Try this easy cassata alla siciliana, a luscious dessert native to Sicily, using the most user-friendly recipe you will ever find!
Cassata Wasn’t Built in a Day
Sicilians excel at making stupendous pastries and sweets, especially the ones made with creamy, sweetened ricotta such as cassata and cannolis. The Sicilians learned well from their colonizers and conquerers. The Greeks brought bread-making. The Romans brought cheese. The Arabs gave them (lucky for us) a sweet tooth with their cane sugar and almond paste. The Sicilians added the baroque decorations. The word cassata derives from either the Roman word for cheese, caseus, or the Arabic word for large container, qas’at, because of the special pans that were used to mold the cakes.
By tradition, cassata is made of pieces of sponge cake, layered with sweetened ricotta and covered in a green-tinted almond paste and adorned with elaborate, fanciful marzipan decorations. A true-blue cassata siciliana is a work of art, a complicated affair that takes lots of time and that special pan.
You can make a version of cassata using fondant but I’m not a fan of fondant. If I’m ever served a piece of cake covered in fondant, I peel it off and leave it in a pastel pile on the side of the plate. This cassata recipe keeps the spirit of cassata alive but offers you some practical short-cuts that still produces a delicious, ricotta-filled cake. So here is a simple version of a complicated cake:
Start with a fresh store-bought pound cake. By all means make your own pound cake if you have the time and energy.
Turn the cake on its side and very carefully with a sharp, serrated knife slice the cake horizontally into a least four slices. If you can expertly get more than that without screwing up the slices altogether, more power to you.
Beat the ricotta with a hand mixer until it’s creamy, not runny–about 2-3 minutes. You can use a stand mixer but I find I have a little more control with short uses if I use my ancient hand-mixer.
Once the ricotta is creamy, add the cream, sugar and liqueur, a little at a time while still beating the ricotta. Then use a spatula to gently fold in the chocolate. You can buy semi-sweet chocolate by the bar and chop it up but I used mini chocolate chips.
Center the bottom layer of cake on a nice flat plate and spread the ricotta mixture over the slice. Repeat with the rest of the cake layers and ricotta, ending with a cake layer on top. Keep the sides and ends even as you work. Then gently press the loaf together to make it as compact as possible. Refrigerate the cassata for at least 2 hours until the ricotta is firm.
Now comes the messy part…working with melted chocolate. You can chop a semi-sweet chocolate bar if you want but I took the easy way out and used chocolate chips that conveniently come in a 12-ounce package. Melt the chocolate with the coffee in a heavy saucepan over very low heat. Stir the mixture constantly until all the chocolate has melted.
As soon as the last morsel has disappeared, slowly start adding the chunks of butter. You want to keep stirring so the movement helps melt the butter. At this point I switched from a wooden spoon to a wire whisk to get that butter melted. Continue until all the butter is melted or your tired arm falls off, whichever comes first. Then chill the frosting an hour or two until it reaches spreading consistency.
With an off-set spatula, spread the frosting evenly over the sides, ends and top of the cake. You can get as swirly as you want here with your decoration. I was rushing to get this cake ready for a family get-together later that day so I piped some of the extra chocolate frosting onto the top. I didn’t use any marzipan decorations as marzipan scares me and I won’t have it in my house. But I needed more decorations and didn’t have any almond slices around…which you can use. So, if you have kids you are sure to have sprinkles in the pantry. I decorated my modest cassata with colored sprinkles and placed some amaretti doodads around it. But feel free to go to town with your cassata decorations.
Once the cake is decorated, cover it loosely with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate it anywhere from 2-24 hours to let the flavors meld. This cassata is great to serve as a dessert after serving chicken involtini which you can find here. Enjoy.
Yield: Serves 8
Total Time: One hour plus refrigerated time
- one pound cake 9 x 3-inches in si
- 1 pound ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Strega or Gran Marnier
- 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or mini chocolate chips
- 12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips
- 3/4 cups strong black coffee or espresso
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" chunks, and kept chilled
- sprinkles and amaretti optional
With a serrated knife, cut a thin slice off the top and ends of the pound cake to level them out.
- Gently cut the cake horizontally into 4 layers
- In a large bowl, beat the ricotta with a mixer just until creamy.
- Add the cream, sugar and liqueur while still beating. Be sure not to let the mixture get too runny.
- With a spatula, fold in the chocolate and the candied fruit (if using).
- Center the bottom slab of the cake on a plate and spread it generously with the ricotta mixture.
- Repeat with the other layers, ending with the top slice of cake.
- Press down on the cassata slightly to compress it, then refrigerate it to firm up for at least 2 hours.
- Melt the chocolate with the coffee in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until the chocolate is completely melted.
- Stir in the butter, a few chunks at a time to keep the heat up, and beat until mixture is smooth.
- Chill the frosting for at least one hour until it thickens to spreading consistency.
- With an off-set spatula, spread the frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cassata, swirling it somewhat.
- Pipe 4 tablespoons of the frosting over the top of the cake, either with a pastry bag or sandwich bag with the corner snipped
- Scatter the sprinkles on the cake if using and refrigerate at least 24 hours; serve with amaretti if desired.