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Cassata Siciliana

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.

Click here to connect with me on Instagram and find out what’s cooking in Ciao Chow Linda’s kitchen each day (and more)

Cassata Siciliana
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • FOR THE SPONGE CAKE:
  • 6 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1¼ cups (150 grams) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange or lemon zest
  • 1¼ cup (150 grams) flour, sifted
  • 3 tablespoons limoncello or Grand Marnier
  • FOR THE MARZIPAN:
  • 2¾ cup (350 grams) almond flour
  • 1¼ cup (150 grams) pistachios, ground
  • 1½ cup (200 grams) powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon glucose
  • green food coloring
  • candied fruit, for garnish
  • FOR THE ICING:
  • 3 cups (370 grams) powdered sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon, strained
  • FOR THE RICOTTA CREAM:
  • 2 lb. (1 kilo) ricotta
  • 1½ cups (200 grams) sugar
Instructions
  1. FOR THE SPONGE CAKE:
  2. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Butter and flour a 9 inch springform pan.
  4. Put the eggs into the bowl of a mixer and beat for 10 minutes.
  5. Add the sugar and lemon zest and continue to beat until the mixture forms a ribbon when poured, about 15 minutes.
  6. In two or three parts, gently fold in the sifted flour.
  7. Pour into the springform pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a needed inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  8. Cool on a cake rack and set it aside.
  9. TO MAKE THE MARZIPAN:
  10. Mix the almond flour, ground pistachios and sugar.
  11. Make a well and add a teaspoon of glucose, 2 tablespoons of water and a few drops of food coloring.
  12. Combine ingredients like a dough, then roll out on a workspace dusted with powdered sugar
  13. Cut long strips lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices.
  14. Roll out three of the slices into strips about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick.
  15. Knead the remaining marzipan into a ball, wrap it in plastic, and store in the refrigerator for later use.
  16. Line a 9-inch cassata pan, or a 9-inch pie pan with sloping sides, with plastic wrap.
  17. Wrap the marzipan strips along the inside edge of the pan, slightly overlapping the ends.
  18. Press against the pan to form a smooth layer.
  19. Cut the cake from top to bottom into ½ inch thick slices and trim off the crust
  20. Put a layer of slices on the bottom of the pan, drizzle the layers of the sponge cake with limoncello or Grand Marnier.
  21. In a bowl, mix the ricotta with sugar using a spatula until evenly distributed.
  22. Spread the layer of sponge cake evenly with the ricotta cream.
  23. Carefully place another layer of cake slices on top, drizzle again with limoncello or Grand Marnier.
  24. Flip the cake on a large serving plate.
  25. Carefully lift off the pan and peel off the remaining plastic wrap
  26. Set the cassata aside while you are making the icing.
  27. Sift half of the powdered sugar into a bowl.
  28. Add half of the lemon juice.
  29. Stir the liquid into the sugar, breaking up any lumps.
  30. Sift the remaining sugar into the bowl and add the rest of the lemon juice, until it has a thin spreading consistency and forms a smooth, shiny icing.
  31. Ice the top of the cassata, leaving the marzipan sides of the cake visible
  32. If you are not using green marzipan, ice the entire cake.
  33. Decorate with whole and cut candied fruit.
  34. Refrigerate and allow to set for at least 1 to 2 hours before serving.
 

 

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Cannoli with ricotta

Among other things, Sicily is famous for cannoli, those crunchy, ricotta filled delicacies that are ubiquitous in Palermo and throughout the island. So it was only natural that we would be making them in one of our classes at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school.

I have a real weakness for cannoli and there are plenty of good ones to be had near where I live in the Northeast U.S., but I never buy a cannolo (singular of cannoli) that’s already filled, unless it’s done right in front of me. There’s nothing worse than a soggy cannolo shell. (Well, actually there are plenty of worse things, but you get the point.) Eating a soggy cannolo is just not worth the calories.

But eating them in Sicily with sweet, creamy fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was just made, and shells that were crunchy yet tender,  well, that’s a whole different ball game.

Don’t be afraid to make them at home. I made them for the first time decades ago, when I was a neophyte in the kitchen, and they’re not hard at all. If you can make pasta, you can make cannoli. It’s a similar procedure. You do need metal tubes to shape them, however, or if you’re handy with a saw, you can make your own forms from wooden dowels.

By the way, for the word nerds out there, the word cannolo is a diminutive of the Italian word “canna,” which means “reed” or “tube.” There’s a famous Italian book called “Canne Al Vento,” (“Reeds in the Wind”) written by the only Italian woman to win a Nobel prize in literature —  Grazia Deledda.

But back to the cannoli directions. The first thing to do is mix the dough, then knead it, and run it through a pasta machine at increasingly thin settings. If you’re a real purist and you’ve got strong arms, you can roll it by hand with a rolling pin.

Then cut it into circle shapes, using either a large circle cutter, or use a small plate as a template and cut around the perimeter with a knife. Then roll around the metal or wooden form, sealing with some water, overlapping slightly.

Fry them in hot oil until golden brown, using an oil with little flavor, like peanut or canola oil.

Drain and cool them, then fill with the ricotta and chocolate chip mixture. You can use a small spoon to do this, but if you have a large quantity, a pastry bag speeds things along.

Serve with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, and bits of candied orange peel and/or chopped pistachios, and watch them disappear.

Cannoli con Ricotta
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp. lard
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • ¼ cup vinegar or wine, or as needed
  • 1 egg, lighten beaten, for egg wash
  • vegetable oil, for flying
  • Ricotta Cream
  • 1½ cups whole-milk ricotta, preferably sheep's milk
  • ½ cup sugar, or to taste
  • chocolate chips, optional
  • candied orange peel, chopped pistachios, to garnish
Instructions
  1. Make the cannoli shells:
  2. Combine the flour, lard, sugar, sauce and slat in a bowl and mix together with your hands.
  3. Add the vinegar, bit by bit, and knead until the dough comes together. The dough should be quite stiff.
  4. Set a pasta machine to the widest setting.
  5. Take a piece of dough and run it through the machine 7 to 10 times at that setting, folding the dough in half each time before rolling it again.
  6. When the dough is very even, continue to roll it through the machine, once at each setting without folding, until you reach the next to last setting. (The dough should be very even and silky).
  7. Lay the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and with a lightly floured 4 inch cookie cutter, cut out rounds (use a small plate as a template if you don't have a cookie cutter)
  8. Wrap the dough rounds around metal or wooden cannoli molds, dab the edge with egg, and press to seal.
  9. Repeat with the remaining dough, retooling the scraps.
  10. Heat 2 inches of oil in a wide, heavy pot over medium high heat.
  11. Add the cannoli shells in batches and fry until the shells have become bubbly, crisp, and browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
  12. With tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain.
  13. Cool and remove the molds carefully.
  14. To Make the ricotta cream:
  15. Beat together the ricotta and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the chocolate chips, if desired. With a small spoon, fill the cannoli shells, then decorate with the candied orange peel and pistachios, and dust with powdered sugar.
 

Eggplant Involtini

 Eggplant wrapped around mozzarella or ricotta cheese is what I used to think of whenever I made eggplant involtini. But after my week of cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily, where I learned to make this unusual and delicious dish of pasta snuggled inside eggplant slices, you can bet that this version will be in regular rotation in our house.

It’s one of those dishes that wows with its unusual looks, tastes fabulous and can be made in advance. Who could ask for more?

Start by frying some sliced eggplant in oil, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Cook some angel hair pasta and toss with tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. Make sure it’s very al dente, since it will cook further in the oven.

Now place some of that pasta on top of an eggplant slice.

Then roll the slice of eggplant around the pasta. Don’t worry if the pasta peeks through holes in the eggplant. It’s all going to get covered in sauce.

Place the rolls seamside down into an ovenproof pan.

Cover with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

Bake in the oven and top with more parmesan cheese (or ricotta salata) before serving.

Serve one involtino as a first course, or two as a main course.

The eggplant involtini were just one of four courses we ate each night, after prepping and cooking everything under chef Michael’s guidance. Some things were already prepared, like the cured olives and artichokes sott’olio we enjoyed with some bubbly from the nearby winery one night.

The ingredients for nearly everything we consumed were grown on the property, or nearby, including the olives, artichokes, lemons, bergamot, almonds and pistachios.

lettuces and fennel

artichokes in the garden.

lentil plants

Wild fennel was in season, so it was abundant at this time of year and we ate it raw in salads and cooked in frittatas.

Bergamot was sliced thinly into salad and tasted nothing like a lemon, which it resembles, but was much sweeter, even the fleshy white part.

Pamela (a charming young woman from England, and the only other participant the week I was there) and I sat down to dinner each night at the large kitchen table to share the fruits of our labors with owner Fabrizia, her husband, chef Michael, gardener Hans, office manager Henna and others who were passing through.

Together with the delicious food, conversation flowed along with the perfectly paired wines from Tenuta Regaliali, the winery on the property. Stay tuned for more about that in further posts.


Eggplant Involtini
 
Author:
Serves: Serves 10 (2 per person)
Ingredients
  • 5 large eggplants
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 2-3 cups (500-750 ml) good quality well-seasoned tomato sauce (not tomato puree)
  • 12 oz. (300 grams) angel hair pasta
  • parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • ricotta salata (optional)
  • fresh basil, mint, or oregano
  • olive oil
Instructions
  1. Slice eggplants about ½ inch think.
  2. Deep fry in a large pan of oil, flipping halfway through, until deep golden.
  3. Drain on paper towels.
  4. Cook angel hair pasta in well salted boiling water for 1 minute (must be very al dente because if will cook further in the oven).
  5. Toss with plenty of tomato sauce and grated Parmesan.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Cover the bottom of a large, ceramic baking pan with more tomato sauce and some olive oil.
  8. Take one eggplant slice and place a small bunch of pasta in the middle and roll up.
  9. Place in pan seaside down and repeat with remaining eggplants and pasta, packing rolls snugly into pan.
  10. Cover with more tomato sauce and Parmesan.
  11. Tuck leaves of fresh herbs between the rolls
  12. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until cheese is melted and everything is warm.
  13. Optional: Top with more grated Parmesan or ricotta salata cheese.
 

Involtini di Pesce Spada (swordfish rollups)

Christmas eve is the one night of the year when my family’s table is laden with fish – everything from spaghetti with mixed shellfish, to baccala’ cakes, to stuffed squid and lots more. We never called it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” because we never counted. My mom just served fish – and plenty of it. The first time I went to Italy, I found it odd that my relatives there in the north don’t really make a fuss about fish for Christmas eve dinner. This “feast of the seven fishes” was totally unknown to them. My mother adopted the culinary customs of her Southern Italian family she married into, but even they didn’t have a prescribed number of fish dishes. The custom of “seven” seems to have been invented by Italian Americans. 

Whatever you call it, I still cook fish for Christmas eve and I too, can’t be sure yet on whether there will be seven. Some years it’s five, some years it’s 10 and gosh, maybe it’ll be seven this year, but if that happens, it’ll be purely by accident. I usually make my traditional dishes (there HAS to be stuffed squid and baccala), but I’m frequently guided by what looks freshest at the fish store the morning of Christmas eve. This year I plan to add involtini di pesce spada – or swordfish rollups – to the menu. I ate these the first time I went to Sicily years ago and have tried – and failed – to find a good recipe since then. But last month, Fabrizia Lanza gave a talk at the Italian cultural organization I’m involved with. When I saw the cookbook, I wanted to make everything in it, including her involtini di pesce spada. Once I did, I knew I had finally found the right recipe for that dish. It’s almost identical to what I ate in Palermo years ago and it’s delicious.
I made this for a dinner party last month so I bought a huge hunk of swordfish, but you can use buy a small amount and make it for one or two people.
I cut my chunk in half, because after pounding the slices, I knew they would spread out a bit. I didn’t want them to be so large that they’d be unwieldy to handle. Then I sliced thin pieces from each chunk, but it’s not easy, I’m warning you. I even put the fish in the freezer for about an hour to make it less “jiggly” when I cut into it. It helped somewhat. I may see if my fish guy can do this for me next time.
Here’s what I ended up with from about three pounds of swordfish.
I put some waxed paper on both sides of the fish and gently pounded with the flat side of a meat pounder until it flattened a bit (don’t use the side with the prongs or you’ll tear the fish apart.)
Then I added the stuffing. You can smear it all over the fish, or leave it in one spot. If you leave it in one spot, you’ll have a finished dish that has a lot of stuffing in one central place. If you spread it out, then you’ll have something like the first picture above. Or do a little of both. Either way works fine.
After they’re rolled up and coated with breadcrumbs, place them in a casserole with slices of lemon, orange and bay leaves in between. I have a bay leaf plant and was able to use fresh bay leaves. If you can’t find them, use dry ones. This casserole served enough for five people with some leftover after the dinner. I even had a few that I didn’t put in the large casserole.
Instead, I put them in a smaller container and froze them for later use. They later cooked up just as if they had been fresh, so you can definitely make this ahead of time and freeze it.

It sure was nice to pull that out of the freezer and sit down to this for dinner a couple of weeks later.
These were so easy to make and taste so great that I plan to add this to my Christmas eve fish feast from now on.
Ciao Chow Linda was recently interviewed by N.J. Monthly for a story about the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” You can read more about my childhood memories of that night here.
Here are some other recipe ideas if you want to have your own “Feast of the Seven Fishes”:

Involtini di Pesce Spada
from Fabrizia Lanza’s “Coming Home To Sicily”
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 3/4 cups unseasoned dried breadcrumbs, divided
1 lemon, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 orange, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dried currants (I used white raisins, cut into small pieces)
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
fine sea salt and black pepper
1 pound swordfish, sliced into 8 thin pieces (about 1/3 inch thick; if the pieces are too thick, you can pound them gently between pieces of wax paper)
12 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle the bottom of a medium baking dish with olive oil.
Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and onion in a medium skillet and cook over medium-high heat until softened, about three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup breadcrumbs, mixing everything together until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the oil. (I made the mistake of mixing all the breadcrumbs with the other ingredients the first time I made this, and it was fine.) Return to low heat and toast the breadcrumbs slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon and orange juices, the currants, pinenuts, and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay a piece of swordfish on a work surface and put a heaping tablespoon of the breadcrumb filling (squeeze it in your hand to compact t) in the center and roll up. Repeat with the remaining swordfish and filling.
Pour some olive oil into a shallow pan and fill another shallow pan with the remaining 2 cups breadcrumbs. Dip each roll-up first in the oil, then dredge in the breadcrumbs until lightly coated. Place the swordfish roll-ups snugly in the baking dish and tuck the bay leaves and lemon and orange slices between the rolls. Drizzle with some more olive ol and bake until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. (Mine needed 15 minutes to cook through.)
Serves four.