The sweetness of almond paste perfumes the air in Sicily. This is understandable because almond paste is an essential ingredient in so many of the cakes, cookies and confections that make Sicilian baking the most elaborate and interesting in all of Italy. And not just at Easter.
The nut pastes, refined sugar and candied fruit, for which the island is so famous, were bequeathed by the Saracen Arabs who ruled the island for more than two centuries, beginning in the early 800s. And when the preparation of elaborate sweets moved out of the palaces, it crept into, of all places, the convents of cloistered nuns, who adopted the baking and selling of all sorts of sweets as means to support their communities. (The Saracens allowed, although did not encourage, religions other than Islam.)
Throughout Italy, Easter is the most important holiday of the year. For many, it outranks Christmas as the holiday prompting the greatest frenzy of baking, sweet making and food preparation. Every little village has its particular specialties, but the cassata (cake) remains the quintessential Sicilian Easter dessert.
Now made from sponge cake filled with sweetened ricotta cream studded with candied fruit and chocolate and topped with green almond paste, it probably evolved from a sweet that was fashioned of nut paste filled with candied fruit. The cake, ricotta and, of course, the chocolate were later additions.
The green tint in the almond paste probably mimics the pistachio paste used in the original cake - a logical conclusion because the pistachios of Sicily are unrivaled for their deep-green color. The name "cassata" may derive either from the Arabic word for a large pan or bowl, or from the Latin word for cheese.
Over the years, I've tried all sorts of cassata recipes and I have developed quite a few for teaching and for my cookbooks. But recently, I simplified the presentation a bit, to make it easier to prepare, without sacrificing quality.
I always bake a fresh Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge cake) for use in my cassata, though no one will report you to the bishop of Palermo if you use a good-quality, commercially prepared cake. Nor will anyone recoil in horror if you decide that making, rolling and fitting almond paste in place on the cake is too much work.
Whip a pint of cream with a few tablespoons of sugar and spread it on the outside of the cake. Sprinkle on a few chopped pistachios or some shaved chocolate and no one will be the wiser.
Nick Malgieri is the award-winning author of `'Perfect Cakes" (HarperCollins, 2002). His newest book is "A Baker's Tour," (HarperCollins, 2005). He wrote this article for Tribune Media Services. Recipe analysis provided by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.
Cassata Alla Siciliana (Ricotta-Filled Cake From Sicily)
Serves 8 to 10
The cassata may be prepared in advance and refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap, for a day before it is served.
SPONGE CAKE: purchased or homemade
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup white rum
2 1/2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/8 -inch pieces
1/4 cup candied orange peel, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
8 ounces almond paste
3 cups confectioners' sugar, plus more for kneading almond paste
green food coloring
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
cornstarch for rolling almond paste
candied citron and cherries for decorating the cassata
Line a 10-inch sloping-sided pie pan with plastic wrap. Set aside. If making your own sponge cake, bake and set aside.
To make the rum syrup, bring 1/3 cup water and sugar to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and cool. Stir in rum.
To make the ricotta filling, gently beat ricotta in a large mixing bowl with a rubber spatula, just until smooth. Gently stir in confectioners' sugar, avoiding beating the mixture, which will make it liquefy. Stir in vanilla and cinnamon.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the filling for finishing outside of cassata, before adding chocolate and candied orange peel. Put chopped chocolate into a small strainer and shake well to sift away any very fine pieces of chocolate, which would color the filling. Stir the larger pieces of chocolate remaining in the strainer into the ricotta filling.
To assemble the cassata, use a long serrated knife to cut the sponge cake into thin vertical slices. Use some of the slices to line the pan completely, bottom and sides. Sprinkle with about one-third of the rum syrup and spread half the ricotta filling in the lined pan.
Make a layer of cake slices over the filling and sprinkle with about a third of the remaining rum syrup, then spread the remaining filling over. Top with more slices of cake, but don't moisten them. (This will be inverted and become the bottom of the cassata and would be too sticky if moistened with the syrup.) Reserve remaining syrup for finishing the cake.