Sicilian cassata



Cassata, a product of Sicilian pastry-making, and more specifically of Palermo, deserves the place of honor among the typical sweets of this region, together with cannoli, almond pastries and pizzicotti; cassata was created to celebrate Easter after the penance of Lent, but has since become a common dish throughout the year. Cassata is just one of the many Easter sweets that celebrate this festivity. Its decorations are baroque and sumptuous, and its origin is actually Arabic: its name comes from the Arabic word "Quas'at", which means big and round bowl. The richness of its ingredients reflects the characteristics of Arab cuisine, which loves to harmonize contrasting flavors, such as sponge cake filled with ricotta cheese mixed with sugar and chocolate. Apparently simple to make, the preparation of Sicilian cassata actually requires a lot of skill, especially to create the elaborate decorations with which it is richly endowed.


Ingredients for the filling
Dark chocolate chips ½ cup (100 g)
Candied orange 4 tbsp (50 g) - (optional)
Sheep's milk ricotta cheese 4 cups (1.2 kg)
Vanilla-flavored powdered sugar 2 ⅓ cups (280 g)
For the pan di Spagna (sponge cake) and syrup:
Eggs 10 - medium
Flour 00 1 ½ cup (300 g)
Sugar 1 ½ cup (300 g)
Fine salt 1 pinch
Sugar 4 tbsp (50 g) - (for the syrup)
Water ½ cup (150 ml) - (for the syrup)
Maraschino 1 tbsp
Lemon peel 1
For the fondant icing
Powdered sugar 3 cups (350 g)
Water to taste
To decorate
Mixed candied fruit to taste - (pumpkin, mandarin oranges, pears, cherries, figs, etc.)
Marzipan 1 cup (200 g)
Pistacchio paste 1 ½ tbsp (20 g)
For the royal icing
Egg whites 1
Vanilla-flavored powdered sugar 1 ¼ cup (150 g)

How to prepare Sicilian cassata

Start preparing the Sicilian cassata the day before serving. Make the sponge cake and bake it in a rectangular jelly roll pan measuring 10" x 14" (35 cm x 25 cm) 1 and let it cool (we prepare it a day ahead so it can be cut without crumbling too much). Drain the ricotta cheese well, using a sieve 2, then mix it in a bowl with the vanilla-flavored powdered sugar 3: cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, sieve the ricotta cheese twice 4 until a smooth, soft cream is obtained. Add the chocolate chips 5 (and, if you like it, the candied orange cut into small cubes) to the cream and place the filling obtained in the refrigerator in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. Prepare the green marzipan by kneading together the marzipan and the pistachio paste 6 (if you can't find it, use green food coloring), dusting the worktop with a little powdered sugar.
If you want to prepare the marzipan yourself, put 1/2 cup (125 gr) of sugar and 3 1/2 T (50 ml) of water in a pan. Bring to a boil and as soon as the sugar starts to spin (soft-ball stage, 235–240° F) (112-115° C), remove the saucepan from the heat; add 1 1/4 cup (125 g) of peeled almond flour (which you can obtain by blending peeled almonds with a coffee grinder in short pulses so as not to overheat them and release their oil), the pistachio paste and 1 tbsp of vanilla extract. Mix until smooth and homogeneous, then pour the mixture out on a cold marble surface. As soon as the marzipan is cooled, knead it until smooth and compact (use powdered sugar in the same way as flour, if needed, to keep it from sticking).

Roll out the marzipan into a sheet 5" (12 cm) wide and 1/4" (1/2 cm) thick 7, then cut it in half lengthwise (you will obtain two 2.5" (6 cm) wide strips) and cut out pieces of marzipan in the shape of a trapezoid 8. For the cassata you will need a round cake pan with flared edges about 2" (5 cm) deep and with a slightly raised bottom, typically from Palermo: the one used in this recipe has a 12" (30 cm) diameter in its widest part. Cut the pan di Spagna (sponge cake) into strips at least 2.5" (6 cm) thick from which you will also cut trapezoids (because the edges of the cake pan are flared) 9.

Dust the cake pan generously with powdered sugar 10, then line the edges alternating the pan di Spagna (sponge cake) trapezoids with those of green marzipan 11, pressing well against the sides and being careful not to leave spaces between one and the other. If the piece just laid down has the upper side wider than the lower one, the following one must be the opposite 12. The trapezoids can be positioned either with the dark side facing outwards or inwards (see video).

Once the entire perimeter of the cake pan has been completed, the bottom can be placed with the spongy part downwards 13. Press the edges of the pan di Spagna (sponge cake) well to make it stick better to the shape of the cake pan 14. Now, with a knife with a smooth, sharp blade, you can even out the pieces sticking out from the side edges of the cake pan 15.

If you want you can prepare the syrup for the pan di Spagna (sponge cake): dissolve 1/4 cup (50 g) of sugar in 2/3 cup (150 ml) of water, together with the rind of half a lemon (or orange) and half a shot of liqueur of your choice (maraschino, Cointreau, Alkermes, Strega, etc.) and let it cool. Now you can fill the base with the ricotta cheese cream and level with a spatula 17. Crumble the leftover pan di Spagna (sponge cake) on the bottom of the cassata 18, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least two to three hours (better if overnight).

When the cassata is nice and compacted and the flavors have blended, turn it upside down on a plate 19 and prepare the fondant icing. Place the powdered sugar in a small pot with a little water 20, just enough to make a creamy, still white mixture. As soon as it comes to a boil, the fondant will be ready to be poured into the center of the cassata 21 and spread with a spatula.

Do the same on the sides of the cassata: as you will notice, the fondant will dry almost instantly as soon as it is spread, with a glossy and transparent consistency 23. Now you can move on to decorating the cassata: cut strips of zuccata (candied pumpkin) and other candied fruit into pieces. Place the slices of zuccata (candied pumpkin) on the cassata curving them as if to form the petals of a flower in the center of which you can put, for example, a candied mandarin orange cut in half (23-24).

Have fun decorating the cassata with the candied fruit available, alternating different colors 25. The final touch will be the decoration with the icing, which you can make by beating an egg white and slowly adding powdered sugar to obtain a very thick texture. With a piping bag fitted with a narrow tip, create decorations both on the fruit 26 and on the edges of the cassata 27 to make it even richer and more sumptuous. Now your magnificent Sicilian cassata is ready to be enjoyed!

Interesting fact

Tradition has it that Sicilian cassata was invented, around 998, at the height of Muslim domination, by the court chefs of the Emir who resided in Palermo's Kalsa (the Arabian district); its ancient origin is mentioned in a document of the Synod of Mazara del Vallo in 1575, in which cassata is defined as “indispensable during Easter holidays”. In 1700 the cloistered monasteries excelled in the production of the celebrated dessert, enriching it with its characteristic green almond paste sides.