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.
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.