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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Homemade Fresh Myzithra (ricotta-like cheese)

Here on Kea we make it with the milk our neighbors often give us. It is probably the first and simplest cheese ever made, and today the various commercial myzithra we get sometimes come from Crete –where is called anthotyro. Cheese makers make it now by adding fresh milk to the whey left from the first, usually the hard cheese they make, adding rennet to the milk.

If you can get leftover whey add fresh milk and do not add lemon or vinegar, just boil the whey with the milk and cream. Needless to say that if you make it with the usual cow’s pasteurized milk you get from the supermarket, combine it with goat’s milk, if you can, and add some cream –more or less, depending on how creamy and lush you want your myzithra.

Serve this delicious fresh cheese plain, as appetizer, sprinkling it with chopped herbs, shallots and garlic, or as dessert, drizzled with honey or jam. You can also use it to make savory myzithropita (cheese tart), or combine it with some feta cheese to make a Greek version of the cheese cake.

 

Makes about 1 pound soft cheese (you may double the quantities for more)

 

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Cheesecake with Feta and Myzithra (Ricotta)

This is my interpretation of the dessert made popular by Americans in  recent years. But fresh cheese desserts abound since ancient times all around the Mediterranean. Ricotta-like cheese, mixed with honey, dried fruit, and nuts was used for some of the first sweets our ancestors enjoyed on special occasions. Apicious the Roman cook and author, describes such a sweet in his book written the 1st century AD.

Both in Greece, in southern Italy, and in Sicily, ricotta-based sweets are very popular, especially around Easter time. Unfortunately, the current American version that uses packaged ‘cream cheese’ and has been adopted by bakers all around the world, is far from the delicious, if less refined-looking traditional cheesecakes from which I was inspired to make this one.

(more…)

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