Champion Cheesecake

A crew loses a race, but leads the fleet with a winning dessert in Venice’s annual Cooking Cup.

Imagine a potluck supper with prizes awarded for the best dishes. Now imagine that supper in Venice, Italy with all the food prepared aboard boats sailing in a regatta. Compagnia Della Vela Yacht Club’s annual "Cooking Cup," pits not only racing skippers against one another, but also challenges their galley slaves to a war of cutlery rather than cutlasses.

This year, the fleet consisted of 70 sailing yachts, from luxury cruisers to stripped-down racers. The rules stipulated that each boat prepare one dessert plus one first or second course. Cooking began at the starting line, and entries had to be submitted to a jury of professional chefs at the finish line. When the race was over, each boat scored one point for every boat they beat, but each dish could score an additional 30 points — plus bonus points for galley constraints such as non-gimbaled stove, single sink, no oven.

I was just passing though Venice in 1999 when a poster for the Cooking Cup caught my eye. "I’m a cook, I’m a sailor and I want to do the regatta," I told Francesca Dalla Vedova, the yacht club secretary, when she answered my call. She found me a boat and became one of my first Venetian friends. Three months later I moved here. Three years later Francesca again played matchmaker, between me and Fausto Pierobon’s Glenfield. This ultralight racing machine not only lacked an oven, but its sink had no running water. There wouldn’t even have been a fork or spoon if I’d neglected to bring items aboard. And refrigeration? Dream on.

There I was, an ex-tugboat cook, American at that, surrounded by world-class skippers Bruno Peyron, record-setting Frenchman in the Jules Verne non-stop circumnavigation, and Simone Bianchetti, Italy’s soloist in the Around Alone Regatta. Not only was heavy competition expected from Italian skipper Stefano Rizzi, (Volvo Round the World) aboard Nafta Bingo, but since San Pellegrino took over sponsorship, the Cooking Cup has gone from a Mom-and-Pop fun feed to a cookoff of European chefs. But as they say here, "Non risica, non rosica" -- which roughly translates to, "No guts — no glory."

What to fix? No oven. Italians prefer less sugar than Americans. Southeasterlies (the sirocco wind), normal for Venice afternoons, would mean beating and heeling. It could also mean only 1 hour and 30 minutes’ cooking time. I decided to vie for "Best International" with a family recipe, Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves, and no-bake Glenfield Cheesecake that I created especially for the regatta, but I was a bit nervous: I wasn’t sure it’d set up fast enough to hold together through the judging.

As I rolled grape leaves perched on the cabin sole, the process was more reminiscent of making childhood mud pies than anything resembling food preparation. And the cake? The wind died right after the start, and four hours later the ice chest was facing meltdown.

Glenfield was leading in the final minutes when I went below to garnish the plates. I surfaced moments later to find a demoralized crew watching our opponents coast over the finish line 37 seconds before us. Our celebrity status deflated like a balloon.

"Hey guys," I reminded my crestfallen comrades, "this ain’t over yet. Now it’s my turn."

They didn’t look any more optomistic than I was, especially after my grape leaves weren’t judged the international favorite. But that decadent union of mascarpone and cream cheese heaping with fresh raspberries won me "Best Dolce," for the second time in my four years’ competing. Though I wasn’t the day’s best overall cook, I did my 37 seconds’ worth to help team Glenfield take the grand prize.

I carried home a cute silver cake server and the knowledge that the perpetual trophy will read, "2002, the name of the boat, and the name of the chef." However, my really grand prize is a seat on next year’s jury — first fork full — before hundreds of half-starved sailors lock elbows in the final and biggest battle of the day — the assault on the world’s most magnificant pot luck table.

Glenfield No-Bake Cheesecake

3 1/2 ounces butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups plain cookie crumbs

5 + ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 1/2 ounces mascarpone
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Fruit preserves (those containing gelatin are best)
Fresh raspberries (or other seasonal fruit)

Use a fluted cake form that, when inverted, will yield a raised edge. (Lining the center with a circle of baking paper makes it easier to remove the crust from the pan.)

Combine first three ingredients. Press firmly into prepared pan, leveling the bottom and giving special attention to fluting the edges. Chill one hour. To remove crust, warm the pan over flame for a few seconds. Place a serving plate on top and invert.

Mix next four ingredients. Spread carefully into center of crust. Warm preserves and spread over cheese topping. Decorate with fresh, seasonal fruit (I used raspberries and cherries). If you’re using peaches, apricots, or bananas, toss them in lemon juice first to prevent them from turning brown. Serve immediately, or chill until ready to serve.