This ricotta and chocolate chip filled sponge is usually an opulently decorated and often gaudy cake, covered with brightly coloured candied fruit (maraschino cherries are a classic), food colouring-pumped green marzipan and royal icing in dainty, lace-like frills.
But don't be frightened by its appearance.
It's actually a surprisingly delicate cake and one mouthful will have you hooked. Sponge cake layers supported by alternating pistachio marzipan and sponge sides hold together a creamy filling of ricotta and chocolate. A hard, sugar glaze coats the entire thing and whole candied fruit – an art in itself in Sicily – decorate the top. Could there be more going on here? It's the ultimate Sicilian dessert and it is a constant at the Easter table, as it has been for centuries.
This elaborate Sicilian specialty is made all over the island from Palermo to Trapani and, they say, is over a thousand years old.
Usually made in a pie tin that has outward sloping sides and lined with sponge and marzipan then filled and lined again, the dessert is then left to rest in the fridge for a few hours to set, to take shape and to give time for the flavors to mingle. It is then up-turned onto a plate, glazed and decorated.
Some add candied fruit, chopped into little cubes, to the ricotta filling. Others dab a syrup spiked with rum or marsala to the sponge to help it take shape. Another variation includes a green-tinged marzipan covering the entire thing instead of the sugar glaze, but the ultimate recipe should include a real, homemade pistachio marzipan that is cut into inch-wide pieces that alternate with sponge to create a striped look along the sides of the cake.
I've kept the essential elements in the most traditional way. Keeping in mind the entire thing is covered in a shell of icing, I used significantly less sugar than what the usual sweet-toothed Sicilian would use in the ricotta filling. I must admit, though, there is slightly more chocolate and it is dark, at least 70% cocoa, and chopped into pieces from a very good block rather than regular chocolate chips. Now enter a little bite of homemade pistachio marzipan and perhaps a sliver of artisan candied fruit (seek this out, it is quite a different thing to regular, packaged candied fruit) and you have one unforgettable Sicilian dessert.
- Serves 8 to 10
- For the pistachio marzipan:
(125 grams) sugar
(75 milliliters) water
(85 grams) whole blanched almonds
1 1/2 ounces
(40 grams) raw, whole pistachio, shelled (and unsalted)
- For the cassata:
(650 grams) firm ricotta, preferably sheep's milk ricotta
(220 grams) caster sugar
2 1/2 ounces
(70 grams) 70% cocoa dark chocolate
2 3/4 cups
(350 grams) powdered sugar
(80 milliliters) of water, plus more if needed
Candied fruit (preferably artisan-made) for decorating
- For the pistachio marzipan:
- In a food processor, blend the almonds and pistachio together until you have a very fine crumb. When you press it between your fingers it should almost hold together, like a dough. Set aside.
- Place the sugar and water together in a small saucepan over a low-medium heat and bring to the boil. Let it boil for about 10 to 15 minutes or until when you dip a spoon in it, rather than drip, the syrup should thread. Remove from the heat and add the nuts to combine with a wooden spoon. Turn out onto a clean, smooth surface to cool.
- When cool enough to handle but still warm, form into a ball and roll out with a rolling pin to a thickness of 1/3 inch (8 millimeters). If the marzipan sticks at all, dust with powdered sugar. Cut the marzipan into strips the height of your pie tin then cut those strips into pieces approximately an inch wide on one side and 1 1/2 inches on the other so that you have trapezoid shapes. No need to be super precise, eyeballing is fine. Set aside the marzipan pieces until needed.
- For the cassata:
- Slice the sponge cake (here is my recipe for a simple, fluffy sponge, which also happens to be gluten free: http://food52.com/recipes/27584-gluten-free-sponge-cake) into discs about 1cm thick (a little over 1/3 inch). You want 2-3 good discs from the sponge. One disc will be the base (later, it will become the top) of the cake. With another, cut strips then trapezoids the same way you did with the pistachio marzipan. With the final disc, set aside for the top (later to become the bottom) of the cake. Some also use simply the sponge leftovers for this part, breaking them into crumbs to sprinkle over the cake in a layer. If your sponge is not the same diameter as the pie tin, you can also slice the sponge into fingers and arrange them (much like you would tiramisu) in a layer across the bottom.
- For the ricotta filling, start with a fairly stiff ricotta that can stand on its own if you were to tip it out of its container. If your ricotta is quite soft, spoon it into a colander lined with a damp tea towel or a few layers of muslin or cheesecloth set over a bowl. Leave it overnight for the excess liquid to drip out. Combine firm ricotta and caster sugar together until smooth and creamy. Add the dark chocolate, roughly chopped into fine pieces. Set aside.
- To assemble the cassata, use a pie dish that measures about 10 inches (25cm diameter) along the bottom. Place a disc of sponge cake on the bottom. Assemble the marzipan and sponge trapezoids along the sides of the tin, alternating to achieve a striped look. Don't worry too much about any little gaps.
- Fill the sponge with the ricotta mixture, using a spatula to cover all the way to the sides and smoothing the top. Place a sponge disc (or a sponge crumb layer) on the top and cover with plastic cling wrap. Place a small flat plate that fits just inside the width of the pie tin on top and weigh the cassata down with a couple of jars of jam in order to keep the cassata pressed. Let rest in the fridge for at least 2 to 3 hours, or even better, overnight.
- Remove the plastic wrap and place a flat serving plate over the top of the cassata, then carefully upturn the plate and remove the pie tin (it will come out very easily). Prepare a sugar glaze by combining the powdered sugar and water in a small saucepan and heating to a simmer. It should be thick but still runny -- add water as needed, a tablespoon at a time, until you get the right consistency.
- It helps to have 4 hands for this next part. Tip the hot sugar glaze out onto the cassata and very quickly smooth over to cover the entire cassata, top and sides (it cools quickly and as it cools it hardens so it is easier to do this bit by bit).
- Decorate with artisan candied fruit, cut into slices or pieces or left whole. Serve sliced into wedges.