The sweetness of almond paste perfumes the air in Sicily. This is understandable because it’s an essential ingredient in so many of the cakes, cookies and confections that make Sicilian baking the most elaborate and interesting in all of Italy. And not just at Easter.
The nut pastes, refined sugar and candied fruit, for which the island is so famous, were bequeathed by the Saracen Arabs who ruled the island for more than two centuries, beginning in the early 800s.
When the preparation of elaborate sweets moved out of the palaces, it crept into, of all places, the convents of cloistered nuns, who adopted the baking and selling of all sorts of sweets as means to support their communities. (The Saracens allowed, although did not encourage, religions other than Islam.)
Convents became known for their pastries. So popular were they that by the mid-19th century, it is said, the bishop of Palermo threatened to prohibit certain convents from preparing sweets because the nuns were so busy baking that they were neglecting their Easter devotions.
Throughout Italy, Easter is the most important holiday of the year. For many, it outranks Christmas as the holiday prompting the greatest frenzy of baking, sweet making and food preparation.
Every little village has its particular specialties, but the cassata (cake) remains the quintessential Sicilian Easter dessert.
Now made from sponge cake filled with sweetened ricotta cream studded with candied fruit and chocolate and topped with green almond paste, it probably evolved from a sweet that was originally fashioned of nut paste filled with candied fruit. The cake, ricotta and, of course, the chocolate were later additions.
The green tint in the almond paste probably mimics the pistachio paste used in the original cake — a logical conclusion since the pistachios of Sicily are unrivaled for their deep green color.
The name “cassata” may derive either from the Arabic word for a large pan or bowl, or from the Latin word for cheese.
Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of cassata recipes, and I have developed quite a few for teaching and for my cookbooks. Recently, however, I simplified the presentation a bit, to make it easier to prepare, without sacrificing quality.
I always bake a fresh pan di spagna (Italian sponge cake) for use in my cassata, although no one will report you to the bishop of Palermo if you use a good-quality, commercially prepared cake.
I like candied orange peel in the filling, but you may leave it out. It can, in fact, be difficult to find good quality candied peel, especially after the Christmas fruitcake season is over. Nor will anyone recoil in horror if you decide that making, rolling and fitting almond paste in place on the cake is too much work.
Whip a pint of cream with a few tablespoons of sugar and spread it on the outside of the cake. Sprinkle on a few chopped pistachios or some shaved chocolate, and no one will be the wiser. Just remember the old Sicilian saying: “Only the wicked don’t eat cassata on Easter morning.”
Cassata alla Siciliana (Ricotta-filled cake from Sicily)
Sponge cake, purchased or homemade (recipe follows)
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup white rum
21/4 pounds whole-milk ricotta
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into ½-inch pieces
1/8 cup candied orange peel, cut into 1/4-inch dice
8 ounces almond paste
3 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus more for kneading almond paste
Green food coloring
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
Cornstarch for rolling almond paste
Candied citron and cherries for decorating the cassata
Line a 10-inch sloping-sided pie pan with plastic wrap. Set aside. If making your own, bake sponge cake; set aside.
To make the rum syrup, bring cup water and sugar to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and cool. Stir in rum.
To make the ricotta filling, gently beat ricotta in a large mixing bowl with a rubber spatula, just until smooth. Gently stir in confectioners’ sugar, avoiding beating the mixture, which will make it liquefy. Stir in vanilla and cinnamon.
Set aside 1/3 cup of the filling for finishing outside of cassata, before adding chocolate and candied orange peel. Put chopped chocolate into a small strainer and shake well to sift away any very fine pieces of chocolate, which would color the filling. Stir the larger pieces of chocolate remaining in the strainer into the ricotta filling.
To assemble the cassata, use a long serrated knife to cut the sponge cake into thin vertical slices. Use some of the slices to line the pan completely, bottom and sides.
Sprinkle with about one third of the rum syrup and spread half the ricotta filling in the lined pan. Make a layer of cake slices over the filling and sprinkle with about a third of the remaining syrup, then spread the remaining filling over.
Top with more slices of cake, but don’t moisten them. (This will be inverted and become the bottom of the cassata and would be too sticky if moistened with the syrup.) Reserve remaining syrup for finishing the cake.
Give a good press to top layer of cake with the palm of your hand and wrap cassata in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight to set.
While cassata is chilling, make almond paste decoration. Combine almond paste and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add a drop or two of food coloring and pulse until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add corn syrup and pulse until mixture is about to form a ball.
Scrape almond paste from food processor onto a surface lightly dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead it smooth, making sure that coloring is evenly distributed throughout. Wrap in plastic wrap and store at room temperature until needed.
To finish cassata, unwrap it and invert a platter onto pie pan. Invert the whole stack and lift off the pie pan, leaving the cassata on the platter. Moisten outside of cassata with remaining syrup, using a brush. Spread outside with reserved filling. Roll almond paste thinly on a surface dusted with cornstarch and drape it over the cassata.
Trim away excess almond paste at base of cake. Knead the trimming together and fashion a rope to finish the bottom of the cake.
Decorate top with candied fruit in a symmetrical pattern. Serve in thin wedges. Store loosely covered and refrigerate until serving time. Wrap and refrigerate leftovers. Makes 1 10-inch cake.
CLASSIC SPONGE CAKE (PAN DI SPAGNA):
Butter, for pan
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cornstarch
5 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla
Line bottom of a buttered 10-inch round pan that is 2 inches deep with buttered parchment or wax paper. Set aside.
Stir flour and cornstarch together in a small bowl and set aside. Whisk egg yolks by hand with half the sugar and all of the vanilla in bowl of electric mixer. Place whisk attachment on mixer and whip on medium speed until very light and whitened in color, about 3 or 4 minutes.In a clean and dry mixing bowl, combine egg whites with salt.
Whip by machine at medium speed with whisk attachment until egg whites are white, opaque and beginning to hold their shape. Increase speed to medium-high and add remaining sugar in a slow stream, continuing to whip egg whites until they hold a firm peak.
Use a large rubber spatula to fold yolks into whites, then sift a third of the flour and cornstarch mixture over egg foam and fold it in.
Repeat with second and last thirds of flour mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake cake on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until it is well risen, well colored, firm and a toothpick inserted in center comes out dry. Immediately unmold cake layer to a rack, leaving paper on bottom of cake.
Place another rack against the paper and invert and remove the top rack so that cake cools right side up.
Cool cake completely before removing paper.
To store, double wrap Pan di Spagna in plastic wrap and keep it at room temperature if it is to be used within 24 hours. Freeze for longer storage, up to a month.
Makes 1 10-inch cake.