Making Cassata alla Siciliana, in Sicily

Cassata alla Siciliana

I didn’t want to cause a ruckus by sharing pictures of such a spectacular cake without a recipe. But on the other hand, it’s quite a chore to make a Cassata alla Siciliana and although Fabrizia Lanza sailed through it without breaking a sweat, between using the right pan, mixing up your own almond paste, finding ricotta as good as the ricotta in Sicily, and getting the candied fruit (including the squash, which is the translucent white brick on the platter), it might be classified as one of those things that’s better left to the Sicilians.

(Nevertheless, if you want to give it a go, Saveur printed her Cassata recipe, and it’s also in her book, Coming Home to Sicily. I linked to additional recipes at the end of the post.)

Cassata alla Siciliana

According to Italian food specialist Clifford A. Wright, the word Cassata is derived from the Arabic word quas’at, or qas’at, which refers to a wide bowl. There is actually a special pan to make the cake; it’s a mold with sloped sides and a groove around the bottom so that when Cassata mold is lined with strips of almond paste, and overturned, there’s a rim to create a neat guard against the icing from running down the sides.

Cassata alla Siciliana

I found out what the pan was for when I was making some pine nut praline for an ice cream I was going to churn up for her, made by caramelizing 1 part sugar then stirring in 1 part lightly toasted pine nuts, which get spread on a flat, greased surface, and left to cool. In my haste to find a flat pan in an unfamiliar kitchen, I grabbed one Fabrizia’s nice Cassata pans, as I was eyeing its flat, wide surface, perfect for spreading the praline.

Cassata alla Siciliana

I wasn’t able to find where, globally, you can get one online. But I did find some dynamite metal popsicle molds during my search.

Cassata alla Siciliana

Speaking of kitchen tools, I was wowed by this amazing, single-purpose Italian tool. When I asked Fabrizia where she got it, she replied, “In America.”

Cassata alla Siciliana

So somehow, people in the U.S. are able to roll the almond paste to fit snugly into the pan, but not actually find the right pan.

Cassata alla Siciliana

The first thing Fabrizia did was to make her own almond paste using finely ground almonds. Because I am a crunchy-granola California type, I asked if you could make the cake without the green food coloring.

Fabrizia laughed, but being Sicilian, she explained that Cassata is a cake for fun, festive occasions, and the vibrant green is part of the riot of colors that make the cake what it is meant to be. Although, perhaps bowing to overseas sensibilities, her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza said in one of her books that if you leave the green coloring out, you should pour the icing over the entire cake so that it hides the almond paste.

Cassata alla Siciliana

After cutting spongecake into strips to make a top layer for the cake, she whipped up a seriously good ricotta cream with the fresh sheeps’ milk ricotta we’d watched being made just the day before. Since she had a little extra, she tossed the bowl toward me with a spoon, and I dug right in.

Ladies and gentlemen, or signore e signori, no matter how far you are, if you are not booking a ticket to Sicily to taste sweetened sheeps’ milk ricotta cream, may the rest of your life be filled with neutral-colored almond paste. (ie: No fun at all.)

Cassata alla Siciliana

Because she knows that I love bergamots as much as she does, she doused the spongecake with homemade bergamot syrup, which gave me the idea to return in the winter, when the bergamot and citron trees are bearing fruit, and do some serious candying and syrup-making with her. Although I felt kind of bad because when I tasted the bitter-citrus syrup, I initially winced, comparing it to medicine. But then again, a lot of medicine tastes good – but perhaps not in Sicily. (As a kid, I OD’d on way too many orange-flavored aspirin for children…which may explain a number of things happening in my brain as an adult.)

Cassata alla Siciliana

Finally it was time to finish the cake. A batch of icing was quickly mixed up with powdered sugar and a dash of lemon juice, then poured over the top.

Cassata alla Siciliana

The final flourish was decorating the cake with candied fruits. With a mandoline slicer, Fabrizia shaved off long strips of the candied squash, bending them into teardrop shapes, then arranging them around the top of the cake.

Cassata alla Siciliana

Glazed cherries, candied fig halves, green and yellow candied pears filled in the blanks, and an entire candied orange was placed squarely in the center, to finish it off, and serve.



Related Recipes and Links

Making Glazed Fruit

Candied Squash (Laylita’s Recipes)

Candied Figs (Mama’s Taverna)

Candied Kumquats or Mandarinquats (Chez Pim)

Homemade Ricotta Cheese (Simply Recipes)

Cassata (Saveur)

Cassata siciliana (Food Lover’s Odyssey)

Cassata Siciliana (Manu’s Menu)

Cassata Siciliana (Food 52)

Cassata: The Sicilian Cake (Background information and history, by Clifford A. Wright)

51 comments

  • Gorgeous! I’ll agree though, I’ll probably won’t make it myself. I know what you mean about the green color. I’m on the fence with that one… It does make the white icing pop, and it does look beautiful, but it somewhat reminds me of spinach-tortillas. How did it taste? I’m assuming that since you took the time to blog about it, it must have been really, really good!

  • Very, very beautiful but I truly would leave this best to the Sicilians to make…

  • I made on of those this morning, before work…but it didn’t look nearly as good as the one you’ve photographed.

  • Should have read “one”…not “on”…

    I should have spent less time in baking class and more in my English class.

    …nah…

  • The roller looks like one used to roll out fondant or gumpaste for cake decorating…

    Your recent posts make me want to go to Sicily…

  • When I see posts like this I think I want your life David.

  • These Sicily posts make me wish I had more holiday days this year. There’s just so much excitement in your photos!! One day I will make it over there!

  • Wow – it really is a spectacular festive cake! Love the green and other coloured candied goodies on top. The strips of candied squash sure look pretty too. Much love goes into making this cake. yum.

  • Oh my gosh! Those first two pictures are SO beautiful. This cake is simply too pretty to eat. I have never heard of candied squash. What’s the flavor like? And what sort of squash was used?

  • Seriously guys, leave it to the Sicilians and keep the mystery locked up! This is a cake so lush and so perfumed it’s best enjoyed ” sur place”

  • I am looking for a cassata pan too and would love know when you find a supplier to U.S. Absolutlely a beautiful article!

  • Caroline: I agree. It’s one of those things that they just make (and eat) in Sicily, with the right cheese and the other ingredients, and it’s out of context elsewhere. It was really fun to watch her make it!

    Betty: I couldn’t find one to link to that was available in the U.S., so if anyone knows where to get one, they can leave the link here for you.

    Angel: It’s quite good, but very rich. I took a picture but by dessert time, it was too dark and it didn’t come out at all.

    ClaireD: It’s called zuccata (or cucuzzata), and I think it’s pretty specific to Sicily.

    • I remember lugging wine ( in the days you could take liquids on the plane) from Andalusia back to London, it was Manna there, and tasting it back in London it lost all of its taste. Some food/ drink simply cannot be the same elsewhere,

  • The tool looks exactly like the wallpapering tool used to roll the seams. Repurpose perhaps? Made entirely of wood.

  • Sounds like a bit of a process but can only imagine how wonderful this tasted. So different from your standard American cake flavors. Don’t think I have the proper ingredients/tools/mad skillz to make this but would definitely buy one somewhere if I saw it. Must start looking into Sicilian bakeries nearby…

  • David, this is one post I am glad that it does not appeal to me…. I have been suffering simply too much Sicily envy over those past days and reading about too many people going off to Sicily just because they are under the same David-spell as I am… I never liked Cassata and could read and enjoy this post just smiling and thinking ‘Who would go through all that trouble’…. And then I hit the bit about Fabrizia telling you that being Sicilian, Cassata is a cake for fun, festive occasions, and the vibrant green is part of the riot of colors that make it what it is meant to be and I laughed out saying Heureka (in Swiss German) because this one sentence explains a lot of why I dislike this specialty; it’s the ‘garish’ colours (of – of course mass produced – and probably artificially coloured) …. So, yours really must have been the REAL Cassata. Good on you!
    Thank you for this refreshing post. And I promise solemnly that if I ever get to Sicily, I shall try the real thing! :)

  • That looks incredible! Don’t know that I would ever attempt it myself but it’s pretty neat to know that such a thing even exists.

  • I’m with Sandtrack. I have a roller exactly like that for flattening wallpaper seams.

    http://www.thepaintstore.com/Hyde_Tools_1_1_4_Oval_Hardwood_Roller_p/30160.htm?1=1&CartID=0

  • On my recent trip to Sicily, I would have cassata at lunch, walk up the mountain to our home, burn off some calories and have another piece after dinner. It’s just one of those things for me.

  • I have an angled dough roller that I got from Williams Sonoma – does the same thing as the wallpaper seam tool does in the photo. Great tool for pushing dough up the sides of pans.

    It’s also available at Amazon, made by Kaiser:

    http://www.amazon.com/Kaiser-Bakeware-Select-Angled-Roller/dp/B007EIAUAG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403542025&sr=8-1&keywords=kaiser+dough+roller

  • ClaireD — try a Mexican grocery store, if one is in your area, for candied squash and other candied fruits. I have never seen candied squash that is clear and uncolored in Mexico like it is pictured in David’s photo, but the candied Mexican squash, figs, pears, limes, guanabana (soursop), cactus fruit, guava, pineapple, and more are a rainbow of bright colors.
    Mexico also has very good ricotta cheese, called riqueson (ree-kay-SOHN). It, too, is available at Mexican grocery stores.

  • I have a couple of thrift store cake pans made for Duncan Hines “Tiara Desserts” by Baker’s Secret that have that raised edge which will produce a well in the center of the inverted cake. The one I just looked at has fluted sides but I suspect I have one with plain sides somewhere here in the pile.

  • Wow, THAT candied fruit!! Amazing!

  • So gorgeous and just screams Italy!!

  • David,
    Thanks for another mouth watering post. We’re hoping to get to Sicily over the next year or two. I really like Cassata Siciliana. Here in NY, De Robertis Pasticceria (circa 1904) makes very good individual size ones.

  • I have a rolling tool that is similar, if not the same. Mine has two rollers (one on either end). One is about 3 or 4″, the other maybe 2″. I bought mine years ago, I think from Pampered Chef. One of those times when I got roped into going to a friend’s party and wanted to support them but wasn’t really interested in most of what was offered. ;-) Over the years I’ve actually used that little tool for all kinds of odd stuff. I notice that PC still has one but it’s now plastic instead of wood.

  • Speaking of sheep’s milk ricotta and delicious things Sicilians make, have you come across the doughnuts stuffed with cannoli filling? I ate about a million when we visited last year, how has this not caught on? It’s perfect for breakfast.

  • Here is a recipe for cake that borrows some elements, but is not at all traditional. I have not yet made it, but I will one of these days. http://userealbutter.com/2012/11/14/chocolate-cassata-cake-recipe/

  • great post… just a small note: sicilian use pistacchio paste as coloring agent in the cassata not food coloring.bye

  • Definitely a specialty item…and likely an acquired taste as well. That said, it sure is pretty and I’m sure Sicilians love it. It’s new to me, though.

  • The recipe that I first saw for this cassata 30 some years ago, is still my fav- in the original Time Life series Foods of the World -Italy. It is in a loaf and glazed w/ a dark chocolate ganache. Candied orange peel and nuts are in the ricotta.

  • That little rolly tool is a printmaking tool – for rolling ink on surfaces flat. Depending on what kind of ink, and what kind of surface – i.e. – what specific form of printmaking, the roller surface will be made of a different material. {As the Big Bad Wolf would say, “All the better to spread by ink on you evenly!”}

    Anyone should be able to find such a tool at their local art supply store. A simple search led me to this: http://www.cutting-mats.net/alvin-brayer-rollers.html

    I really love when people re-purpose tools from other crafts! I use a ceramic tool for coring apples, pears, and stone fruit.

  • That looks amazing! And I love how the green color stems from festive tradition. I am currently in traveling in Bolivia (altho towards the end of my trip), and I have been craving the variety and quality of foods in my regular San Francisco location. Thus, reading about the sweetened sheeps’ milk ricotta cream was almost torture. I can’t wait to get home and start cooking again! Thanks for the wonderful inspiration.

  • Ha Ha Ha, Thank you for the eye candy David! Thinking I will pass on this one:-)

  • I had never actually heard of this cake – for me, cassata was always the ice-cream (delicious, too). I don’t think I’d like it, though – but it does look spectacular!

  • Interesting comment on the orange aspirin as I had to be rushed to the hospital in 1959 for gulping a bunch of orange flavored aspirin. This was in California. I can definitely identify with this.

  • Ah the green of the cassata.
    Reminds me of when I was a teenager, visiting Sicily over the winter holidays.
    Xmas vegetarian dinner in Siracusa…one of the best meals ever.
    Early morning in Palermo: a brioche filled with heavy sweetened whipped cream. Talk about “breakfast of champions.”
    In rainy Agrigento, I went into a corner bakery that was churning out holiday cassatas (cassati?) at an amazing rate and in all shapes and sizes. Rectangles, rounds and squares, if I recall. The bakers, North African immigrants, described the cake’s components as I tried to simultaneously translate for my family. At the time I didn’t really appreciate the flavor of the sheep’s milk ricotta as much as the amazing almond paste and candied etrog. Several decades later I’d bet it would be the ricotta that would now be the swoon-worthy element.

  • You are a blessed man to have been able to experience the above event. Cassata is one, if not my FAVORITE Italian treat. A Sicilian Cassata to boot! My oh my oh my. I had the fortune to taste one from a Sicilian Pasticceria in Milano. HEAVEN. I have tried to make one and my friend from Roma laughed and said to keep trying, when next she visits she will bring with her the candied fruit, maybe that will help it. I envy your cooking school experience, their work there has made it’s way around the world influencing so much of our life experience. You are a lucky man. Thank you for sharing it with us. I can taste it now. Mmmmmmmm,,,

  • That tool reminds me of the roller that you press down on the manual ravioli maker to finish them. You put down a sheet of pasta dough, press down, fill them, cover with another sheet, and then seal them with the roller. Seems like any kind of tool of this type would work to flatten out the paste.

  • This is one of those recipes that I would be very happy to take a slice or two if someone offers but looks like it requires patience to make. I like the colors , very festive and cheerful cake!

  • Kathleen, thanks for the tip. I live in Austin TX so there are a number of Mexican grocers in my area. Appreciate it!

  • I’m particularly loving these Sicilian blogs – because ahhhahhh casatta is my dream dessert. I’ve always loved glazed fruits but when in Rome I tried and then obsessed on casatta gelato, and I ate some every day.

    So this recipe is one I will try and it’ll have to be with food coloring because that IS the point of it – the flavors and the colors. I suppose though, I’m going to have to make the beautiful fruits because most of what we get here is dried fruits and they’re always so sad looking. The ones in your images look juicy and moist and spectacular. yummmmm

  • Short of ordering from the Italian Amazon site, I have a suggestion that might help us turn an ordinary pie plate into a cassata pan.

    Could we not take one or two cardboard cake rounds, trim the edges a little, wrap them in aluminum foil, and put them into a pie plate before putting down the saran wrap?

    The idea is to create an indentation in the center and leave a higher edge when the cake is removed from the pan.

    As a side note, I was surprised when I read about this type of Cassata Siciliana when the article came out in Saveur. Since the 1970′s, I have been making the version from the Cooking of Italy volume of the old Time-Life Foods of the World series.

    That cassata is a pound cake, cut into layers, filled with a ricotta cream mixed with Grand Marnier, minced candied orange and lemon peel, and shavings of chocolate. The whole thing is iced and decorated with a frosting made from semi-sweet chocolate, strong coffee, and unsalted butter. Once made, it can be kept in the refrigerator or wrapped carefully and stored in the freezer (really!). I have made this version for most Christmases or New Year’s, and it is really spectacularly delicious.

    It does appear, however, to be a only a very distant relative of this extraordinary cassata from your post.

  • I love Italian desserts because every part always seems to be made from scratch. I remember the first time I tried homemade almond paste. Yet, I wager it wasn’t as good as the almond paste made for this Cassata. Can another color besides green be used for the outside cake?

  • Noticed several others beat me to the mention! Over thirty years ago, I, also, discovered the recipe for Cassata alla Sciliana in the original “Foods of the World” – Time-Life series and have made it countless times. It was always the most popular dessert at dinner parties. I remember very clearly the last time I made it. Or almost made it. Despite having made this many times (normally, it was a piece of cake!) but, frazzled after an already long day in the kitchen I attempted to wrap up the day making three large cakes for a big party. After the pans went into the oven….nothing happened. I waited, I watched, I checked the temperature. The cakes remained totally flat.

    Uh! OH! came the light bulb moment. I had forgotten the baking powder. #@$%

  • Wow, I didn’t know anything good look so pristine and yet decadent at the same time. One of my favorite cakes of all time is : sponge, whipped cream in the middle and then totally coated with marzipan (natural color) and a couple of blobs of butter icing for decoration …………. to absolutely die for. I love marzipan and sponge cake it is just so good together. Don’t know what a bergamot is ………… still have to find one! Thank you David Leibovitz for making my morning beautiful – reading about your cassata is as good as eating it.

  • amazing. i adore finding out about a cake i had never heard of. a labour of gorgeous love!!

  • Italian food is full of love… full, i say.

  • I took a cooking class last year with Fabrizia and recently made her cassata, too! So great!