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.

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Konza Kiffi: Sicilian Agricultural Estate

cucunci capers

Well, that was quite a day! After a much-delayed plane ride to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily (it’s technically Sicily, but — let’s hold off on that discussion for another day…), I was told to be prepared to be seduced by the place. But it didn’t hit me until day #4.

harvesting oregano

We’d spent yesterday morning watching people harvest capers (…more on that in a later post), and tasting wine. Then had a below-average lunch, which was barely mitigated by the restaurant’s setting, just on the edge of the ocean. After a heaping plate of wan pasta, all I wanted to do was head back at the home where I’m staying, where there was a hammock waiting for me.

oregano

But my friend Giovanni said to me, “Daveed – it’s going to be very special.” And when a Sicilian talks with such gravity it’s best to listen.

pantelleria

So we found ourselves after lunch, driving on a winding street, high above a spectacular blue lake with the ocean in the background, with rows of grapes and oregano baking in the hot Sicilian (or Pantellerian) sun.

oregano in sicily

The welcome we had from Giancarlo and Cristian Lo Pinto, the two brothers who own the farm, was as warm as the sun.

oregano harvest

With the wind in our hair — well, in one of my traveling companion’s hair —

anissa

— we found ourselves in a field surrounded by massive bunches of oregano, offering an aroma as strong as the fields of za’atar in Lebanon: a powerful, astringent scent that bordered on medicinal. Although lots of oregano grows in Sicily, locals tend to use it dried. And here was where the best of it came from.

oregano field

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Case Vecchie and the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School

peach crostata

My life seems to have, as they say in modern-speak (or whatever you want to call it), a “long tail.” Which means that what I do today, or did in the past, will continue to have meaning. Fortunately, that’s not true for everything (I can think of a few incidents in the past that are better left back there…), but something that’s stayed with me forever was getting to meet some of the great cookbook authors, cooks, and chefs from all over the place when I worked at Chez Panisse.

One such person was Anna Tasca Lanza, who not only had the noble title of marchese, but also was an acclaimed Sicilian cook. I’d met The Marchese when she came to Chez Panisse. Her philosophy of cooking — mostly farm-to-table, relying on local producers for most of what she cooked — is a natural way of life on this rugged island.

Sicilian countryside

And in spite of her lofty credentials and sophistication, she was a big proponent of country cooking and the Sicilian way of life, following the seasons, using what the local land produced, in her cooking.

white wine

She planted gardens with pistachio, lemon, citron, and mulberry trees. Peppers grow abundantly, as do cardoons, eggplant, zucchini (and their bright yellow flowers), and artichokes.

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Sicily, Again.

Crostata

The tone was set when I let my airport pick-up in Palermo know that the entire French rail and transit system was going to be on strike the day I was set to fly to Sicily, and she replied with something along the lines of, “It’s not a trip to Sicily without a little travel chaos.” And boy, was she right. On top of the transit strike, the Paris taxis had decided…heck – why not go on strike, too?

Sicily

But instead of taking a day off, the taxi drivers were planning to instigate “Opération Escargot,” which essentially means driving en mass, as slow as possible, to cause as much disruption as possible. (Whatever happened to fraternité?) In addition to blocking highways and city streets, the taxis were planning to surround the airports, making access difficult, if not impossible.

So my perfect partner said he’d drive me to the airport, which required us to leave at 5 A.M. (for my 10 A.M. flight), because any later, and Opération Escargot would be in full-on move-like-a-snail mode. To make a long story short, I made my flight to Rome just fine, but my flight from Rome to Sicily was inexplicably cancelled. And inexplicably, the airline didn’t have a ticket or customer service office inside the airport.

wheat field in Sicily

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The Hanky Panky

Hanky-Panky Cocktail

Ever since I made the decision to read more books (remember those?), I’ve been diving into some of the backlog of good reads around here. (Well, once I plowed through a formidable stack of New Yorkers…) Every conceivable space in my little office (slash/guest room) and kitchen has stacks and stacks of cookbooks, many of which are bookmarked, with recipes highlighted that I want to try.

I’ve been considering opening up a test kitchen, to get others to help out, because my enthusiasm is tempered only by my ability to cook and bake everything, and clean up, then share everything with folks far and wide. #stress

However there’s only one of me (which a number of people are probably happy about…), and so, so many of them – that for the time being, I’m just going to have to be content to get to all the books and recipes when I can. However when it comes to cocktails, all bets are off.

Hanky Panky Cocktail

And one book that I’ve been revisiting often is Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh (aka: Dr. Cocktail), a fun-filled cocktail book that focuses on long-lost libations.

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Roasted Strawberry-Miso Ice Cream

Roasted Strawberry Miso Ice Cream recipe-7

I was always on the frence about fruit-based ice cream made with eggs. Yes, you got that right. I wrote “Frence,” which is my subconscious speaking (or writing), most likely because I’ve got both France – and fresh strawberries – on the brain these days.

strawberries

After rhubarb, strawberries are the first sign of spring at our markets. And while there are plenty of different types out there, I wait for the glorious day that the apple vendors from Picardie arrive at my market with barquettes of fragrant red berries that are so ripe they’re red all the way through when you slice them in half. Another bonus is that when you buy two baskets, they give ya’ a deal on the second. So, of course, I pick up two.

Roasted Strawberry-Miso Ice Cream

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Les Provinces and Café des Abattoirs

Cafe des Abattoirs

My perfect day in Paris is one that starts at the Marché d’Aligre. I’d get there first thing in the morning, around 9 A.M. as the flea market vendors are unloading their trucks, scoping out treasures as they unpack them. (Before the rest of humanity descends on the market.) I’d rifle through the boxes of knives, cast-off kitchenware, and perhaps score a vintage Le Creuset gratin dish, before doing some food shopping, bringing home the bacon.

smoked bacon

I’ve been going to this market for over ten years, and it’s still one of my favorites. For a while, there weren’t any stand-out dining options at the market, which was a shame, because you’re surrounded by all this food at the one of best markets in Paris, but few places were serving them. So I was happy to see that in the last year or so, a number of eateries have opened where you can sit down and enjoy everything from Portuguese pastries to steak-frites, a market staple dating back to the days of the old – and sadly displaced – Les Halles.

Boucherie Les Provinces

One place in particular that I was interested in trying was boucherie Les Provinces, a combination butcher shop and restaurant. While I had my head buried in boxes at the flea market, avoiding getting stabbed by vintage French forks, an SMS popped up on my phone from my friend, asking me where the heck I was. So I hightailed it over to meet her for lunch.

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Le week-end à la campagne

Meaux - Paris

The first true weekend of spring just happened here. Well, there may have been some nice days when I was gone, but the weather was fairly glorious the last few days. And being a holiday weekend in France, off we went to the countryside (campagne), enjoying the clear blue skies.

painting

Drive just about an hour from Paris, the air clears and you just want to roll down the car windows and take a deep breath. (Well, it’s a little more refreshing once you’ve exited the autoroute.) There are trees, wild grasses, fields of wheat, oats, rows of barley, sugar beets and colza growing, and flowers, wild and otherwise.

rose

We did the trip not just to clear out our heads, but to help clean out an old country house, rifling through what remained, before toasting a few glasses for the final farewell. It was wistful and bittersweet. But changes are often unavoidable, and each is un passage.

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