Sicily was a real port - invaded by Normans, Arabs, Spaniards, and then Piedmomenteses (yes we need to admit that nobody or very few in Sicily wanted to be unified to the rest of what was decided to be called "Italy"); and such mixture of people and cultures is clearly reflected in its food.
I have mentioned already its savoury dishes like stuffed squids, panella, and caponata. Today I want to share with you one of the most amazing cakes it has. It seems daunting at first but with a little bit of patience, and a few short cuts if you want to cheat..., you can impress all your guests very easily. The "Ohhhh...." will be assured when you present this baroque cake on your table.
There is no agreement on the origins of the name Cassata. Some say that it derives from the arabic word "qashatha", bowl, for the utensil where it was served and which gave the half dome shape; others claim that it simply means cheese concoction for its mixture of ricotta cheese. I am not so sure about the latter as it seems to be very little concoction in cassata - only one type of cheese is used and the ingredients, despite being relatively more than in the average Italian dishes, are not that odd. I would go with the Arabic story. Much more exotic.
For those of you who have made the Tuscan zuccotto before, turning to a cassata should not be difficult. The main difference is the addition of a couple of ingredients to the cheese mixture, a final marzipan layer, and a sugary glaze.
In theory there are 4 steps you should follow - in practice you could simply have 2 and a half. I explain. The recipe requires you to make "Pain d'Espaigne", Marzipan, filling, and glazing. However, if you are short of time you can buy the pain (and if you cannot find it or it's too expensive replace it with Madeira cake) as well as the marzipan. As the marzipan has to be green, what you can do, rather than making it yourself and add the colouring and pistachio paste to it, is to buy a block of marzipan, add a few drops of colouring and roll it flat a few times so that the colour is absorbed and distributed evenly. Don't put too much colouring though or it'll come from Mars!
I give you the full recipe in case you have plenty of time in your hands.
1 tbsp baking powder
500g ricotta (ideally of sheep but as it is very difficult to find in England cow ricotta will have to suffice)
1 pinch of vanilla sugar
50g candied orange peels
50g chopped dark chocolate
1 tbsp orange flower water
250g blenched almonds or ground almonds
300g icing sugar
3 drops of bitter almond essence
5 tbsp water
250g icing sugar
2 egg whites
1 tbsp lemon juice
Prepare the pain by mixing the egg yolks with the sugar, and flour. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt and lemon juice until stiff and fold them in the yolk mixture. Cook in a cake tin at 180C for 40 minutes. Let it cool before taking it out of the tin.
Make the marzipan mixing the almonds (if you are using whole almonds you need to blitz them first) adding the sugar, almond essence, and water to which you have diluted some of the colouring. Work the mixture until it is uniformly green, wrap it then in cling film and leave it in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Make the filling by mixing all the ingredients.
Cut the pain (or Madeira cake) into long slices to cover the bottom and sides of a rounded glass bowl or a tin. Pour the ricotta mixture and cover with another layer of pain or Madeira cake as a lid. I would suggest that once you've done this you put it in the fridge to set. Once it is set you can turn it around and then mould the marzipan which you will have rolled to a 1cm sheet on top to cover it completely. Trim it to make it smooth and get rid of excesses.
Make the glaze beating the egg whites with the sugar and lemon juice until it becomes a reasonably thick and very white mixture. Spread it with a palette on top of the marzipan.
It is actually done! Leave it in the fridge for a few hours and then decorate it in the way you prefer. We had some marzipan left and decided to create some green flowers as well as some mini fruits like apples. It can be a bit kitsch but that's its beauty!
You can also make some other little fruits with the marzipan - especially if you leave some of it without the green colouring and add other colours like red and yellow - also called "Frutta di Martorana" the place where they originate.
And it tastes divine! Thank you Sicily for enriching Italy with all these wonderful flavours, I must come back!