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Cassata alla Siciliana

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata is one of the most classic Sicilian cakes, and also one of the oldest: Though you will find people suggesting it dates to Sicily’s Arab period because of the candied fruit that serves as both decoration and ingredient in the ricotta cream, the word Cassata derives from the Latin Caseus, which means cheese. In other words, Cassata is a cheesecake, one of the world’s first.

Given its age it comes as no surprise that there are a great many variations throughout Sicily. This recipe is trapanese, from Trapani, while the pictures, which will I hope inspire you, are of a cassata some friends brought to our house, a cassata prepared by the Ristorante Albergo Moderno in Erice, and one prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu.

You’ll need:

  • 1 1/3 cups (280 g) sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (150 g) flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Half a lemon
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • Marsala
  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) fresh sheep’s milk ricotta (you can use cow if you must)
  • A pinch of vanillin, or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces (50 g) finely diced zuccata, which is candied melon peel
  • 2 ounces (50 g) bitter chocolate, in shavings
  • 9 ounces (250 g) blanched peeled almonds
  • 3 drops of bitter almond extract
  • 5 cups (500 g) powdered sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Potato starch (you may find this in the Jewish section of your market)
  • Green (or the color you prefer) food coloring
  • Butter and flour for the cake pan
  • Strips of zuccata and assorted candied fruit
A Cassata Alla Siciliana

A Cassata Alla Siciliana

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Whip 6 egg white to firm peaks with a pinch of salt.

In another bowl, beat 6 yolks with 3/4 cup of the granular sugar, until the mixture is frothy and pale yellow.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and slowly add it to the beaten yolks, together with a couple of tablespoons of egg white and the grated zest of the lemon; finally, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the mixture. Turn the batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch (22 cm) square pan and bake it for a half hour; remove the cake from the oven and let it cool before removing it from the pan.

In the meantime, grind the almonds in a food processor, using short bursts to keep them from liquefying and giving off their oil.

Add 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar and the bitter almond essence diluted in 1/4 cup water, and blend until the mixture is homogenous.

Dust your work surface with potato starch before turning the paste out onto it (you can also turn it out onto a sheet of wax paper), and incorporate a few drops of green (or whatever color you prefer) dye, diluted in a few drops of water. Work the paste until the color is uniform and then wrap the paste in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator.

Put the ricotta through a fairly fine wire mesh strainer and combine it with 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the vanillin, the chocolate, and the diced zuccata.

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Next, roll the almond paste out 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick; the sheet should be large enough to line a 10-inch (25 cm) round pudding mold.

Before doings so, line the mold with plastic wrap, and then lay the sheet of almond paste into it.

Next, slice the cake into half-inch (about a cm) horizontal sheets and use them to line the bottom and sides of the mold, making a box of sorts.

Make a syrup by diluting some Marsala with a little water and a little sugar, and sprinkle it over the cake. Fill the box with the creamy ricotta mixture and cover it with more of the cake, sprinkling again with the Marsala syrup.

Lay a dish over the cassata, press down gently, and chill the cassata for several hours in the refrigerator.

It is now time to decorate the cassata: turn it over onto a serving dish and remove the mold and the plastic wrap. Beat the remaining two whites and sift the remaining powdered sugar into them, beating all the while to obtain a thick, homogenous cream. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the glaze and spread it over the cassata. Let the glaze set for a few minutes, decorate the cassata with the remaining candied fruit, and chill it for several more hours before serving it.