Today Food Lover's Odyssey turns three. Before anything else, I want to thank all of you for helping me get here. I truly appreciate all your visits to the site, your comments, emails and Facebook "likes." I've been able to meet and cook with so many great people as a result of this blog, and it's all thanks to you!
Besides my recipes and food stories, I hope you've enjoyed my tales of magical desserts, limoncello misadventures and meeting royalty, and thank you for making the weekly roundup of Italian food, Italy on a Plate a success. This year I've started to branch out beyond the blog by hosting a fabulous Culinary Tour to Puglia! (By the way, plenty of spots are still available for September's trip.)
I would love to hear from you about what you'd like to see, or see more of, in the upcoming year. What have been your favorite posts? What parts of Italy & France do you want to read more about? (I'll be traveling again soon and will use your input to make my travel plans.) Please let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, let's celebrate with cake! I've made a special cake from Sicily, the elaborate Cassata Siciliana. Although cannoli are probably more popular outside of the island, cassata is just as iconic of a dessert. I wonder how the popularity of both these Sicilian desserts might have been reversed if that famous line from The Godfather had been, "Leave the gun, take the cassata."
Like cannoli, this cake uses the ricotta cream made with Sicily's spectacular sheep's milk ricotta. (There's really none better anywhere else, so if you're in Sicily you must indulge in at least one ricotta dessert). A traditional dessert of Easter so rich and sweet, it is a great way to end the long Lenten fast. The sugar overload and the Baroque decor are attributed to Sicily's Arab conquerers who brought sugar to the island. Long ago only nuns in monasteries and chefs of the rich made this cake, but now it is a standard in the pastry shops all over the island. You can also find it in pastry shops on Italy's mainland, especially in Puglia, Campania & even Sicilian pastry shops in Rome.
Sponge cake (pan di Spagna) that has been doused in liquor encases a thick layer of ricotta cream filled with a chocolate bits and candied pumpkin (zuccata). The cake is wrapped in green-colored marzipan and covered, sometimes only on the top and sometimes completely, with a sugar glaze. If that's not enough sugar for you, whole pieces of candied fruits cover the top in an elaborate decoration resembling a flower petal. More decorations of thin piping finish off this extravagent, Baroque (some might say over-the-top) cake. The cake brings toghether the sweet tastes that are quintessentially Sicilian: ricotta cream, marzipan and candied fruits.
Being of Sicilian ancestry, I thought it fitting that I make this cake to celebrate turning 3. The cassata I've made takes into consideration a few of my flavor preferences, no candied fruit inside and icing only on the top. You can find cassata made exactly like this in Sicily, but purists may want a little more. I've noted in the recipe where I've strayed off the traditional path, so you can make it in the very traditional way, with a thick coating of icing all around and filled with candied fruits. I did a little bit of fruit decoration to the top, although I only found the cherries and candied orange peel here in the suburbs of San Francisco. Being more of a minimalist, I think I should have stuck with my initial idea of only three cherries in the center. The sweet smell of candied fruit and crushed almonds mixed with sugar, from the marzipan, sends scents of Sicilian pastry shops through your kitchen.
(makes one 10-inch cake)
For the pan di Spagna (sponge cake):
8 eggs, yolks and whites, separated and at room temperature
1 1/4 cups (240 g) granulated sugar, divided in half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of cream of tartar
2 cups (240 g) cake flour, sifted
For the ricotta cream:
30 ounces (850 g) fresh ricotta, preferably sheep's milk, drained
2 cups (240 g) powdered sugar
3 ounces (170 g) candied fruit*
3 ounces (170 g) dark chocolate chips*
*NOTE: If you prefer, you can leave out the candied fruit and use 6 ounces of chocolate chips instead.
For the imbibing syrup:
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
Scant 1 cup (200 ml) water
2 to 4 tablespoons Maraschino liqueur or rum, to taste
For the marzipan:
10 ounces marzipan
2 to 3 drops of green food coloring
Powdered sugar, as needed to help keep the marzipan from becoming too sticky
For the sugar glaze:
6 ounces (150 g) powdered sugar
About 3 tablespoons water
For the royal icing:
8 ounces powdered sugar
1 egg white (or 1 tablespoon meringue powder plus 2 tablespoons warm water)
Whole candied fruit and candied orange peel for the garnish
Preheat an oven to 375 F
Butter the bottom and sides of one 10-inch round cake pan and one 8x8-inch square cake pan. Then lightly dust both with cake flour.
To make the pan di Spagna (sponge cake): In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk together the egg yolks, half the sugar and vanilla extract until the mixture is pale, thick and at the "ribbon stage" (meaning when you lift the beaters the batter falls back on itself in a ribbon-like effect), about 10 minutes. Pour the mixture into a large bowl. Clean the mixing bowl and in it, whisk together the egg whites with the cream of tartar. Once the mixture becomes frothy, slowly add the other half of the sugar. Whisk until the mixture forms soft peaks. (You don't want firm peaks or the egg whites will be too stiff to fold in with the other ingredients.)
Fold 1/3 of the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture to lighten the egg yolk mixture. Then fold in half of the flour mixture. (It's best if someone else sprinkles the flour into the egg mixture while you are folding it in; it allows the flour to be incorporated more slowly while keeping as much air in the batter as possible.) Fold in another 1/3 of the egg white mixture. Then fold in the remaining flour. Lastly fold in the remaining third of the egg white mixture.
Pour 2/3 of the batter into the round cake pan and the remaining batter into the square cake pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes. The cake is done when you lightly touch the top of the cake and it springs back. Let cool for 10 minutes and remove from the cake pans. Let cool completely before assembling the cassata.
To make the ricotta cream: Press the drained ricotta through a seive. Add the powdered sugar and stir the mixture together, by hand or using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, until the mixture is creamy. Add the candied fruit and/or chocolate chips and stir in. Place in the refrigerator until you're ready to assemble the cassata.
To make the imbibing syrup: Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Let cool for 10 minutes. Add the Maraschino or rum, the amount depending on your taste. Refrigerate until it's cold and you're ready to assemble the cassata.
To prepare the marzipan: Add 2 small drops of green food coloring to the marzipan and knead in until the color is uniform and a light green. Add powdered sugar to the mixture as you're kneading in the color to prevent the marzipan from becoming too sticky. If you need to, add 1 more drop of food coloring to the marzipan to get the desired color. (Be careful as a very little coloring goes a long way.) Set aside until you're ready to assemble the cassata. If the marzipan is too soft, put in the refrigerator until it firms up.
To make the sugar glaze: Do this only right before you are ready to ice the cake. In a small saucepan, melt the powdered sugar with the water, starting with 2 tablespoons and adding more if necessary. The more water you use the thinner and more translucent the icing will be; it will also run more easily.
To make the royal icing: Make this when you are ready to decorate the cake. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk together the sugar and egg whites until it forms a thick icing. Place in a pastry bag fitted with a small writing tip.
Assembling the cassata -
Line a 9-inch pie dish or pan with cling wrap. (Ideally you would like the dish to have a smaller bottom in order to get the traditional dome-like shape of the cassasta.) Roll the marzipan out into one strip of 1/4-inch thickness and wide enough to cover the entire side of the dish. Place the marzipan strip in a ring-like shape along the side of the dish so that is covers the entire side of the dish. Trim any excess at the top.
Slice off the thin layer of crust on the top and bottom of the round sponge cake. Then slice the round sponge cake in half horizontally, so that you have two round cake disks. Using the bottom of the pie dish as a guide, measure one disk to fit the bottom, trimming away any excess. Place that disk at the bottom of the pie plate. Using a pastry brush, give the cake a generous imbibing of the syrup.
Cut four slices about 3/8-inch thick from the square sponge cake. Wrap the slices around the edges of the plate, laying they against the marzipan. Brush these pieces of sponge cake generously with imbibing syrup.
Fill the center with ricotta cream, filling it to the top and leveling the cream with an offset spatula.
Place the second round disk of sponge cake on top of the ricotta cream and brush generously with the imbibing syrup. Bring the marzipan up around the sides of the cake. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, overnight is best.
When you're ready to finish decorating the cake, make the sugar glaze. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Place a dish or cake plate on the uncovered sponge cake and flip the cake over. Remove the pie dish and plastic wrap. Slowly pour the icing onto the top center and spread it outwards with a spatula. If you would like to ice the sides, pour enough icing so that you can spread it down along the sides to cover the marzipan. If you want to ice only the top, pour a smaller amount of icing onto the center and spread it almost to the edge of the cake. It should settle itself into the edge. Let the icing cool completely until it hardens.
Decorate by adding to the top candied fruits, Maraschino cherries, and candied citrus peel in the shape of a flower petal. Finish decorating by piping royal icing along the sides and top of the cake. Enjoy!
Cassetelle Siciliana (Sweet fried "ravioli" filled with ricotta cream)