Why would anyone in their right mind choose to make a Cassata?
This is a long post, because there is nothing simple about a cassata. And there is no actual recipe – because there are so many out there, mine will not add anything new to the sum of cassata knowledge (but start with Mary Taylor Simeti)
This cake, of sponge, ricotta, chocolate, marzipan, icing, candied fruits, more icing, takes days to assemble. At every stage of that assembly, it is an unrelenting faff. Plus, you can never, and I mean, NEVER, get two Sicilians to agree as to how you should actually make it. To top it all off, the whole thing ends up looking like the campest Panto dame in Christendom.
And that, I guess is reason enough to make the damn thing.
Cassata is an antidote to all those stuffy, frugal, puritanical recipes that (thankfully) are largely a thing of the past. For every seed cake, or sponge cake iced with margarine “butter’ cream, this is a giddy rebuke. But the care that goes into making a cassata means it’s got more class in one of its candied fruits than your average overly-calorific shop-bought confection of too much cream and syrup and salted caramel. If I had to liken cassata to a person, it would be Barbara Windsor, collecting a damehood (in itself, not a bad idea). Get the idea?
It’s also a bit of a cliche – the airport at Palermo has a shop that sells obscenely overpriced ‘authentic’ Sicilian gifts, and has a chiller cabinet full of cloned cassatas. Surely the most impractical thing you could ever taken on board as hand luggage? The only person I have ever seen anyone buy one was a small, angry businessman. He sat two rows behind me on a flight back to the UK, and became so enraged by the usual RyanAir awfulness that I thought he was going to have an embolism. Perhaps he was worried that the ricotta would go off? Perhaps he’d never flown RyanAir?
The full recipe is long, complicated, open to personal interpretation, subject to judgement. Many, many variations exist, although, that said, Fanny Craddock’s is not one of them (whatever she calls it), I’m not even sure it’s a cake.
If you’re dead set on having a go at your own cassata, then you will face some obstacles. Firstly, to get the proper effect, you need whole, candied fruit. Now these are relatively easy to buy in Sicily (I can’t speak for the rest of Italy), you go to a specialist patisserie shop and come away with a plastic container of sugar soaked pears, clemetines, figs and slabs of squash. They are dyed impossible colours with Lord knows what chemicals. But I have yet to find anywhere in the UK that supplies them – although there must be somewhere?? In London? Anyone? The closest I’ve found, are those posh boxes of candied fruit that elderly relatives heave out at Christmas, but I’m not convinced. I also had a stab at making my own in the slow cooker and ended up with marmalade.
Next you have to make a decision – are you going to go for almond or pistachio marzipan? This is a decision that is a source of strife chez nous. Almost every damn recipe for Cassata written in the English language (barring Fanny Craddock’s fevered imaginings) states that you use a pistachio or dyed green almond marzipan – at the very least, alternated with a white almond one. And this is important not just flavourwise, but because it fundamentally alters the appearance. Almond reins in the campness, makes it a little more refined. Pistachio brings bright green zing to the party and tips the whole thing over into full blown Hello Dolly territory.
The Sicilian though, is adamant that pistachio is a variation on the original. An affectation. Now, having grown up in Palermo, I’m guessing that his opinion on this carries a lot more weight than most, certainly more than that of this 2nd generation Irish lad from North Warwickshire. But, but, but…. lads from north Warwickshire aren’t noted for being refined…you can guess where I’m going.
So, to the cake. If you want, if you have the time and the inclination, you can make every fussy part of this cake from scratch – or, should sanity prevail, you can buy a sponge cake, and marzipan – thereby saving yourself at least a day.
You’ll need a cake tin with sloping sides – the nearest standard thing in the UK would be a pie dish, or you can get actual cassata tins, to create the exact shape – I’m guessing though that’ll require some stealthy internet searching (or a trip to Sicily).
Line the tin with clingfilm, leaving enough overhang to fold back in later, and line the sloping sides of the tin with marzipan (you can add pistachio paste to your bought almond marzipan if you don’t have the will to start grinding nuts to a powder) – and you may need a spot of green food colouring. Don’t over do it though – the first time I tried this, it turned the colour of arsenic.
Then, place a thin disk of sponge cake in the base of the tin and brush it with marsala, or sugar syrup and marsala, or sugar syrup and orange flower water.
Mix dark chocolate chips into ricotta with icing sugar and spoon this onto the sponge, until it almost fills the tin. Then place another pre cut disk of sponge on the top and fold in the clingfilm to seal the whole thing together. Put a plate onto the embryonic cassata and weigh down with a sturdy mug or a big dense block of cheddar.
Make room in the fridge, and chill the whole thing overnight.
Tomorrow – turn the cake out onto its serving plate.
Mix up a thick fondant icing. This is a pain, and almost impossible to work with, but you’re committed now I’m afraid.
The aim is to get a layer of icing on the top of the cake that is a solid, opaque ‘lid’ to your cassata (some people cover the whole thing – it’s your choice), leaving the green of the marzipan to shine.
Then take your candied fruit, and arrange on the top of the icing in a suitably flamboyant way.
If you really want to gild your lily, you can then pipe more icing into swirls and dabs onto the fruit and the sides of your cassata. I’m totally cack handed at icing, so mine usually ends up looking like a six year old was set loose on it.
It’s unlikely that you’ll make this many times in your life. Unless you work in a patisserie in Sicily or New York. But, if you’re looking for home cooking bucket list items, this should probably be on there. It’s a traditional cake for Easter in Sicily, but makes a pretty fancy celebration cake any time of the year.
God knows how many calories it contains, although, despite all the sugar involved, the ricotta has a sharpness that stops it tipping over the edge into Type 2 Diabetes territory. But, it’s definitely improved by a ‘coffee-killer’ – one of those bitter or super strength digestifs you have at the end of your Italian meal – grappa, limencello or Cynar (my favourite).
Go on. I dare you.