Sicilian-inspired 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.  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 rustic treats with the glorious  Sicilian cassata which is the cheese-cake par excellence!

Unfortunately, the numerous current American versions of cheesecake use packaged ‘cream cheese’ and it has been adopted by bakers all around the world and is far from the delicious, often less refined-looking, traditional cheesecakes of the Mediterranean. See also my old recipe for myzithra (ricotta) and feta cheesecake.

My recipe of a simpler and less refined cassata is adapted from the one I found in the Discover Italy website of Alitalia. 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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Orange, Lemon or Tangerine Olive Oil Cake

This is my basic cake, the one I soak in syrup and I often complement with jam or marmalade as well as with seasonal fruit to create a more elaborate dessert. Costas, who loves desserts, likes to freeze the cake and he cuts thin slices to eat after lunch.

 

 

Instead of grating the fruit to get the fine zest, then juicing it, I pulse whole pieces in the blender — peel and flesh of the lemon, orange or tangerine—to add aroma and tang to the cake.

I bake it either in loaf pans, or in a square, round or rectangular pan. When cooled a bit, I often slice it horizontally and while still warm I douse with the basic lemon syrup I describe in the Yogurt Cake. I sometimes add a layer of jam or marmalade in the middle, and/or a seasonal fruit and nut topping: Confit orange slices, briefly cooked strawberries, an/or almonds or pistachios.

 

 

Traditionally all Greek cakes –called glyka tapsiou (cakes baked in a pan)– the most well known being walnut or almond cake, are served soaked in syrup.  I always splash liberally the cake with my Lemon Liqueur;  you can use Limoncello or any good citrus-flavored liqueur.

 

Makes 2 loaf pans (8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches, or 20 X 10 X 6 cm)

or a 9-inch round or square cake (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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“Mallorcas” Sweet Tsoureki Buns

Adapted from the Puerto Rican ‘Mallorcas, the slightly sweet breakfast buns I found in the festive pages of SAVEUR magazine. See also how I use this brioche-like dough to make a Strawberry Cake and a Chocolate & Almond Loaf.

 

“Fluffy, eggy, buttery, sweet, coiled like a snail’s shell, and generously dusted with powdered sugar, the pan de Mallorca is named for its land of origin, in Spain. They are delicious on their own, or split and turned into sweet-and-savory ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches,” the magazine’s introduction explained.

 

The dough is very similar to challah and the traditional Greek tsoureki,  –the sweet brioche-like festive breads we bake for Christmas and Easter. In my version I substituted light olive oil for the butter, and used whole eggs, instead of just egg yolks, then I decided to brush the dough rectangle with my Seville orange marmalade before rolling and cutting the buns. I also placed them one roll next to the other, like cinnamon rolls, and I wish I had managed to make all the buns roughly the same size…

(Photo from Saveur magazine

 

Makes 6 large buns            (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

7-bacala-stuffing-ingr-dolma-roll-small

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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