We don’t know who created the first recipe for this traditional sweet from Sicily: it seems that its name comes from the Arabic term quas’at, which means “round bowl”, probably because of its typical shape. We also know that the ancient Greeks used to make a similar ricotta dessert.
What is certain is that the original recipe was totally different from the one that we all know and follow nowadays: originally, this sweet was made with shortcrust pastry and it was oven-baked. It is under the Normans that the nuns of the Martorana Monastery, supposedly, invented the “pasta reale”, also called “pasta martorana”. Today, this particular marzipan is put on top of the cassata so that it doesn’t need to be oven-baked anymore.
During the Spanish domination, sponge cake was added to the original recipe, and in the Baroque Era candied fruit started being used for the filling. Only in 1873 the cassata recipe became as we know it nowadays: Salvatore Gulì, a pastry chef from Palermo, invented the “zuccata” (candied pumpkin), which since then has been used as a decoration of the cassata, in Sicily and in the rest of the world.
However, in Ragusa and the surrounding areas the traditional Easter dessert is still the oven-baked cassata: it is a kind of a shortcrust pastry cake, with no pasta reale, no candied fruit, no frosting, which tastes even better if served warm.
Let’s put aside the issue whether the cassata was originally a warm or chilled dessert: you are probably looking for the most popular cassata recipe, which includes pasta reale and candied fruit.
Most housewives in Sicily have their own secret cassata recipe: you can find the general recipe below, but feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit your taste.
Sicilian cassata main ingredients
For the filling
- 700g sheep’s ricotta cheese
- 300g sugar
- 50g candied fruit
- 100g chocolate chips
- vanilla extract
For the topping
- 200g marzipan
- 20g pistachio nuts
- candied mixed fruit for the decoration
Prepare the sponge cake the day before you plan to serve the cassata.
Put the ricotta and the powdered sugar into a bowl, mix together until you have a smooth paste and then add the vanilla extract. Soak the candied fruit in Maraschino liqueur or rum and then let it dry and add it to the ricotta cheese together with the chocolate chips. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for about 12 hours.
Make pistachio paste, mixing the pistachio together with the marzipan: add powdered sugar and rum to taste.
Now it’s time to make soaking syrup: combine water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil to dissolve sugar. Cool to room temperature and flavor with rum. Cut two circles and some 0.5cm-thick slices out of the sponge cake: make them moist with soaking syrup before you place them in a cake pan.
According to the traditional cassata recipe, you would need to use a round and slant-sided 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan. Place the sponge cake on the bottom of the cake pan and cover the sides of the pan with the pistachio paste and the sponge cake slices. Fill the inside with the ricotta.
Place the second sponge circle on top, cover the cake pan with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for 12 hours. At the end, turn the cake pan upside down and place your cassata on a plate: cover it with brown sugar syrup, which can be easily made by bringing water to boil in a sauce pan and adding brown sugar.
Put gelatin on the top of the cake and decorate it with candied fruit: remember to always keep it refrigerated until you are ready to serve.
If you still want to taste the traditional oven-baked cassata, come here to Modica: at the Dimora Storica Edel you can attend local and Sicilian cuisine cooking classes, held by the famous chef Massimo Schininà. Enjoy this unique food experience and try the best typical delicacies in our kitchen!