La mia cassata (Sicilian cassata, my way)

Noto is a small, beautiful provincial town in South-east Sicily, where every street, every piazza, every facade, every balcony is an ode to the baroque and its love of spectacle, dynamism and pomp. Everything outside and inside is opulent and decorated to excess – horror vacui,  fear of emptiness.
The same fancifulness and richness can be found in many Sicilian dishes, cassata first of all.   Cassata is one of the emblems of Sicilian cooking: a sponge -based dessert filled with sheep ricotta and chocolate chips, its side covered with pistachio marzipan, topped with icing and the whole thing decorated finally with candied fruit – not a dessert for the faint hearted.  This is the best looking cassata I have ever seen – it’s by food writer Rosetta Costantino and it’s both exuberant yet restrained and elegant. In reality, in most patisseries cassate are gaudy, over-indulgent, diabetic-inducing calorific bombs. The fact is that a cassata can be delicious but it is also invariably too sweet – and yes, I have also tried cassata from what is considered one of the best patisseries in the whole of Sicily, Caffe Sicilia in Noto – very good, but still too sweet. I love the sponge and its filling, but I have always found the marzipan, the icing and, above all, the candied fruit, too overpowering.  My solution is to get rid of  all that sugary exterior and bring the sponge cake and its filling to the fore.

The sponge used for my cassata is not of the butter rich pound cake variety, which would be too heavy here; it is the feather light and eggy pan di spagna (literally spanish bread), the most typical Italian sponge: just sugar, eggs and flour. Traditionally, the eggs and whites are beaten separately, but I have long found that by whisking them together (which is simpler) in a heavy duty mixer, the results are comparable: (and I was pleased when I saw this confirmed in this excellent post). Carol Field has a very good version too (she uses baking powder which is not traditional, but it guarantees that the cake rises well every time). Any genoise sponge is fine (for anything to do with pastry, I have found Joe Pastry’s site invaluable). If you read Italian, this is a classic recipe for pan di Spagna, from what is considered the bible of Sicilian cooking, Profumi di Sicilia, by Giuseppe Coria.

Traditionally, cassata is made with sheep ricotta, which is fattier and creamier than cow’s. Lucky you if you can find it – I have used cow ricotta instead. Once upon a time, cassata was made in spring only, at Easter to be precise, when ricotta is at its best; now it can be found all year round. Sicilians take their ricotta seriously and many would still claim that only fools like me would buy ricotta in summer, when the risk of spoilage is high (ricotta is highly perishable). This might be true in Sicily, where summer temperatures are devilish. But I have made excellent cassata using both top quality ricotta and bog standard supermarket pasteurized ricotta (which actually, here in the UK, is made with whey only and no other nasty ingredients, to be fair).

The sponge cake should be dampened with a light alcoholic syrup called la bagna in Italian; I chose once a mix of rum and that typically Italian spicy liqueur called Alchermes (homemade, from a reliable Italian site, but Bugialli has a similar recipe) and another time a mix of rum and the other beloved southern Italian liqueur Strega. I think Cherry Brandy, dry Marsala, Madeira, Vin Santo would work too (with or without rum or brandy – play around)

As for the candied fruit, in Sicily, oranges, lemons, mandarins, cherries and a special pumpkin called cocozza would be used for the outside decoration. I decided to forgo the baroque drama of all this and just fold some finely diced homemade candied orange peels in the ricotta cream. This is untraditional but, I think, in keeping with the spirit of this magnificent dessert.

I made my cassata in a 900 g bread tin, 22  x 11  cm, lined with slightly wet, wrung muslin, with a good overhang on all sides (cling film would be an alternative). Traditionally, cassata would be made as a flat, round cake

Cassata, la mia versione (Sicilian cassata, my version)
6 to 8 portions

200-250 g one day-old Pan di Spagna/genoise sponge cake slices
600 g ricotta, well drained (ideally sheep ricotta)
100 g caster sugar
3 tbsp water
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
100 g finely diced quality candied fruit (try to stick to Mediterranean fruits, if possible: I used home made orange and lemon peels)
1 tbsp rum
100 g bitter chocolate, cut up in very small pieces
50 g lightly toasted pistachio, chopped

Light alcoholic syrup to damp the sponge cake, called la bagna in Italian:
4 tbsp water
2 tbsp alchermes or Strega
1 tbsp rum or brandy (what you like)

Moisten the sugar with the water  and melt it on a very low heat. Keep aside and use only when cold.
Soak the peels in the rum.
Line the bottom and long sides of the tin with the sponge cake, keeping some aside for the top:  it does not need to be a super neat job and you can cut & join the slices to fit the tin. Dampen the pan d Spagna slices with the syrup.
Whip the ricotta until very creamy, adding the sugar syrup gradually – I have found that I get the best results with my food mixer but you can of course do everything by hand.
Add the salt, the cinnamon, the diced candied fruit and the chocolate and mix well. Pour the ricotta mix in the cake, level well and cover with the remaining pan di Spagna. Moisten with some syrup. turn the overhanging muslim cloth over and press everything down to compact well. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours, longer is better.
Unmould onto a serving dish,  cover the chopped pistacchio and a generous quantity of icing sugar. Sometimes I have spread some of the ricotta cream on top too, but I prefer the version when all the ricotta filling goes inside.
Cassata keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple of days, well covered.

Notes:
If you like Sicilian food, check out author Mary Tyler Simeti, who is regarded as the most important authority (writing in English) on the subject.

 

16 thoughts on “La mia cassata (Sicilian cassata, my way)

  1. I’ve never tried my hand at cassata because it just seemed so daunting, and like you I’m not fond of overly sweet desserts. But this version does look manageable. I’ll need to put it on my to do list.

    Sicilian cookery in general is something I’ve been meaning to look into more deeply. I’ve made a number of Sicilian dishes, of course, but the cuisine as a whole remains something of a mystery to me. Unfortunately I don’t have Profumi di Sicilia and it doesn’t look to be available online. I guess I’ll need to make do with Mary Tyler Simeti and Rosetta’s lovely website until my next visit to Italy…

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    1. ciao Frank
      cassata is not that long, if u have some sponge cake (and… actually, I want to try to make it also with savoiardi) + in the pasta I have also made the filling only, served in coffee cups…
      Sicilian Cookery is rather new to me too: I have few books (even if I still use Simeti as a reference) and it sounds really wonderful: I am intrigued by their AGRODOLCE, their aubergine and chocolate mix, all the lovely nun’s pastries, and the timballi ecc…The Coria book: almost impossible to get: I checked with the publisher and they said they could come out with a new edition next year… but is sells so fast that I am thinking of booking it right now. It is impossible to find a copy right now, even in Italy. I like the books of Alba Allotta very much (and also the books from the Lanza Tasca mother and daugher, even if they seem to be geared more towards the foreign market and I am not sure how authentic they are). I was told that another good reference is Pino Correnti.

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  2. I know that I will love your version but I am compelled to have one from Caffe Sicilia when I head to Sicily next year. The Bugialli recipe for alchermes is what I use for my Zuppa Inglese, although I do have a bottle from Santa Maria Novella in the cupboard.

    I have never had sheep’s ricotta – at least to my knowledge. I can get wonderful goat ricotta at our farmers market, but I think cow’s milk ricotta might be best when I try my hand at this. I imagine the goat’s milk ricotta would be too strong.

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    1. ! goat ricotta!! what a treat – I have never had it and actually I have never seen in Italy… but it is something I would dip my spoon into had I the chance (even if right now I have been watching the netflix documentary Cowspiracy… and the though of eating animal based food makes me cringe…)
      I would love to try the real Alchermes… but here in London it is very expensive (there is a Santa Maria Novella shop) and I thought I could start with a home made version.. which I like more and more… really spicy
      … Sicily: ah!! u r going there too! a-m-a-z-i-n-g!! caffè sicilia is wonderful, do not get me wrong: it looks very unassuming, but it is “good”

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      1. I really like my homemade version of Alchermes, too. It works beautifully in recipes and I am reticent to use the real stuff in a recipe.

        Yes, Sicily is planned for next year – do you think it is better to visit Sicily in spring or fall? This September we will be inTuscany: Radda for a week, then Siena for a week. Our Airbnb hosts in Siena are foodies – writers and chefs – and I look forward to meeting them!

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        1. ciao david
          I myself would go to Sicily in Spring: everything will be green and in blossom.
          Tuscany: how nice! Paul and I might be spending some time in Lucca: we r trying to check if it is realistic or not the idea of buying something there, so as to spend few months here and few months in Italy (where, of course, we would also have to create some work- bed and breakfast, possibly)
          Tuscan: well… beautiful obviously.. good food and excellent wine (shame their bread is terrible, I reckon). u read Italian, don’t u? check the slow food eating guide, the Mangiar Rozzo guide, there are also now some website about Italian street food. I have always found the Sloow Food guide (Osterie d’Italia) pretty reliable + check also the website of Emiko Davis, she might have some good adresses (as well as Jul’s kitchen – another Tuscan based web site)

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  3. Your version sounds infinitely preferable and utterly delicious … like you, I find traditional cassata tooth-bendingly sweet. I’m off to check out your ricotta post now! Thanks.

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    1. thank u for the the comment. talking about cassata: anna del conte has a version in one of her books, where she uses also the yolks of hard boiled eggs, which is most unusual (but sounds delicious – cassata nuda, I seem to remember she calls it)

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  4. Great post! I have once driven an hour to buy fresh sheep’s milk straight from a farmer (unpasteurized) to make ricotta di pecora for cannoli and cassata, but I was disappointed by the lowish fat content of the milk (perhaps because it was December?). I like your technique of sweetening the ricotta using syrup instead of icing sugar.

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    1. ciao stefan,
      thanks. How lucky to find sheep milk. Here in London is expensive and it comes only frozen. I am surprised that you found it no fat enough, because, the one I tasted in Italy, had a very creamy finish. Sweetening the ricotta with a syrup comes from one of the bible about regional cooking: La cucina delle regioni d’Italia by Anna Gosetti della Salda (do u have it? – check it out- truly wonderful)
      ps: I am still thinking about your enoteca pinchiorri’s experience: it made me think about food/money/michelin system/new ways-old ways in the restaurant world: there is quite a lot out there on the net about the role of these old bastions of michelin style catering- interesting read. s

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