Today, I want to talk about a legendary Sicilian pastry, maybe one among the most famous ones, namely the Sicilian cassata cake, also called “ricotta cheese cake with candied fruit”. That is a cake stuffed with a cream of sweet ricotta cheese and covered with candied fruit icing. In addition to the latter, the most traditional recipe also includes Sicilian almonds icing and chocolate drops sprinkled on the surface of the ricotta cheese cake. In the following paragraphs, you’ll discover many interesting things about this famous and delicious Sicilian pastry, such as history, kinds of Sicilian ricotta cake and how to make the Sicilian cassata cake at your home.
The history of the Sicilian cassata cake can be found in the Arab age. In fact, the name of this pastry derives from the Arab word quas’at, that means “basin” in English. The Arabs imported sugar cane and the other ingredients of the Sicilian cassata in Sicily. However, in the Arab age, this pastry was only a frail dough stuffed with sugared ricotta and baked after stuffing. It was only in the Norman age that nuns replaced the old Arab recipe and invented a decoration made of almond flour and sugar at the Martorana Convent, in Palermo. This new dough was green coloured with herbal extracts and was called royal martorana, namely the current marzipan. This pastry was prepared cold, namely without baking, That was the cold cassata. In the following years, the Spaniards brought to Sicily the recipe of the cassata with chocolate, while candied fruit was brought to Sicily during the baroque epoch. Nevertheless, the current and famous name “Cassata” was introduced later, when this Sicilian cake was entirely covered with a candied fruit icing that formed a sort of matt veil resembling glass. Maybe that “cassata” derives from “glass”. In the beginning, the Sicilian cassata was a traditional product belonged to the Sicilian nuns and it was prepared at Easter time, only. Indeed, there is an old Sicilian proverb that readsTintu è cu nun mancia a cassata a matina ri Pasqua.Click To Tweet “Those who don’t eat the cassata in the Easter morning are bad!” In 1873, instead, in Vienna, the Sicilian pastry chef Salvatore Gulì, who had a laboratory in Palermo, used a new decoration for the Sicilian Cassata, namely the one made with candied pumpkin. It was born the Sicilian Cassata with candied pumpkin, also called “zuccata” ( see the image above).
Now, I am sure you want to know the recipe to prepare the Sicilian cassata cake. Beware, that here, you’ll find only the original recipe of this pastry and not other imitations imported from foreign countries. Well, if are you ready, to prepare the traditional Sicilian cassata cake at your home, you need: 800 g of ricotta cheese, 500 g of sugar, vanilla, 100 g of chocolate, 100 g of candied fruit, egg sponge cake ( Pan di Spagna) sweet liquor and pistachio icing. Before stuffing the cake, you need to prepare a dough of egg sponge cake or Pan di Spagna in Italian. It is called Pan di Spagna (Spain), but in reality it is an Italian pastry prepared in 1700 by a Genoa cook as an homage to the Spain King. You can also buy an already prepared Pan di Spagna at the grocery store, but the result will never be the same because the latter is made with emulsifying agents and dangerous preservatives.
It is better you prepare the Pan di Spagna by yourself. For a 24 cm cake, you need medium eggs, 75 g of 00 flour, 150 g of sugar, vanilla, 75 g of potato flour and a pinch of salt. To prepare the Pan di Spagna, break the eggs in a glass bowl and add a bit of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Take the whipper and whip the eggs for 15 minutes at least. Add sugar gradually to make it absorb. In the meanwhile, butter and flour a mould of 24 cm. Stop whipping as soon as the eggs and sugar mixture has been become spongy and white. To figure out if the mixture is ready, let it slip a bit. If it shapes a well clear wire separated from the mixture, it is ready. Then, sieve white flour and potato flour and pour them into the glass bowl. Blend the entire mixture with a wooden spatula. Mix from the bottom upwards, carefully, to avoid splashing the mixture. As soon as flour has been fully blended, pour the mixture into the mould and use the spatula to level the surface. Bake the Pan di Spagna in a previously warmed oven. Bake at 160 degrees in the lower shelf for about 50 minutes. Don’t open the oven frequently during baking, because the cake could deflate. To check if it is perfectly baked, use a toothpick and pierce the centre of the surface. If the toothpick exits dried, the pan di Spagna is ready! Pull it out of the oven to let it cold. To fill it with the ingredients of the Sicilian cassata, you must prepare the egg sponge cake in the previous day.
How to make the Sicilian cassata cake
Well, now you know how to prepare the dough for the Sicilian cassata, here is the recipe to fill what you have baked. There are several recipes on the web, but many of them are fairly complex and not original. The recipe of the Sicilian cassata is very easy to be prepared. This is the only recipe you must follow to make this Sicilian cake at your home and astonish your guests.
Pour ricotta cheese onto sugar, a pinch of vanilla, chocolate and candied fruit cut into small cubes and onto drops of rum. Knead the mixture with the wooden spatula, in order it blends perfectly. Cover the base and sides of a mould with a sheet of white water proof paper. Then, stick thin slices egg spongy cake in the paper, by using fruit jelly. Pour the sheep ricotta cheese mixture in it and level carefully. Put other slices of egg sponge cake on the mould and on the leveled ricotta mixture, to complete the cake. Keep it in the fridge for some hours. Then, turn the cake upside down on a round cardboard (the one used by pastry cooks) which must have the same diameter of the mould. Decorate the entire cake (sides and surface) with pistachio flavoured icing (many use chemical green dyes, but I suggest that you use only what I said here, namely the original Sicilian pistachio icing). After icing, add candied fruit cut into thin strips to the top of the cake. After this latest decoration, the Sicilian cassata will be ready to be served.
In Sicily, there is another pastry which is often confused with the Sicilian cassata, that is a small bread dough filled with sugared ricotta cheese and decorated with cinnamon. This pastry is also called “ cassatedda” and it is prepared in the district of Ragusa and Catania, while the real Sicilian cassata cake comes from Palermo and Marsala, even though it is widespread all over Sicily, by now. The cassatedda is prepared and eaten during holidays, especially at Carnival and Easter. That is the first version of the Sicilian cassata cake invented by the Arabs ( see the image). If you visit Sicily in the summer, you could find bars and restaurants offering you an ice cream flavoured and seasoned as a Sicilian cassata cake, but it is only an ice cream. The true and traditional Sicilian cassata is only the one I discussed in the previous paragraphs. It is absolutely delicious. Isn’t it?
Photocredit: cassateddi ricotta by Almostviola – Flickr