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.