’t freeze solid – like many ice creams left too long in the freezer.
Just like ice cream, there are several styles of gelato: gelato from the colder, northern part of Italy is made with eggs, resulting in a richer, fuller mouthfeel, excellent for some of the extravagant flavors like gianduia or zabaione. Gelato from the warmer, Mediterranean climes of southern Italy is lighter and does not use eggs (comparable to Philadelphia-style ice cream); the gelato is less lush but the lower fat content means stronger, purer flavors – ideal for many of the fruit-based gelato flavors.
Picking a favorite flavor of gelato is no easier and perhaps more difficult than picking your favorite ice cream flavor. I have to admit, though, that one flavor does hold a permanent place in my heart: stracciatella.
You have to say the name the way Italians say it: long and lovingly, the last two syllables a drawn out flourish. Some may ask why I love stracciatella so much when chocolate chip isn’t my favorite ice cream flavor, to which I say that comparing the two is like saying
Stracciatella means “torn apart” in Italian, a perfectly apt name for this flavor. The wonderfully fine specks of chocolate dispersed throughout a vanilla base are created by drizzling warm melted chocolate into a still-churning ice cream maker. It’s sort of like that childhood classic, Magic Shell, taken to a perfect extreme. The liquid chocolate gets flash-frozen into ribbons that are then broken – or torn apart – by the ice cream paddle into thousands of little, crunchy shards scattered throughout the gelato. This lovely chiaroscuro of textures is probably why I love stracciatella so.
An in-progress shot of the stracciatella. You can see the chocolate hardening into streaks and then getting broken into tiny bits as the paddle continues to agitate the mixture. Almost like watching a magic trick in action.
A couple things to remember when making gelato: to minimize the amount of air stirred into the mixture, the ice cream should freeze as quickly as possible. Therefore, make sure you chill your ice cream base beforehand, overnight if possible; the colder it is, the faster it will churn into ice cream.
Also, most homemade ice creams don’t keep well for long in home freezers – the water in the ice cream will slowly freeze and turn it hard and icy. So to enjoy gelato at its best, try to serve it soon after making it. You’ll find it’s not that difficult, really, after you take that first bite.
I also took the opportunity to make some pizzelles and put together some ice cream sandwiches. I thought it appropriate since pizzelles are an Italian invention. Although chocolate isn’t the classic flavor, I think the modification is forgivable since it goes so well with the stracciatella.
Enjoy your weekend – and eat some gelato!
- 2 cups ( 16 fl oz) whole milk
- 3/4 cup ( 5 1/4 oz) sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 cup (8 fl oz) heavy cream
- 6 oz bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
- Combine milk and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds and bean in the saucepan.
- Heat mixture over medium heat just until it begins to boil (Do not let it keep boiling). Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes.
- Place egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk together. Pour the milk mixture in a steady stream into the yolks, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking.
- Pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and place back over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (make sure to get the bottom and sides) until the mixture reaches 185 degrees F and it has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon.
- Strain mixture into a clean container. Add in the heavy cream and stir to combine. Chill mixture in refrigerator for at least 8 hours, preferably 24.
- Freeze in an ice cream maker per manufacturer's instructions. While the ice cream is freezing, melt the bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler or in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water.
- When the ice cream is almost done (it should be mostly solid), pour in the melted chocolate in a steady stream into the ice cream. Let it churn for a few minutes for the chocolate to incorporate and shatter into streaks.
- Transfer ice cream to a clean container and place in freezer until fully frozen, about 2-3 more hours.