Yes, I know we're still getting our share of cold, gloomy weather, but the days are getting longer, a promise that Spring is around the corner. And indeed, the Vernal Equinox which falls on March the 19th or 20th every year, and occurs on the 20th this year, will again mark Spring’s beginning in our Northern Hemisphere. Spring has always been celebrated as a time of renewal and hope in ancient cultures, and so do our two great feasts of Passover and Easter.
Passover has, since the days of Moses, always been celebrated on the first full moon following the Spring equinox. The Christian Holy Week, culminating with Easter Sunday, usually overlaps the eight-day celebration of Passover, as Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. In both, nature, history and faith come together with a resounding message of hope.
There are countless traditional foods associated with both feasts. Below, I'd like to share with you one that I'm particularly fond of.
Cassata was the most celebrated dessert I knew growing up. Sicilian in origin, it is the classic Easter Cake. This kind of cake goes back to before the Romans Empire: Sicilian cooks were making a similar pastry in Magna Grecia, for the Greeks living in Sicily. Centuries later, the cake was made by both nuns for Easter and Sicilian Jews for Passover; they called it cassati.
The "classic" Cassata Siciliana, as it is known today, was introduced much later in the 19th century. It is an elaborate and baroque creation now famed all over the world, and considered the epitome of the Sicilian desserts as well as the cake to celebrate Easter and holidays.
The main ingredients of the original and classic cassata are sponge cake and a filling made with ricotta sweetened with a small amount of sugar or honey, fragrant with cinnamon, with a hint of vanilla and enriched with diced citron and orange. The outside is covered with a light layer of glaze, prepared with confectionery sugar and lemon juice to counterbalance the sweetness of the cake and as a final touch it is decorated with multicolored candied whole and sliced fruits. Special round molds are used, with the side 2 ½ inches high, inclined to the outside about 15 degrees, to give that particular and characteristic shape.
Making the following simplified version of the cassata is worth all the effort: if the preparation is spaced out, it will be an accomplishment that will give you an outstanding and incredibly delicious Easter cake. Build the cassata in layers like a layer cake unless you happen to have the appropriate mold.
To make the sponge, use your own recipe or ours below.
Cassata Siciliana Casalinga (Homemade Cassata Siciliana)
serves 12; prep time: 90 min; bake 350 deg, 35 min
What you Need For the Cake
1 Pan di Spagna (sponge cake), see recipe below
2 lb. of ricotta
2/3 cup sugar
zest of 1 orange
3 pinches of cinnamon powder
1 drop of vanilla essence
¼ lb. diced candied citron or candied orange peel (and omit zest or orange above), optional
2¼ oz bitter-chocolate shavings or chocolate chips
1 (9”) round pan, 2 -2.5” deep, buttered and floured
6 tbl milk or rum or other liquor for brushing sponge
8 red candied cherries
4 tbl toasted pistachio or almond nuts (coarsely chopped) or cookie or sponge cake crumbs
What you need for the Pan di Spagna
Assembling the Cassata
Day ahead bake or purchase the sponge - la Pan di Spagna.
Drain off any liquid from top of ricotta. Press ricotta through fine-mesh sieve into large bowl; stir in sugar until smooth. Blend in the zest of orange, cinnamon and the vanilla, store in the refrigerator overnight.
The following day mix the ricotta cream with a wooden spoon to aerate and make it silky-smooth.
Slice the sponge cake horizontally into 2-3 layers of even thickness with a sharp serrated knife. Sprinkle cut side of each layer with 2 tablespoon of milk or rum.
Reserve 1/2 of the ricotta cream.
Spread 1/2 of remaining ricotta cream over the first cake layer, and then sprinkle over it 1/2 of the citron and 1/2 of the chocolate chips or shavings.
Repeat with the sponge, cream, citron, chocolate.
Top with remaining layer of sponge cake, cut side up.
Spread the reserved ricotta cream over the top and all around on the side.
Sprinkle top with shaved chocolate; decorate with candied cherries.
Press crumbs or toasted pistachio nuts or almonds into cake sides. Refrigerate, carefully covered, at least 3 hours or overnight before serving.
One variation of the recipe above
For the Glaze
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
zest of 1 medium lemon
1 tablespoon of butter
pistachio nuts, toasted and chopped
Whisk all the ingredients in a heat resistant bowl to form a thick and uniform paste. Cook it for a few minutes, at a very low heat or in a double boiler, turning continuously, until smooth and soft.
Make the cassata as per above directions, slicing cakes horizontally into 2-3 layers of even thickness, sprinkling each layer with 2 tablespoon of milk or rum, and spreading about a half of the ricotta cream over the cut-side of each cake layer.
Do not cover the top layer with ricotta, but instead pour over some glaze and with the help of a spatula spread it to cover the cassata completely, letting it drizzle down the sides. Sprinkle with chocolate and pistachio nuts.