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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- 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
- FOR THE SPONGE CAKE:
- preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Butter and flour a 9 inch springform pan.
- Put the eggs into the bowl of a mixer and beat for 10 minutes.
- Add the sugar and lemon zest and continue to beat until the mixture forms a ribbon when poured, about 15 minutes.
- In two or three parts, gently fold in the sifted flour.
- 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.
- Cool on a cake rack and set it aside.
- TO MAKE THE MARZIPAN:
- Mix the almond flour, ground pistachios and sugar.
- Make a well and add a teaspoon of glucose, 2 tablespoons of water and a few drops of food coloring.
- Combine ingredients like a dough, then roll out on a workspace dusted with powdered sugar
- Cut long strips lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices.
- Roll out three of the slices into strips about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick.
- Knead the remaining marzipan into a ball, wrap it in plastic, and store in the refrigerator for later use.
- Line a 9-inch cassata pan, or a 9-inch pie pan with sloping sides, with plastic wrap.
- Wrap the marzipan strips along the inside edge of the pan, slightly overlapping the ends.
- Press against the pan to form a smooth layer.
- Cut the cake from top to bottom into ½ inch thick slices and trim off the crust
- Put a layer of slices on the bottom of the pan, drizzle the layers of the sponge cake with limoncello or Grand Marnier.
- In a bowl, mix the ricotta with sugar using a spatula until evenly distributed.
- Spread the layer of sponge cake evenly with the ricotta cream.
- Carefully place another layer of cake slices on top, drizzle again with limoncello or Grand Marnier.
- Flip the cake on a large serving plate.
- Carefully lift off the pan and peel off the remaining plastic wrap
- Set the cassata aside while you are making the icing.
- Sift half of the powdered sugar into a bowl.
- Add half of the lemon juice.
- Stir the liquid into the sugar, breaking up any lumps.
- 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.
- Ice the top of the cassata, leaving the marzipan sides of the cake visible
- If you are not using green marzipan, ice the entire cake.
- Decorate with whole and cut candied fruit.
- Refrigerate and allow to set for at least 1 to 2 hours before serving.