Close Encounters of a Sicilian Kind

Type of Post: 
What's on my Mind?

Cassata alla SicilianaMy friend John travels widely in the New York-New England area, always on the lookout for special foods and food related ideas. It was on one of his rambles that he encountered a cassata. Sometimes known as a Cassata alla Siciliana, it's a kind of cake that hails from Palermo, Sicily, where it was introduced during a period of Arab rule. John became intrigued after his wife noticed one in the pastry case of La Trattoria in Gloucester, which gets them frozen from Italy. He went down the street to a Sicilian bakery where he inquired of the baker how he might make one himself.

The man scoffed haughtily at the very idea and said in effect, "This is a job for trained professionals; don't attempt it at home." Challenged, John examined a slice of the imported cassata for structure and tasted it for ingredients. It's made of layers of sponge cake, the inner one cut out to hold a load of cannoli filling made from sweetened ricotta cheese and small chocolate chips. The dessert is edged with a thick layer of green tinted marzipan, topped with fondant, and decorated with candied fruit.

He made one for Annette's birthday, but wasn't happy with the results. In his words, "It tasted good, but there were structural and aesthetic failures..." He'd tried to make it in three layers, cutting the center out of the middle layer, which cracked under the load of the filling. He was disappointed in both the marzipan and the fondant. Annette considered it a great cake, but even as we enjoyed it, John's mind was back at the drawing board.

He made a second one for his company Christmas party. Learning from his mistakes, he baked two layers of cake instead of three, splitting one in half to go on above and below the whole layer he used for the filled ring. He held everything together in a springform pan and froze it solid to make it less fragile. He made the marzipan sheet to go around the outside of the cake ahead of time and had the fondant frosting ready to go.

John considered himself on a learning curve, and when evaluating his second cake, he decided he wasn't proficient yet. The marzipan belt that would constitute the outer edge wouldn't adhere to the side of the cake and cracked when he tried to move it. The fondant was too thin and came out crackly. In John's words, "I knew I wasn't there yet."

Sometime later he was in Boston's North End and stopped into Maria's Pastry Shop and asked the owner questions. Maria saw he was serious and didn't scoff. John said, "She told me the trick about using the excess fondant as an adhesive for the marzipan. That was the last clue I needed."

Armed with a little professional advice and a whole lot of pluck, John attempted the cake a third time. This time he got the fondant to a good consistency and flavored it with a couple of tablespoons of maraschino liqueur, a spirit he also used to lace the cannoli filling. He held the layers together with apricot glaze mixed with rum.

I was there at the last moment. He'd shaved a whole candied citron with a vegetable peeler and cut the edges with a ravioli wheel to make crowns to hold candied cherries. We placed them around the cake. The result was a thing of beauty.

Cassata bakers seldom follow the dictum, "Less is more," and when piling on the decorations, many go for baroque. John had some small bits of assorted candied fruit he might have sprinkled like jewels in the center of the surface, but not being as bold as he, I feared that if the pattern wasn't to our liking, we couldn't move them without messing up the perfect gloss of the fondant. We declared the work complete.

We sampled the creation with cups of steaming tea. I thought it was perfection, but John continues to scheme. He said, "If I were to do it again, I would make a few more improvements. I would roll the marzipan a little thinner, use fewer chocolate chips in the filling, make the whole thing thinner by using nine-inch rounds instead of eight-inch ones. I still need more practice with the fondant. I want a thinner layer on top."

He gave me some of the cake to take home, and Annette and I torpedoed our winter diet by having slices the next morning with our breakfast coffee. After all John's achievement of a successful cassata wasn't an event to be ignored.

I have and always will be

I have and always will be impressed by John's culinary skills and I am happy to say that I have enjoyed his wonderful Cassata.