Castellammare di Stabia: a Memoir with Cake

Got it.  Reconstructed, recreated it.  The flavor that was only a vague memory of my wonder years.  Tender, moist, solid yet light, golden, fragrant of almonds, the sweet with the aroma of paradise.  Okay, let’s back up.  pictureNumerous years ago, during those emotionally intense years of my Italian life, my family would spend a couple of weeks in September (then, school didn’t begin till October 1st) going daily to the ancient Terme di Stabia, in the sunny town of Castellammare di Stabia, along the coast, on the way to Sorrento, about a 30 minutes’ drive from Portici.  It was an establishment where people went to ‘take the waters’, sink into mud baths, and take care of their health in general, using only natural methods.  Sort of what today we’d call a spa, but not as glamorous and self-indulgent.  The Terme are still there, as active as ever. They were divided in two sections, the New Terme and the Old.  The Old ones included beautiful, aristocratic gardens, with little shaded paths and bubbling stone fountains, where you’d collect restorative waters from different subterranean sources, all under the strict prescription of your doctor – only two glasses of sulfur water, for example, and one and a half of the iron-rich one. My parents, who seriously followed these directions, would spend the morning in that section, after depositing me, my brother and sister in the new section of the Terme, which had some more modern facilities, including a well-equipped playground, a game room for the children, and some minor health centers, like the section called aerosol, where I – who frequently suffered from laryngitis and loss of voice during the winter – would take some inhalation therapy for about half an hour or so.  Yes, a very Italian thing to do, don’t know how else to explain it.  Well, leaving us kids to our own devices usually led to trouble, as my brother would start instigating mischief, and next thing I knew, we were all at each other’s throats (literally), screaming lo dico io al babbo! (wait till I tell Dad), and so on.  Also, my brother, an exuberant, bossy and highly energetic boy, would often cause some kind of problem in one of the facilities, be it a broken basket in the sports court, or some wailing child flat on the ground with a skinned knee, because my brother had spun the chair-carousel a little too violently. At lunchtime, my parents, somewhat more relaxed from the treatment (or not, if an argument had arisen), would collect us, do some damage control with the staff who had to endure our stressful presence, and head home.  But not before stopping at one of the little bakeries for which the town of Castellammare was (and still is) renowned.  The cookies and tea pastries from this lovely place are legendary, and the air itself is scented with their irresistible aroma.  My great weakness were the  Maddalene, whose fragrant bagful always ended up on my lap in the car on the way home.  They wereMadeleines, the famous shell-shaped pastries of Proustian fame, but…nothing like them.

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Castellamare di Stabia (photo from Google)

These shells were brightly golden, super-rich, solid, yet velvety and light, infused with a mysterious flavor that I could never identify.  Until now.  I finally deduced the source of the elusive flavoring of those regal pastries: almond paste.  So, my dear readers, after serious experimenting with various recipes, digging deeply into my memories to unearth the taste I craved, voilà, my Maddalene took form – though a different form.  Like a cake.  Well, yes, every time I attempted to bake this batter into the little Madeleines forms, I was never pleased with the result.  That is, they stick like crazy, thus losing the traditional design.  Now I bake the aromatic batter in a cake pan, hence my fabulous Golden Almond Cake with the flavor of heaven.  Cut small wedges, serve it with some bitter espresso, and eat it slowly, savoring each morsel.  No whipped cream or chocolate sauce please! Compact and elegant in its simplicity, this Almond Cake needs nothing but its precious little self.

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