Cassata alla Sicialiana
By Gina DePalma
Cassata alla Siciliana is the iconic cake of Sicily, originating in Palermo and eventually becoming a Sicilian classic. It began as an Easter tradition, but like so many other sweet Italian specialties, Cassata’s popularity today spans the seasons, and in many households it becomes a Christmas favorite. Local Sicilian bakeries proudly display their renditions of this classic cake in the front window or in a special place of honor on the counter. Display is a key word here; for if ever a dessert could be described as Baroque, Cassata would be it.
Dome, or even octagonal-shaped, Cassata is traditionally decorated with a shroud of pale green marzapane, or marzipan, likely made from Sicily’s own almond crop, and elaborately embellished with jewel-toned candied fruits, curlicues, swirls and dots of white royal icing. The over-the-top decoration may seem like overkill, but it is very much part of the tradition surrounding this cake, and the sugary coating belies the truly delicious Italian flavors that are hidden underneath it.
My version is like comparing an austere Renaissance chapel with a Quattro Canti in Palermo. It is more than bit understated in appearance, but although my rendition isn’t entirely traditional in looks, I think it is spot on in its flavor. Tender sponge cake, layered with a creamy ricotta filling, spiked with chocolate, spice and orange zest. I can attest that a certified, Sicilian native and lifelong Cassata-lover offered his stamp of approval, which is good enough for me.
Adapted from Dolce Italiano: Desserts From the Babbo Kitchen.
Preheat the oven to 350 °F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans with butter or non-stick cooking spray, line them with parchment paper, then grease the parchment. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and teaspoon of salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the egg yolks with the sugar on medium speed until very light and pale yellow in color, and doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract, followed by the melted butter. Transfer the egg mixture to a large, clean mixing bowl. Fold in the dry ingredients quickly and lightly, using a rubber spatula, stopping just before they are fully incorporated. Clean the whisk attachment and mixing bowl to prepare them for whipping the egg whites.
Place the egg whites and a pinch of salt in the cleaned bowl of the electric mixer. Using the whip attachment on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites they form firm peaks. Fold the egg whites into the batter quickly and lightly; this will also incorporate any streaks of dry ingredients that remained. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing the tops with a spatula. Bake the cakes for 35 to 40 minutes, or until they are golden brown, a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, and the cakes have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Allow the cakes to cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then carefully turn them out onto a wire rack too cool completely. While the cakes are cooling, prepare the rum syrup. In a saucepan, stir together the 2 cups of sugar, ½ cup of the grappa and the water. Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring the contents to a boil, then lower the heat slightly and allow the syrup to simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool.
Next, prepare the filling. Using a microplane or box grater, grate the chocolate into fine, feathery shreds. Finely chop the pistachios using a sharp knife. Place the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon into the bowl of an electric mixer, and using the paddle attachment, beat until the ricotta is creamy and soft. Add the grated chocolate, chopped pistachios and grated orange zest and beat just until combined.
Have ready a 9-inch springform pan to assemble the cake. Using a serrated knife, carefully split each cake layer in half horizontally. Place one of the layers in the bottom of the pan and, using a pastry brush, moisten the cake generously and evenly with some of the rum syrup. Spread the cake layer evenly with 1/3 of the ricotta mixture. Repeat twice with another cake layer, more of the rum syrup, and another 1/3 of the ricotta mixture. Place the final cake layer on top and generously brush with the rum syrup. Wrap the springform pan tightly with plastic; this will help the layers fit snugly on top of each other. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.
To prepare icing for the cassata, place the sifted confectioners sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the egg whites and water and beat the ingredients together with the paddle attachment on medium speed until the mixture is smooth. Beat in the almond extract.
Remove the cassata from the refrigerator and carefully remove the sides of the pan. You may need to run a hot knife around the sides of the pan first. Leaving the bottom of the springform pan intact, place the cake on top of a wire rack to ice it; you can put some parchment or wax paper underneath the rack to catch any drips of icing.
Pour the icing over the top of the cake, spreading it evenly across the top with a spatula and allowing the icing to drip over the edges and down the sides of the cake. Scatter the toasted almonds over the top of the cake and let the cake sit until the icing sets. Return the cake to the refrigerator to chill until you are ready to serve it. Before serving, Carefully transfer the cake to a platter or cake stand, and, if desired decorate the cassata with maraschino or amarena cherries and some strips candied orange zest.
Makes one 9-inch cake, 10 servings.