The Glorious Sicilian Cassata from Palermo

Ricotta-based sweets are very popular both in Greece, in southern Italy, and in Sicily, especially around Easter time. But we cannot compare the various, often rustic treats with the glorious  Sicilian Cassata which is the cheese-cake par excellence!

 

 

In the spring sheep produce plenty of wonderfully rich, creamy milk which is used for various regional, fresh and aged cheeses, all around the Mediterranean. “Documents show the cake was made by both nuns for Easter and Sicilian Jews for Purim,” wrote in Eater, quoting various authors, among them our dear friend, historian, and author Mary Simeti who said that cassata was the “invention of a pastry chef from Palermo in the 1870s who had made an excessive amount of candied fruit and used it to decorate a ricotta cake, which was and still is a common cake in Sicily.”  Some authors quoted in the article link the elaborate cake with the Arab occupation of Sicily, claiming that it was the result of the introduction of sugar by the Arabs, a theory Simeti dismisses, and I totally agree with her. In ancient Greek and Roman texts we find descriptions of cakes made with fresh cheese which are sweetened with honey. We can assume that later, when sugar became available and affordable, it replaced honey in the popular seasonal sweets.

Delicious myzithropites from Tinos island, baked and sent to us be by the brilliant Nikoletta Foskolou

 

Simple Easter myzithropites (ricotta pies) are still baked in Greece, and on Santorini and other Cycladic islands melopita (honey-ricotta pie) scented with mastic, lemon zest and/or cinnamon is the traditional festive sweet, as I wrote in my Foods of the Greek Islands. But we cannot compare these delicious, yet rustic treats with the glorious  Sicilian cassata which is the cheese-cake par excellence!

 

Unfortunately, the numerous current American versions of cheesecake use packaged, tasteless ‘cream cheese’ and that version has been adopted by bakers all around the world, as well as in Greece. These American-inspired cheesecakes, are far from the delicious, if less refined, traditional fresh-ricotta desserts of the Mediterranean. I insist on making my cheesecake with real cheese, and you can see my version of myzithra (ricotta) and feta cheesecake.

 

The following recipe for a somewhat simpler cassata is adapted from the one I found in the Discover Italy website of Alitalia. For me the harder part was the glaze, because I have never made it before. But I know most people are used to making it, as it is the same used to decorate cookies and gingerbread ornaments…

Scroll down to see how the cake is prepared in the old, renowned Pasticeria Caffe Spinnato, in Palermo.

 

 

For TWO 8-inch cakes (more…)

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With Strawberries & Cream, or with Chocolate & Almonds

Starting from my Tsoureki —the the sweet, orange-flavored olive-oil-brioche-like dough I used for the Mallorca buns– I halved it and created two, very different festive, spring dessert versions.

For the first –our Easter cake– I used the sweet brioche instead of any other base to make a fresh strawberry treat. The other half of the dough I flattened, sprinkled with chopped semi-sweet chocolate, and ground almonds, then rolled into a loaf, and baked. Had I seen Lior’s Babka I would have cut and twisted the rolled dough to make it more spectacular. (more…)

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Chard Leaves Stuffed with Vegetables, Rice, Herbs and Fish

The garden offers me plenty of large chard leaves, often in different colors, all through May, and it is so easy to roll them into large bundles, preferably without blanching them first.

In my last book I have the vegetarian version of the stuffed leaves, although the original idea came to me from the salt-cod-stuffed lettuce leaves I had many years ago at a tavern near the archaeological site of ancient Corinth.  Here is my adaptation of that recipe.

 

WATCH the video

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Make the dish at least a day in advance and let cool completely before refrigerating; then you can serve it room temperature or reheat briefly reheat it. Accompany with yogurt, labne or with skordalia (garlic sauce).

 

Serves 6 (more…)

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Yogurt Bread Stuffed with Cheese or Chocolate

This is a delicious, moist and very easy bread dough.

I describe here how you can make it into savory or sweets treats.

No need to make them both the same day, though. Just keep half the dough in the fridge to stuff and bake within the next 2-3 days making the sweet or savory version.  

 

You also can form into loaves or small buns and eat instead of any other bread; it makes wonderful sandwiches.

The cheese-stuffed bread is a lovely accompaniment to soups and vegetable dishes, or served as meze with  drinks. The chocolate bread can be part of breakfast or accompany soft cheese or served with tea, and coffee.

 

Yields 2 round loaves
(more…)

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Preserved Lemons: Fast, Truly Edible, and Fragrant

This recipe is inspired from the ‘Preserve Lemon Chutney’ by the late chef Floyd Cardoz –victim of  the corona-virus epidemic. It brilliantly solves the problem of the straightforward, whole lemons made the traditional way, which loose their fruitiness as they take ages to ferment. 

 

But most importantly when they finally do ferment and their pith becomes soft and nearly translucent, they usually have such a strong, salty and bitter taste that their use as flavoring are extremely limited. Even few pieces added to rubs or marinades for meat or oily fish can overpower all other flavors and aromatics in a way that is not actually pleasant even for the most avid lemon lovers as myself; Costas really hates them.

 

 

So last year I had a revelation reading the recipe for ‘Preserve Lemon Chutney’ by the late chef Floyd Cardoz .

 

One of the victims of Covid 19, “Mr. Cardoz was the first chef born and raised in India to lead an influential New York City kitchen, at Tabla, which he and the restaurateur Danny Meyer opened in the Flatiron district of Manhattan in 1998. Soon after, Ruth Reichl of The New York Times gave Mr. Cardoz’s cooking a rapturous review,” as we read in his NYT Obituary.

 

His brilliant description of how to make fast and fruity fermented lemon wedges, in order to use them for his chutney, was really what I was looking for. I tested and played with his instructions –not the chutney, but just the preserved lemons— and here is what I now make and use and love!

 

 

“At the restaurant we preserve lemons all year round, and use them endlessly in salads, dishes with a north African feel, or puréed with crème fraîche, which we serve on roasted fish,” writes chef Cardoz.

 

 

I would add that these wonderful lemon pieces are complimenting my skordalia (garlic sauce), as well as potato salads, boiled greens (horta), steamed broccoli or cauliflower, and of course poached fish or chicken. I like to julienne the preserved lemon pieces and use in my salad dressings, and to flavor freshly cured olives, and all kinds of bean salads.

 

Fast Preserved Lemon Wedges

 

For 1 litre (quart) Jar (more…)

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