If you’ve ever been to Sicily, you know that one of the classic desserts from that island is cassata Siciliana, a delicious sponge cake layered with a ricotta filling, traditionally edged with almond paste and topped with candied fruits.
I was fortunate enough to have Fabrizia Lanza show me how to make cassata when I stayed at her farm in Sicily last spring. Fabrizia, who lived and worked in Bologna in the field of art history, moved back to Sicily to take over the cooking school founded by her late mother, Anna Tasca Lanza. The school offers lots of different programs from food writing to sketching, and even a ten week intensive course called “Cook The Farm.” Click here for more information.
Cassata Siciliana may look complicated to make, but Fabrizia breezed through the various steps in short order without working up a sweat. With Easter just around the corner, this would make a mouth-watering, show-stopper dessert.
The first step is making the marzipan, using pistachios, almond flour, and a few other ingredients, including the traditional green food coloring. Make the marzipan without the food coloring if you prefer, or if you don’t want to use the marzipan at all, you can omit it, and just cover the entire cassata with the confectioner’s sugar icing.
Roll out the marzipan and place strips of it in a tin specially made for cassata. These pans are not easy to find, but a pie plate makes a good substitute. Line it in plastic wrap first to make it easier to flip.
The sponge cake (pan di Spagna) is sliced in this manner, contrary to how I presumed it would be sliced (through the middle in horizontal layers).
Place one layer of the slices on the bottom of the pan and sprinkle with limoncello, or Grand Marnier liqueur.
Spread a layer of the ricotta/sugar mixture on top.
Then repeat with another layer of the sponge cake and liqueur.
Pat it down firmly.
Then place a serving plate over it all and flip it over (fingers crossed).
Remove the pan and the plastic wrap.
Drizzle the confectioner’s sugar glaze on top.
Then decorate with candied fruits. They’re quite common in Sicily, and infinitely better in quality than what we get here in the states. If you can’t get good candied fruits, just keep it simple and use some homemade candied orange peel, (recipe here) rather than ruin your cassata with “industrial” candied fruit. Besides, the larger pieces, like the whole candied orange, are mostly decorative anyhow.
Just looking at the interior of this cassata Siciliana brings back some delicious memories and a strong desire to return to that fascinating island.
Part of the reason this cassata was outstanding was the quality of the ricotta that went into it. Fabrizia used sheep’s milk ricotta, but if you can’t find it, (admittedly not easy), use cow’s milk ricotta, well-drained. Our ricotta couldn’t have been any fresher, since we went to the farm that morning, where the cheesemaker made the cheese right before our eyes.
We could thank these sheep for the ricotta, who just a short while earlier had been milked.
Much of the pecorino cheese is drained in plastic molds, but here are some that were being drained in traditional reed baskets. Thank goodness for people still making food in the time-honored traditions of their ancestors, and for people like Fabrizia Lanza, who is helping disseminate these old world customs and recipes. If you really want to slow down and treat yourself to a unique experience, book at week at her farm, Case Vecchie and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of authentic Sicily.
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Looking for an easy treat for Valentine’s Day? You’ve got plenty of time to make this chocolate “salami” that requires no cooking, and comes together lickety-split, using ingredients you may already have in the house. I used amaretti cookies to simulate the bits of fat running through a real salami, but you could use graham crackers, digestive biscuits or even chocolate chip cookies.
Crumple them up and mix them in a bowl with nuts and dried fruit of your choice. I used pistachios, hazelnuts and dried cherries and it was a winning combination. But if you like almonds or walnuts instead, or dried cranberries or dried apricots, those would be delicious too.
Melt some chocolate. You could use milk chocolate, but I prefer dark chocolate and used Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate. If you want to spring for a more expensive chocolate, go for it, but Hershey’s Special Dark won a blind taste test on America’s Test Kitchen years ago and I’ve been using it since then for nearly all my recipes requiring dark chocolate. It costs a lot less than the specialty brands, so that’s a nice plus too. Mix the melted chocolate with all the above ingredients and add some liqueur. It’s not strictly necessary, but it does add another layer of flavor.
Some recipes for chocolate salami ask you to add raw eggs, but I thought I’d try it without, since so many people have health concerns about using raw eggs in recipes. The risk is miniscule, but still, why take any risk, I thought.
Next, dish out the chocolate into a log shape. It will be too soft to shape at this point, so put it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, or until it firms.
Once firm, roll it into a log shape to make it more “solid.”
Then roll into confectioner’s sugar to simulate the white “bloom” that appears on aged salami.
If you have some butcher’s string, tie it across the chocolate salami to mimic a real salami.
Slice it and watch the surprise when people realize it’s not really cured meat, but a delightful chocolate treat. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Is the basil in your garden reaching its peak, but the tomatoes nowhere near being ripe?
Just when you’d like the basil to cozy up to those tomatoes in a salad bowl, these crops never mature at the same time.
you prune your basil now however, it will re-sprout a second crop in
time to use with those tomatoes that will ripen in a few weeks.
Don’t cut off all the basil leaves however – just trim back to a
juncture above a pair of leaves.
you don’t prune your basil (or at least pinch the tips when they start
to flower), the basil will go to seed and you’ll lose the opportunity
for that second crop.
But what to do with the armful of basil you pick now when they’re aren’t fresh tomatoes for a salad?
That’s easy. Make pesto!
I’ve written posts on pesto before, including pesto with shrimp (click here), and a basic pesto primer (click here) that shows you how to make a real pesto alla Genovese, and how to keep your pesto a bright green color.
I recently had some zucchini from the farmer’s market looking for a
home, I combined it with the pesto and served it over fusilli pasta.
you’re a traditionalist (or a glutton for punishment), try making pesto
with a mortar and pestle – the way I had it the first time I ate it in Italy at the home of one of
Not up for so much elbow grease? No problem. It’s a snap to make in a food processor.
You can whir everything together, then start the pasta cooking while you sauté the zucchini.
In the time it takes to boil the pasta, dinner can be on the table.
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2 medium zucchini, sliced into rounds about 1/4 inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
These amounts aren’t exact. A lot depends on how firmly you pack the basil
into the measuring cup, how large the garlic cloves are, and of course,
your taste buds.
4 cups basil, loosely packed
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 cut pistachios (or pine nuts)
extra virgin olive oil (as much as two cups, as needed to obtain a loose pesto)
1/4 cup – 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
pound pasta – trofie, linguini or trenette are common in Italy with
this sauce, but farfalle (bowties) or fusilli (pictured above) are nice
Sauté the zucchini rounds in the olive oil, adding salt and pepper to season. Cook until softened, but not mushy.
Start the water boiling for the pasta while you prepare the pesto sauce.
If using a food processor: Tear leaves from stem, wash, dry and
place in a food processor, along with the garlic, nuts and a small
amount of the olive oil. Start with 1/2 cup and keep adding more until
it flows smoothly when you dip a spoon into it, but not so thin that it
falls off in a stream. Use your judgment.
Add parmesan cheese if serving immediately. If you’re planning to freeze
it, don’t add the parmesan cheese until after you defrost it and are
ready to serve.
If using a mortar and pestle, start with the washed and dried
basil leaves, garlic and nuts and add a small amount of coarse salt to
help break down the leaves. Pound with the pestle and slowly add a
little bit of olive oil. Keep working the mixture with the pestle and
add the rest of the oil as needed. The process takes a lot of patience
the pesto is made and the pasta is cooked, drain the pasta, holding
onto a half cup or so of the water. You can use this to thin out the
sauce when you’re mixing the pesto into the pasta.
the pesto with the pasta, then add the sautéed zucchini. Toss
everything together, adding more pasta water if you need to thin out the
sauce. Serve with additional parmesan cheese, if desired.
I’m back with another recipe from Katie Parla’s latest book, “Tasting Rome,” and the winner of the cookbook giveaway.
The lucky winner, chosen by a random number generator on my computer, was Pat, from the blog, Mille Fiori Favoriti. Congratulations, Pat.
For those of you who didn’t win, here’s another great enticement to get the cookbook.
It’s a recipe for chicken meatballs and I can just hear you saying, “But chicken meatballs aren’t Italian.” Well, you’d be right, kind of, but not if you factored in the Libyan Jews who migrated to Rome following the anti-Semitic violence in Tripoli and Benghazi in 1967.
As Katie explains in her book, about 4,500 Libyan Jews live in Rome today, making up about a third of the city’s Jewish community.
Their cuisine highlights the flavors of North Africa, with spices like cinnamon, cumin, caraway, paprika and turmeric.
That’s what intrigued me to try these chicken meatballs in white wine sauce, spiced up with cinnamon, nutmeg and pistachios. Forget the tomato sauce for this one, and pull out a nice bottle of white wine to use in the sauce instead. I made my meatballs about the size of golf balls, and got about 20, rather than 30 to 35 polpette if you make them the size of walnuts, as the recipe states.
I made a couple of adjustments to the recipe too, adding double the amount of pistachios (because I can’t get enough of pistachios). I also removed the shallots from the pan after they were softened, since I was concerned that they might burn if I kept them in while the meatballs were browning. I returned the cooked shallots back to the pan after the meatballs were browned, then added the wine and broth, adding more of those too, so I could have more sauce. I wanted enough sauce to spill over to the farro I served alongside the meatballs, but I think these would be equally delicious with a pasta or rice side too.
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Polpette di Pollo in Bianco
Chicken Meatballs in White Wine Sauce
From “Tasting Rome” by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
Soak the bread for a few minutes in 1 cup warm chicken broth. When it has softened, squeeze out the excess liquid and place the bread in a large bowl.
Add the ground chicken, eggs, garlic, salt, pepper to taste, cinnamon, nutmeg, pistachios, and half the parsley. Mix thoroughly by hand. Form the mixture into balls roughly the size of walnuts and set aside.
In a large frying pan or cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the shallots and a pinch of salt and cook until soft, about five minutes. (At this point, I removed the shallots and browned the meatballs, then put the shallots back in and added the wine and the broth, etc.)
Meanwhile, lightly dust the meatballs all over with flour (a mesh strainer works well for this) and shake off any excess. Add them to the pan and brown all over. Add the wine, scraping up any browned bits from the sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. When the alcohol aroma dissipates, about a minute, add enough broth or water to cover the meatballs about halfway. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, until a creamy sauce has formed, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Season with lemon juice, garnish with the remaining parsley, and serve the meatballs warm or at room temperature with the sauce spooned over.
tip: If the meatball mixture is sticky, wet your hands with warm water before rolling.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Copyright (c) 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
I know olive oil cakes are ubiquitous these days, but here’s another one to add to your repertoire, and it’s a keeper.
My dad’s wife Rose made this for me a while ago and I’ve been meaning to post it for a while.
She’s a great baker, and my dad’s a terrific cook, so every time I visit I can be assured of a wonderful meal, including a delicious dessert.
The red raspberries and green pistachios give this cake a particularly festive look.
You might want to remember this one for the Christmas holidays. But try it as fresh, local raspberries start appearing in the markets.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth – along the shores of Italy’s Lake Como. Step outside your room and enjoy this gorgeous view and gardens. Click here for more information.
Preheat oven to 350°. Coat a 9” diameter cake pan with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With mixer running, add vanilla and 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, then gradually add oil, mixing just until combined. Fold in lemon zest and dry ingredients.
Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Scatter berries over cake, then pistachios and 2 Tbsp. sugar. Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45–55 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring remaining ¼ cup sugar and remaining ¼ cup lemon juice to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar; let lemon syrup cool.
Transfer hot cake (still in pan) to a wire rack and immediately brush with lemon syrup (use all of it). Let cake cool completely in pan.
DO AHEAD: Cake can be made 2 days ahead. Store wrapped tightly at room temperature