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…)