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
THE RICOTTA CREAM
5 gelatin sheets
200 ml (about 3/4 cup) heavy cream
1 kg (2 pounds) full fat ricotta, preferably sheep’s milk, drained in a cheese-cloth-lined sieve if watery.
300 g (1 ½ cups) sugar
About 1 ½ – 2 cups various diced candied fruit (see note 1), plus more whole or sliced candied fruit to decorate the cake
Orange or Lemon Olive Oil Cake or Sponge Cake (see note 2)
About 375 g (3 cups) powdered sugar, or as needed
About 1/3 cup lemon juice, or as needed
Strawberry or Apricot Jam, to taste
- Start with the ricotta cream: In a glass bowl crumble the gelatin and soak in the cream until soft –about 10-15 min. Warm for 30-45 seconds in the microwave, then stir vigorously to dilute the gelatin in the cream. Crumble the ricotta cheese and pulse in a blender or food processor together with the sugar and the cream/gelatin to obtain a cream –in Palermo bakers pass this mixture twice through a fine sieve to get a very smooth cream, but I don’t think it is necessary. Add the diced candied fruit and stir to mix.
- The cake base: Cut the cake into very thin slices. It is better to prepare the cake at least a day in advance and refrigerate it so that you can easily slice it.
- Assemble the cake: Line two 8-inch pans with parchment paper and cover the bottom with slices of cake (it is OK if the slices overlap a bit; do not leave empty spaces). For the sides use small rectangle pieces of cake, overlapping them slightly.
- Fill the cake: Sprinkle liberally the cake slices with liqueur and pour in half of the ricotta cream in each pan. After leveling it, cut off any cake slices that poke out, and cover the whole surface of the cream with slices of sponge cake. Sprinkle again liberally with liqueur, then cover with a disc of parchment paper, and finally with a cardboard disk.
- Transfer to the fridge pressing the cakes lightly with your palm so that the cream settle all over the pans. Let cool and firm for 4 hours at least, preferably overnight.
- Prepare the jam coating: Dilute about 1 ½ cup apricot or strawberry jam with 2-3 tablespoons of water and stir over very low heat, or in the microwave.
- Prepare the glaze: Sift the powdered sugar in a bowl and, while stirring, slowly add lemon juice. Be careful to pour the juice very slowly to get the right consistency — test it by dripping the glaze from a spoon.
- Adding jam and glaze: Take the cassata out of the fridge and flip it onto a nice flat plate, leaving it on the cardboard disc. Gently remove the paper and brush the entire surface of the cakes with the jam glaze, then pour frosting in the middle and spread it fast with a spatula, until you cover the whole cassata and have nice drippings on the sides. This frosting creates a somewhat translucent, not totally opaque layer over the cake.
- Decorate the cassata: Have various slices or dices of multicolored candied fruit ready, because you need to place them on the glaze before it starts to dry and harden, so that they will stick on the surface. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, before cutting to serve.
1. I drain various spoon sweets (fruit preserves), then coarsely chop them in the blender together with candied orange, fragrant citron (they LOVE it in Sicily), and if you like some dried cherries or cranberries, also dried apricots, plums etc.
Cassta prepared in the old, renowned Pasticeria Caffe Spinnato, in Palermo
2. In Palermo bakers make the cassata in a pan with sloping sides and use alternate pieces of cake and marzipan, green or red, so that you can see the different colored slices through the somewhat thin glaze. I had no marzipan and I doubt if I used any, even if I could find it.