I haven’t got a very sweet tooth. But I still think the cake, Cassata Siciliana, is one of the most wondrous foods on the planet! In this article, I’m not only telling you what it is, but also sharing with you the exclusive Cassata Siciliana recipe given to me by the Villa Ducale boutique hotel in Taormina, Sicily.
– What is Cassata Siciliana?
– Cassata Siciliana: a Sicilian food tradition
– Eating all the Cassatas on my recent trip to Sicily
– Cassata Siciliana by Villa Ducale/Villa Carlotta
– RECIPE for Cassata Siciliana by the Villa Ducale boutique hotel, Taormina, Sicily
What is Cassata Siciliana?
As it name implies, Cassata Siciliana originates in Sicily, and you can find it all over the island. I’ve also found it – across the other side of the Tyrrhenian Sea – in Naples.
I’ve seen many different takes on Cassata Siciliana. The three basic things that they’ve all had in common are:
- sponge cake
- sweet ricotta cheese filling
- being coloured pistachio green!
Beyond that, there are some variations that different pasticcieri (pastry chefs) mix around in their individual Cassata recipes. And some of the variations depend on which region in Sicily they’re operating in.
So they may dot chocolate chips throughout the ricotta filling. And/or they may cover their Cassatas in icing/frosting. Some include a green-coloured marzipan component. Many will also jewel their Cassatas with a few brightly coloured crystallised fruits. And Cassatas like the one from Pasticceria Irrera in the picture below, are very ornately and traditionally piped and decorated.
My favourite Cassatas always include the holy trinity of the icing, marzipan and fruits!
Looking at all these different examples, clearly – whichever version you are presented with – a proper Cassata Siciliana is not for a day when you’re sticking strictly to a low-carb regime! That said, I do intend to have a crack at coming up with my own low-carb version in the near future, based on the Villa Ducale recipe below. A main component – ricotta cheese – is already low-carb. And sponge cake is easy to make low-carb. So watch this space…
Cassata Siciliana: a Sicilian food tradition
Cassata Siciliana is thought to have been invented in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, under Muslim rule in the 10th century.
I particularly enjoyed what food writer, Matthew Fort, says about Cassata Siciliana in his book Sweet Honey, Bitter lemons: Travels in Sicily. He reports a debate between Italians, including a Sicilian grandmother – which coincidentally occurred outside Pasticerria Irrera which I visited (see photo above), although I read Matthew Fort afterwards.
Apparently they had a discussion, for more than 20 minutes, full of ‘matter of fact passion’ about the precise texture needed for the ricotta cheese in Cassata Siciliana, and the proper relationship of ricotta to sponge. Some of the debate centred around the possibility of Cassata which is not fresh that day causing the sponge to absorb some liquid from the ricotta, making both the ricotta too hard, and the sponge seem too watery.
What Matthew Fort found most interesting – and so do I – was not whether the points being made were correct or not. It was more the fact that the minutiae of cake were regarded as worthy of such serious debate by intelligent Italians.
As he points out, such intense passion, confidence and knowledge protects a food culture and keeps it alive. It is to be applauded. And sadly it seems unlikely that the British, say, would do similar for a Dundee cake.
Eating all the Cassatas on my recent trip to Sicily
Cassata Siciliana is nearly impossible to find in the UK. I’ve scoured central London, with no positive results. I’ve got just one lead – which so far it’s been too inconvenient to follow up – in Enfield, north London.
A couple of years ago I asked a Sicilian restaurant local to me in Surrey if they would make me a Cassata Siciliana for a special occasion. It was nice. But to be honest, it wasn’t great. I know that part of the reason for this is that the quality of ricotta cheese available in the UK just can’t touch that available in Sicily.
All this means that, when I was in Sicily a few weeks ago, getting myself on the outside of some authentic Cassata Siciliana as soon as possible was very high on my mind! So I was delighted to snaffle up an individual (relative of the) Cassata, and a coffee, immediately on hitting the arrivals lounge at Catania Airport!
This one – actually technically called a Cassatella di Sant’Agata – was iced, had just a single cherry on top, and an interesting green syrup that served both to make it sweeter, and seemingly to stick the icing/frosting to the cake.
On my Sicily trip, I also drove across the island and stayed in Trapani in the north west. And I visited some other towns, like hugely historically important Siracusa (Syracuse) – which in a flood of nostalgia, brought back all my university ancient history studies. And I went to Marsala – where marsala fortified wine comes from. Of course, some Cassata sampling went on in some of these places too!
I particularly liked Pasticceria Artale in Siracusa. That was for many reasons. But not least because, on the day that I visited, it was offering not one, but two, different types of Cassata Siciliana.
Incidentally, one thing I adore about Sicilian pasticcierie generally is the wonderful coloured paper they wrap your goods in! As you leave the shop, and skip down the street with the package hanging from your finger by its tied ribbon, it takes the treat of buying an exquisitely exotic cake to even greater heights!
Cassata Siciliana by Villa Ducale/Villa Carlotta
So finally, let me tell you about the Cassata Siciliana for which I’ve included the recipe below. And just a little about the town it comes from.
After arriving at Catania airport, I drove first to Taormina, on Sicily’s east coast, where I was to stay for five days. It’s a highly important town historically, with an ancient Greek amphitheatre (although what remains is Roman rebuilds). And it has stunning and dramatic views of nearby Mount Etna.
I’m told that Taormina feels too full of tourists at peak holiday season. But when I went, around Easter, it was the start of the season, and it felt chilled, and even a little empty. I was also staying a walk/taxi ride away from the main town, in the boutique hotel Villa Ducale, situated on the high, steep hill – almost a mountain really – overlooking it.
It was here at the Villa Ducale that I had my second cassata of my trip. No icing/frosting or marzipan with this one. But there were chocolate chips in the sweet ricotta, and the relatively novel addition of crushed pistachio nuts – grown locally in the village of Bronté on Mount Etna – pressed into the side of the cake. So the pistachio green colour in this Cassata is from actual pistachios, rather than from green food dye.
Because I said how much I love Cassata, Villa Ducale very kindly offered to give me their recipe. It’s actually a recipe devised by chef David Costa, in collaboration with pasticciere (pastry chef) Salvatore, at the Villa Ducale’s sister hotel – Villa Carlotta – in the heart of Taormina. Getting the recipe written down in English for me apparently involved some effort by Villa Ducale to arrange phone calls between David and Salvatore at the different hotels – so it was very kind of them indeed.
I’ve mostly reproduced the recipe below exactly as given to me. But here and there I’ve used a bit of interpretive licence where I thought it made the recipe more understandable for a native English-speaking audience. And I’ve added in US cup conversions.
If you make it, I hope you enjoy it. I have tried this cake as it is served in Taormina. But I haven’t yet tried making this recipe at home. Please do let me know if you do, and how it turns out.
Recipe for Cassata Siciliana by the Villa Ducale boutique hotel, Taormina, Sicily
Ingredients for a 24 cm square Pan di Spagna (sponge cake)
- 5 medium eggs at room temperature
- 1 vanilla pod
- 150g/¾ cup caster sugar
- 200g/1 1/3 cups ’00’ flour
- 100g/½ cup butter, melted
- Pinch of salt
Ingredients for the Ricotta Cream Stuffing
- 100g/½ cup dark chocolate drops/chips
- 500g/2 cups ricotta (sheep’s) cheese
- 150g/¾ cup icing/confectioners’ sugar
Ingredients for Bagna (literally ‘bath’ – to wet the sponge cake)
- 500ml/2 cups water
- 200g/1 cup icing/confectioners’ sugar
- Few drops of rum (optional, I guess, if you’d prefer not to use it, or don’t have any in).
- For best flavour, make the cake and the ricotta stuffing one day in advance of when you want to serve the cake.
- Make the sponge cake: Preheat your oven to 160ºC/Fan 140ºC/320ºF/Gas 3. Butter a 24cm square tin. (Or you can make a traditional round cake if you prefer).
- Break the eggs in a bowl. Then cut the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrape the inner seeds into the eggs.
- Add the pinch of salt. Whisk for about 15-20 minutes at medium speed in a food processor (or with a hand mixer), while adding the sugar little-by-little.
- Stop whisking as soon as the egg mixture has become light and frothy.
- In a separate bowl, mix a small amount of the egg and sugar mixture with the melted butter to loosen it. Then gently mix the rest of the egg mixture into the melted butter.
- Using a fine-grained sieve, sift the flour into the bowl of egg and butter mixture.
- Fold the flour gently into the egg mixture, so as to ensure air is retained in the mixture, and at the same time that all is mixed perfectly.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Level the surface with a spatula. (Don’t slam the bowl on the work-surface to level it, as that will cause air to be lost from the cake!).
- Bake the sponge cake on the lower shelf of the preheated oven for around 50 minutes. Avoid opening the oven during baking. Wait at least 40 minutes before checking if the cake is cooked – by inserting a toothpick into the middle, and seeing if it comes out clean.
- Leave the cake to cool in the tin. Then turn it out of the tin and let it cool completely on a wire rack before assembling the cake. If you have made the cake the day before as recommended, then when it’s cold, put it in an airtight container overnight.
- Make the ricotta cream stuffing: drain the ricotta cheese in a sieve for around an hour.
- Mix the strained ricotta with the sugar. Cover with cling film, and place in the fridge, preferably overnight.
- The next day, pass the ricotta twice through a sieve, to obtain a smooth and soft cream.
- At this point, add the chocolate chips to the cream stuffing. Then chill the mixture in the fridge in a bowl covered with clingfilm until ready to use.
- Assemble the Cassata Siciliana: Cut the sponge cake in two horizontally.
- Mix the bagna ingredients together until the sugar us dissolved. Sprinkle your cake plate very well with icing/confectioners’ sugar. Put one layer of cake on the plate. Then wet it with the bagna liquid until it is well-moistened.
- Put half of the ricotta mixture, in a layer, on top of the bagna. Add the second layer of sponge cake, and soak with bagna as before. Then top with the rest of the ricotta cheese.
- Decorate your Cassata: although Villa Ducale didn’t include it in the typed-out recipe they gave me, you’ll see clearly from the photo below that they’ve added a few other ingredients to finish their Cassata. They’ve piped melted chocolate on top; added some crystallised fruits; and pressed some crushed pistachio nuts into the side of the cake (I assume with the aid of some more sweet ricotta mixture). You could finish your cake as they have. Or why not have a play around, to come up with your own unique finished Cassata Siciliana, using all the photos here as inspiration?!