Sicilian Cassata Cake
words & photography by Giulia Mulè of Mondomulia
' Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.'
- Winston Churchill
The Cassata is the most iconic Sicilian cake, an elaborate dessert made with sponge cake (called “pan di Spagna” in Italian) moistened with liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, covered with marzipan and decorated with candied fruits and royal icing. The result is a spectacular and delicious dessert that is traditionally eaten in Sicily in winter or spring (around Easter time) as this is the best time of to find fresh ricotta. Due to its popularity, nowadays you can find the Cassata all year round in the patisseries of this Italian region.
I am Italian and my dad grew up in Palermo, Sicily, so the Cassata is part of my family culinary traditions. Because of its complexity though, Cassata is not a dessert that many people are ambitious enough to make at home, including me. It requires a few hours of work and a lot of patience.
For the sponge:
4 eggs, separated
200gr caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
zest of 1 lemon
4 tbsp boiling water
1 pinch of salt
150gr plain flour
50gr potato starch
1 tsp baking powder
For the filling:
700g fresh ricotta cheese
400g caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla essence
100g candied orange peel
100g dark chocolate chips
½ glass marsala (or your sweet liquor of choice)
250g marzipan / almond paste
For the sugar glaze:
300gr icing sugar
Candied fruit (orange peel, pumpkin peel, cherries, etc.) to decorate
Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease and flour one 23cm round spring form cake pan and line the base with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with sugar, lemon zest and salt using an electric hand whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the boiling water. Gently add the sifted flour and starch.
Whip the egg whites with the baking powder until stiff peaks form. Immediately fold them into the cake batter using a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Level the top with the back of a spoon and bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes. Don’t open the oven until this time has passed, then check the baking with a toothpick.
Allow the cake to stand in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
To make the filling sift the ricotta cheese. Stir in the sugar and vanilla essence (if the mixture is too hard to stir, you can add a little bit of milk). Add the candied orange peel, chopped to tiny bits, and the chocolate chips. Mix the ingredients until well combined.
Melt the sugar in 300ml of hot water. Wait for it to cool down before adding the marsala.
Take the same cake pan you have used to bake the cake and wrap the inside with a layer cling film. Cut the sponge cake vertically into slices one centimetre thick and carefully place them in the dish, covering the bottom as well as the sides. Spritz the sugar water over the sponge layer.
You can make the cake with two or three layers, depending on how much sponge cake you have got. I used these measurements to make a three-layer cake.
Pour one third of the ricotta mixture over the sponge. Cover with another layer of cake slices. Spritz with the sugar water. Top up with the third and last layer of sponge cake. Place in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
The next day, remove the cake from the fridge and carefully remove from the cake tin. Remove the cling film and place the cake on a cake stand.
Soften the marzipan with your hands then roll it to a 5mm layer using a rolling pin. Use the cake pan to cut out a round layer of marzipan and place it over the top of the cake. Cut out a long strip or small strips of marzipan to cover the sides.
To make the glaze, bring cold water and icing sugar to a boil. Turn the heat to low and stir constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved (3-5 minutes). The glaze should be thick but still runny. Immediately pour it over the cake and quickly spread it over the top and sides using a wet spatula.
Decorate the cassata with candied fruit of your choice. Now the cake is ready to be eaten!