Easter dessert – Cassata siciliana

A legendary cake – Over 1000 years ago in Sicily, an Arab peasant combined fresh cheese and cane sugar. He was asked what he was doing. He replied “qas’at,” referring in fact to the bowl and not the contents. But the word persisted: “cassat.”

Other sources claim that the dessert came into being during Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago. The Romans sweetened ricotta with honey, enclosed it in pastry and baked it in the oven, hence the characteristic shape of cassata. At least, that’s the opinion of the food writer Gaetano Basile of Palermo.

The recipe continued to evolve in noble homes and cloisters. The nuns became experts in making cassata, so that in the 16th century, a synod forbade them from baking since it was keeping them from prayer. Cassata has long been a traditional Easter cake, as evidenced by the Sicilian proverb “Whoever has no cassata at Easter is truly to be pitied.”

In the late 18th century, cassata was officially designated a treasure of Sicilian pastry making.

Substitutions

  • If you don’t have maraschino, you can use kirsch or another cherry-based liquor.
  • If you don’t feel confident enough to make the sponge, buy a génoise (sponge) cake and assemble the cassata in the same way.
  • Some pastry shops sell disks of marzipan, or you could order one, giving the diameter of your pan.

Ingredients

Sponge

– 50 g (2 oz.) sugar

– 2 egg yolks

– 1 unsprayed lemon

– grated zest

– 2 egg whites

– a pinch of salt

– 2 tbsp. sugar

– 75 g (3 oz.) flour

Filling

– 500 g (18 oz.) ricotta

– 60 g (2 oz.) sugar

– 2 tbsp. maraschino (Italian cherry liqueur)

– 50 g (2 oz.) chopped dark chocolate

– 50 g (2 oz.) candied orange peel

– 50 g (2 oz.) candied lemon peel

– candied angelica

Decoration

– 180 g (6 oz.) almond paste or marzipan

– 2 tbsp. icing sugar

– apricot jam

– candied orange peel

– candied lemon peel

Method

Sponge

  • In a bowl, whisk together the 50 g sugar, egg yolks and lemon zest until the mixture is thick and pale.
  • Beat the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form; gradually beat in the 2 tbsp. sugar and beat until stiff shiny peaks form.
  • Fold the flour into mixture 1 in several additions, alternating with the egg whites (mixture 2). Work gently with a whisk or spatula so that the egg whites don’t deflate – otherwise the cake will be very dense.
  • Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F). Pour the batter into a greased cylindrical pan and bake for about 30 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven; let cool and remove from the pan.

Filling

  • Finely dice the candied fruit.
  • Thoroughly combine all the ingredients for the filling.
  • There are 2 schools of thought: either add the maraschino directly into the filling, or sprinkle it over the cake.

Assembly

  • Slice the sponge horizontally into 5 slices, each about 1 cm (3/8″) thick.
  • Lightly oil or butter the cold pan to facilitate unmolding.
  • In the bottom of the pan, place 1 slice of sponge.
  • Cover with some of the filling. Repeat the process with each slice of sponge, ending with a slice of sponge. Refrigerate for 4 hours.

Decoration

  • Knead the almond paste, then roll it out on a board dusted with icing sugar to form a disc the same size as the cassata.
  • Unmold the cassata.
  • Brush the top with apricot jam (which will act as the “glue”) and top with the almond paste disc.
  • Decorate as desired with candied orange and lemon peel. You could also make some decorative shapes from marzipan.