Cassata is an elaborate Sicilian confection made of sponge cake (pan di spagna), ricotta, marzipan, and candied fruit. Arguably, one of the most famous desserts of Sicily, second to cannoli. The same filling used for making cannoli is used for making cassata, which is why some people refer to it as cannoli cake. Traditionally eaten during Easter, the cassata’s origin is attributed to Arab influence during the Muslim occupation of Sicily in the 10th century. It was the Arabs that introduced sugar to Sicily, along with marzipan and candied fruit. Candied fruits are the masterpiece of Cassata and the cake serves as the canvas.
I must confess that many Sicilian women shy away from making Cassata at home, preferring to purchase from a bakery because of the labor involved in preparing it. Not having that luxury, I make my own. Cassata, although labor-intensive, can be prepared in stages. It is a special cake that I like to serve for holidays or dinner parties, as it is very impressive and worth the effort. Guests are usually surprised with the delicious and unique flavors, unlike anything they have ever tasted.
Cassata is traditionally made using a special round mold with sloped sides. I find that using a deep dish pie pan works equally well for this purpose and gives the same traditional shape. The sides of the pan are lined with either a solid strip of green marzipan or alternating vertical strips of green and natural or pink tinted marzipan. The latter creates a more dramatic pastel effect. Because of the smaller size pan, I place the marzipan on the cake after it is inverted. Sponge cake is then layered along the top and sides of the pan, and then drizzled with a rum simple syrup. You can also sprinkle it with a little rum or orange liqueur. I usually omit this step because I like my cake on the drier side. It is then filled with ricotta cream and another layer of sponge cake is placed on top. The whole cake is then covered with a glaze and decorated with candied fruit. This is where you get to experience the inner artist in you!
A dazzling assortment of candied fruits and squash (cucuzzata) is available in Sicily. Finding quality candied fruit in the U.S. can be difficult. I was fortunate to find candied citron halves, orange peel, and cherries online.
As I stated before, the cassata can be prepared in stages, so don’t be intimidated from making one. The sponge cake recipe is easy to make and can be frozen several weeks ahead of time and thawed just before using. You can cut your time even further by purchasing a ready-made sponge cake. You can also make the ricotta filling a day or two before. Cassata is best prepared the day before serving because it allows the flavors to soak in.
SICILIAN CASSATA RICOTTA CAKE: CASSATA SICILIANA
Difficulty Rating: Difficult
Make 20 servings.
FOR THE SPONGE CAKE:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 package vanilla sugar (optional)
6 eggs separated, at room temperature
1/3 cup orange juice or lukewarm milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon grated orange or lemon peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
FOR THE RICOTTA FILLING:
Follow recipe for Cannoli Ricotta Filling
FOR THE GLAZE:
1 pound confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup apricot jam
1 Tablespoon rum
2 (7 ounce) tubes of marzipan
Green food coloring
Assorted candied fruits
FOR DECORATIVE ICING (OPTIONAL):
2 cups confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon water
1 1/2 teaspoons meringue powder
# 3 round decorating tip
MAKE THE SPONGE CAKE: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10 x 3-inch round or a 9 x 13-inch rectangle baking pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixer bowl. Add 3/4 cup sugar and vanilla sugar, whisk together until combined. Combine the orange juice and oil in a small bowl and set aside.
Beat together the eggs yolks, 3/4 cup sugar, vanilla sugar, grated orange peel, and vanilla extract in a medium bowl until thick and lemon colored, about 6 minutes. On low speed, add the orange juice mixture alternately with the flour just until combined. Do not over beat.
In a separate large mixer bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until frothy. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter. Pour into prepared cake pan. Bake approximately 30 to 35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let rest 10 minutes and invert onto a cake rack to cool completely.
MAKE THE CASSATA: Cut cake horizontally into 3/8-inch thick slices. Using a 9-inch deep dish pie pan, line the bottom and sides with the cake slices, cutting the slices to fit snuggly together.
Add the ricotta filling to within a 1/4-inch from the top. Top with more cake slices to cover the filling completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 hours.
Carefully invert the cake onto a large round serving dish. Place strips of parchment or wax paper around the cake to catch the dripping glaze.
MAKE THE MARZIPAN COATING: Place the apricot jam in a small dish and heat in the microwave for approximately 45 seconds. Stir in rum, and spread on the sides of the cake, using a pastry brush.
Knead several drops of green food coloring into one package of marzipan. Color both tubes of marzipan, if you are going to make one single strip. Roll each package of marzipan into a strip approximately 17 x 3 inches long. The marzipan should form a lip slightly higher than the top of the cake; measure the height of the cake and trim if necessary.
Cut each strip into equal trapezoid shapes. Place alternating colors of marzipan shapes along the side of the cake, with the larger end along the bottom and the tapered end along the top.
GLAZE THE CASSATA: In a medium mixing bowl, stir the powdered sugar, water, lemon juice, and almond extract until smooth. The glaze should be thick enough to pour but not too thin. Add a little more water or powdered sugar if necessary. Using a spatula, pour the glaze over the entire cake and smooth over the sides. Decorate the top of the cake with the candied fruit while the glaze is still wet. Let the glaze set for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Carefully remove the paper strips and wipe off any over-glaze. Refrigerate overnight.
DECORATE THE CASSATA WITH PIPING ICING (OPTIONAL): In a mixer bowl, on medium speed, beat together the powdered sugar, water, meringue powder, and lemon juice for 5 minutes. Place in a piping bag with #3 tip and decorate along the top and sides of the cake.