Cassata is one of the symbols of Sicilian pastry, together with Cannoli, and one of the most popular and well-known desserts in the World.
It is a rich, irresistible sweet that tells centuries of history. The first version of Sicilian Cassata is baked, with a pastry enriched with sweetened ricotta. The present day version, with a base of sponge cake, ricotta cream, chocolate drops, royal dough (marzipan), icing and candied fruit, will only be established from the end of the 19th Century.
The name of the dessert seems to derive from “quas’at” (“basin” in Arabic), from the name of the container in which the cake was placed by the Arab shepherd who invented it, mixing the ricotta with the sugar.
Subsequently the ricotta was wrapped in a sheet of pastry. Thus the baked Cassata was born, the oldest of the versions of this dessert.
In the years to come, the invention of royal dough (or Pasta Martorana – Marzapane) based on almond flour and sugar is due to the Benedictine nuns of the Martorana Convent in Palermo.
Only after 1870 the Cassata undergoes the most significant transformations that take us back to the sweet of our days. The inventor was the pastry chef from Palermo, Salvatore Gulì.
First of all we begin to prepare the filling, preferably the day before serving it: first we pour the ricotta into a large bowl, add the sugar and mix to obtain a homogeneous mixture. Add the chocolate drops. The cream should be soft, uniform, without lumps of ricotta and, once prepared, let it cool for at least 30 minutes in the fridge before using it.
To make a good sponge cake start by mounting the eggs with the sugar, in a well cleaned bowl (it should be free of grease). Let the planetary machine go for at least half an hour, until the volume of the mixture has almost quadrupled. Turn off the planetary mixer, add some flour by hand and mix briefly with a spatula. Add a pinch of salt and the lemon peel. Make a movement from the bottom upwards, so as to gently incorporate the flour into the egg mixture. Remember not to mix the flour too hardly and for a long time, otherwise the sponge cake will became hard. Bake at 180 degrees for about 20/25 minutes and you will have a soft sponge cake.
Put the almond flour and icing sugar in a bowl. Add the water, a little at a time, the food color and mix with a spoon. Add the water slowly until a dense mass is obtained. The amount of water can change based on the oiliness of the almond flour. After a few minutes knead with your hands and the marzipan is ready, keep it in the fridge.
Put the water, rum and sugar in a saucepan. Put everything on the fire and let the sugar melt slowly, over low heat, because the syrup must be hot but not boiling.
Mix the sugar and water. Once prepared, put it on the fire just for a few minutes to make it even softer and more liquid.
Take the sponge cake and slice it: the slices must be about 1 cm thick. Cut the candied fruit and then spread the marzipan. We advise you to dust icing sugar on the work surface, recover the marzipan (which must be strictly green) and begin to spread it with the help of a rolling pin, it should be about 4-5 mm thick. Cover the cake pan, adjust the dough on the edges so that here there is a generous consistency of marzipan (on the perimeter of the pan). With the help of a knife, eliminate the excess of dough. In this way, using a rigid pan, you will get a perfect edge. Now make a round hole in the center of the almond paste: we recommend using a cup, a glass or even better a bowl. In reality you have to create a circle and leave just one centimeter of edge along the perimeter of the pan. At this point, place the sponge cake in the pan. The sponge cake must be very cold before composing the cassata (better to prepare it the day before). Once coated with sponge cake, carefully wet it with the syrup that you have already prepared. After placing and soaking the sponge cake, you just have to fill it with mixture of ricotta, sugar, chocolate drops and candied orange (if you like it). Distribute it evenly throughout the cassata and then coat it with the sponge cake left. Wet the sponge cake again and place the cake in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. Once it has cooled well, turn it upside down on a serving tray, which will then be useful for serving. After removing the pan, the Sicilian cassata is ready to be decorated. Cover the hole on the top it with the frosting, be careful not to cover also the green ring of marzipan. Finally decorate with candied fruit as you like.
Prepare the sponge cake the previous day. It is important that the sponge cake rests for a night because otherwise it crumbles when cut.
Put the ricotta in a colander with a deep dish underneath and keep it in the fridge overnight, so that it will lose the exciding serum.
Sicilian Cassata can be kept in the fridge for 5/7 days because the sugar preserves ricotta well.