The Cassata Siciliana is the most iconic Sicilian cake, an elaborate dessert made with sponge cake (called “pan di Spagna” in Italian) moistened with liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, covered with marzipan and decorated with candied fruits and royal icing.
The result is a spectacular and delicious dessert that is traditionally eaten in Sicily in winter or spring (around Easter time) as this is the best time of the year to find fresh ricotta. However the cake is so popular amongst local and tourists that nowadays you can find the Cassata all year round in restaurants and cake shops of this Italian region.
My dad grew up in Palermo, Sicily, so the Cassata cake is part of my family culinary traditions and I have grown up to love it.
Because of its complexity though, Cassata is not a dessert that many people are ambitious enough to make at home, including me. I can count on one hand the times my mum made it at home, but I was adamant to recreate the cake with her last time she came to visit me in London.
It requires a few hours of work and a lot of patience to follow the recipe and decorate the cake. The result however is worth the effort! Obviously it’s impossible to beat the quality of Sicilian pastry chefs with years of experience, but since not everyone can fly to Sicily to try the original, here’s a recipe for you to recreate this Baroque cake at home (and impress your family and friends)!
For the sponge
- 4 eggs, separated
- 200gr caster sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- zest of 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp boiling water
- 1 pinch of salt
- 150gr plain flour
- 50gr potato starch
- 1 tsp baking powder
For the filling
- 700g fresh ricotta cheese
- 400g caster sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla essence
- 100g candied orange peel
- 100g dark chocolate chips
- 300ml water
- 200g sugar
- ½ glass marsala (or your sweet liquor of choice)
- 250g marzipan / almond paste
For the sugar glaze
- 300gr icing sugar
- 180ml water
For the decoration
- Candied fruit (orange peel, pumpkin peel, cherries, etc.) to decorate
Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease and flour one 23cm round spring form cake pan and line the base with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with sugar, lemon zest and salt using an electric hand whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the boiling water. Gently add the sifted flour and starch.
Whip the egg whites with the baking powder until stiff peaks form. Immediately fold them into the cake batter using a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Level the top with the back of a spoon and bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes. Don’t open the oven until this time has passed, then check the baking with a toothpick.
Allow the cake to stand in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
To make the filling sift the ricotta cheese. Stir in the sugar and vanilla essence (if the mixture is too hard to stir, you can add a little bit of milk). Add the candied orange peel, chopped to tiny bits, and the chocolate chips. Mix the ingredients until well combined.
Melt the sugar in 300ml of hot water. Wait for it to cool down before adding the marsala. Set aside.
Take the same cake pan you have used to bake the cake and wrap the inside with a layer cling film. Cut the sponge cake vertically into slices one centimetre thick and carefully place them in the dish, covering the bottom as well as the sides. Spritz the sugar water over the sponge layer.
You can make the cake with two or three layers, depending on how much sponge cake you have got. I used these measurements to make a three-layer cake.
Pour one third of the ricotta mixture over the sponge. Cover with another layer of cake slices. Spritz with the sugar water. Top up with the third and last layer of sponge cake. Place in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
The next day, remove the cake from the fridge and carefully remove from the cake tin. Remove the cling film and place the cake on a cake stand.
Soften the marzipan with your hands then roll it to a 5mm layer using a rolling pin. Use the cake pan to cut out a round layer of marzipan and place it over the top of the cake. Cut out a long strip or small strips of marzipan to cover the sides.
To make the glaze, bring cold water and icing sugar to a boil. Turn the heat to low and stir constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved (3-5 minutes). The glaze should be thick but still runny. Immediately pour it over the cake and quickly spread it over the top and sides using a wet spatula.
Notes: there are different ways of preparing the Cassata and by no means this is the perfect or most authentic recipe, but it worked for us and the result was a delicious cake that my family loved. With regards to the assembling of the cake, the most common way is to add a layer of marzipan directly into the cake stamp before topping it up with the sponge and filling and then placing it in the fridge. We used a different technique of preparing the cake first and then adding a layer of marzipan over the whole cake (top and sides) at the end, just before the decoration.