Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sicilian Cassata Cake

serves 8-10


Why do I often seem to have my first encounter with amazing international dishes thousands of miles from their point of origin? I was wondering this last night as I prepared my first, long-awaited Sicilian Cassata Cake. The one and only time that I tasted this hallowed delicacy was when I was living in New Orleans of all places. Imagine sponge cake soaked in liqueur, topped with swaths of thick ricotta cream which is studded with candied fruits and bits of dark chocolate, the whole thing slumbering under a sweet-sticky blanket of marzipan. Just imagine! The combination of flavors and textures so enchanted me that I never forgot the name, and waited all these years for an excuse to try it—the excuse being that cooking club is about to happen and this month’s theme is Italian cuisine. Yes, yes, I could have made it any old time, but sometimes I need a little motivation to undertake a project as large as this one; the whole thing probably took upwards of 3 hours—it goes without saying that it was worth the effort. At least the ladies at cooking club tonight confirmed that it was worth my effort to them. Totally delicious. I think next time I’ll make the cream layers a little thicker.

For the marzipan

9 ounces (250 g) blanched peeled almonds

3 drops of bitter almond extract

2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2-4 Tbs water

a few drops of green food coloring

cornstarch or potato starch for dusting the counter

For the sponge cake

3/4 C granulated sugar

1 1/4 C flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 eggs, room temperature, separated

minced zest of 1 lemon

A pinch of salt

For the apricot glaze

1/2 C apricot preserves

1/4 C water

1 tsp rum extract

For the ricotta filling

1 1/8 pounds (500 g) ricotta

1/2 C powdered sugar 

1 tsp vanilla

2 oz. chopped candied fruit (I used maraschino cherries, but next time will try a mixture of candied lemon peel and cherries)

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated (be careful, I took a chunk out of my thumb)

First stop: marzipan, because it needs to chill in the refrigerator before you roll it out. Place the almonds in your food processor and process until reduced to a fine powder. Blend briefly with the powdered sugar, then add the almond extract, food coloring, and water, little by little, until the mixture just comes together (the original recipe said 1/4 C, which I just poured in trustingly, and it proved to be a little too much). Turn the almond paste out onto a cornstarch dusted counter (put more cornstarch on your hands, cause this stuff is STI-CKY) and knead a few times until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until you’re ready to roll it out.

Next: start making the sponge cake. Put the yolks in the food processor with the sugar and blend 4-5 minutes until pale in color and fluffy. Sift in the flour and baking soda, then add the minced lemon zest, and pulse until combined.


In a separate (clean, grease-free, need it be said?) bowl start whipping the egg whites on low speed. When they get frothy, add the pinch of salt and turn the  mixer to high. Beat those puppies until they form stiff peaks (this should take about 5-6 minutes):


Scoop about a cup of the egg whites into the yolk mixture and pulse until combined; this will lighten the yolk mixture and make it easier to combine the two. Transfer the yolk mixture to the bowl with the whites and begin gently, gently folding the batter over with a rubber spatula until it all comes together into a lake of frothy elegance.


Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9x9 in square pan and bake at 360 degrees for 30 minutes. It will be majorly puffed when it comes out of the oven (and maybe a little lopsided, but don’t worry, it will sink and even out):


While the cake is cooling you can prepare the glaze: whisk together the apricot preserves, water and rum extract. Oh, that was easy.

And now you can get to the business of rolling out your marzipan. Dust your counter, hands and rolling pin with mad amounts of cornstarch. Here’s my station all ready to go:


Line a 9-in loaf pan with plastic wrap. Roll the marzipan into a large rectangle. I’m sorry, I didn’t measure it, I just eye-balled it. For a 9-in pan though, it seems like it would need to be about 16 x 12 or so.


Run a spatula under the marzipan to loosen it, then transfer it gently to the loaf pan. This is heavier and not as cohesive as fondant, so you have to make sure that you get the sheet to sink down into the pan as quickly as possibly, lest the sides fall off.


Now trim the edges and patch up any holes:


Cover this with a damp kitchen towel while you move to the next step, making the ricotta filling: place the ricotta, powdered sugar and vanilla in the food processor and process until smooth (I don’t joke around about how much a I use my food processor). Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and stir in the grated dark chocolate and candied fruit.

Here’s the grated chocolate, which I thought was so lovely:


And here’s the mix all together:


Once the cake is cooled, transfer it to a large cutting board; slice it in half to form two rectangles:


then slice each of those in half length-wise so you have 4 2-in high rectangles. Brush each with the apricot glaze:


Now the stacking and smashing must begin. Scoop about 3/4 C of the filling into the loaf pan and smear it along the bottom and sides as best you can. This can sometimes cause the marzipan walls to collapse, but just do your best. Next place one of the cake layers inside the pan. Cover it with ricotta filling, top with another cake layer, cover with ricotta filling, etc., you get the idea. End with a layer of cake. Now, you really have to press those suckers in there. The pan will probably seem full after just two cake rectangles, but you must persevere. When you’ve got everything it, place another sheet of plastic wrap over the top, then weigh the cake down with something really heavy, like cookbooks, or a brick. Chill it in the fridge like this for at least 24 hours before serving:


Once you unmold it you can undertake a variety of different decorations. Freshly unmolded, it looked like this:


I didn’t have time to do much in the decoration dept. I though I would do a little powdered sugar stencil, but I obviously needed to put in a little more time for this to turn out. Here’s my very subtle result:


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