Sicilian cassata: tradition is served

Sicilian cassata: tradition is served

cassata

This is the recipe that is linked more closely to Sicilian tradition than any other typical pastry. The main ingredients are sheep’s milk ricotta with added sugar, sponge cake, almond paste and candied fruits, and the name of the Sicilian cassata derives from the influences of the Arab culture (indeed, from the Arabic word ‘qas’at’, or basin).

The cassata was officially recognised and included in the list of traditional Italian agricultural food products (P.A.T) of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies. Over the years, the basic recipe as evoved as people made changes to both the aesthetic aspects of this sweet and those linked to it flavour. There are some cassate that are made by adding pistachios, pine nuts, chocolate, cinnamon, maraschino liqueur or orange blossom water and even the glazing can be ‘minimal’ in terms of colour for those who tend to shun foods that are too sweet or ‘maximum’ (or standard) for true enthusiasts.

For the first time, this delicious sweet was spoken about in Sicily, in Palermo, since the time of Arab rule. By introducing sugar cane, lemon, citron, bitter orange, mandarins, and almonds to the city, the Arabs made a contribution to the birth of this product with its unique flavour. When during the Norman invasion in Palermo, at the convent of the Martorana, the pasta reale was created (or Martorana), made of almond flour and sugar, people began making the cassata with this almond paste mixture instead of with shortbread pastry, which had been used up until that time.

cassataWIth the arrival of the Spanish, sponge cake (known as pan di Spagna in Italian) was added along with chocolate, while candied fruit enriched this special cake with the onset of the Baroque period. An official document of the first Synod of Sicilian bishops in Mazara del Vallo in 1575 elected the cassata as the sweet that ‘couldn’t be given up during the holidays. It is not by chance that at Christmas and Easter there is no respectable table that does not have at least one or two cassata to be served to the guests, in a true riot of colours and flavours.

It became so famous that it was included in the Sicilian Latin dictionary of Angelo Senisio, where at the word ‘Cassata’ there is the explanation ‘food made of bread and cheese’. There are two versions: the classic raw version with elements prepared previously, like the sponge cake, to those baked in the oven, which are less commonly found. There is also a ‘summer’ version that Palermo’s natives call ‘Cassaruolata’, because it is prepared in a dome-shaped pot. The ingredients in this sweet are cream ice cream, whipped cream, pieces of sponge cake, candied fruit and chocolate chips.

When it comes to the preparation, the most complicated phases is the lining of the casserole with the slices of sponge cake and green almond page in equal parts. Then fill the bowl with ricotta, add the chocolate and a part of the candied fruit, and close it all up with a disk o sponge cake dampened with liquor. Finish with a glaze that also give the cake an appetizing shine. Once the glaze has solidified, it can be decorated with the candied fruit. Over recent years, the so-called ‘cassatine‘ have been incredibly successful among greedy and refined palates alike, made with a little disk of almond paste filled with ricotta cream and coated with a sugar glaze.

Daniela Spalanca