Cassata Siciliana, a Regal Design – Part 1
The next stop on our mini-tour of Italian Desserts from Sicily is Cassata Siciliana. This is a beautiful cake-like dessert that seems to have had its roots primarily in the Saracen / Arabian occupation era of Sicilian history. While the Romans colonization brought lentils, fava beans and chickpeas; Various cereals and even some forms of pasta to the Sicilian culinary world, the major contributions to the culinary trends we see even today emanated with the Arab nation. They introduced farming and irrigation methods that are still in use today. These agricultural innovations allowed the Sicilian people to produce foods previously unknown to them; and, because of their rich volcanic environment, these foods boast of tastes found nowhere else on the planet.
The History Is Varied …
The Arabs brought a long list of foods to Sicily such as almonds, anise seed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame seeds, spinach, sugarcane and watermelon. This resulted in a legacy of culinary techniques as well, from candied fruits, skewered meats, and stuffed foods, notably the combination of nuts and currents or raisins. The Sicilian people easily accepted the sweet and sour recipes brought by the Arabs, showing special affection for the sweet confectionary trends they introduced. It is in this vane that it seems Cassata Siciliana was born.
Many feel that this molded cake made with ricotta, marzipan and citrus, may have derived its name from the Arab qas'ah – the name of the deep terra-cotta bowl that was used to form this exceptional cake. Then again, it may have come from caseus, the Latin name for ricotta.
Other "Myths" ….
There are still other myths were found in my research that suggests that Cassata Siciliana was a wedding cake, made with whipped cream and described as rich and offensively sweet. It is also the classic Sicilian Easter Cake citing that Easter comes around the time of the vernal equinox, which occurs on March 20/21. It precedes the coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere; and coincides with the Roman pagan celebration of Ceres, Demeter for the Greeks, the goddess of fertility who blesses and helps to produce the fruits of the earth. Hence the abundant amount of various and colorful candied fruits used in the decoration of the cassata, which in pagan times was offered to Ceres.
The Composition …
Basically, the original components of this regal Italian Dessert were sponge cake with a filling comprised of ricotta sweetened with sugar or honey, flavored with cinnamon, vanilla and diced citron. The "frosting" is one of the components that make this cake so beautiful. It is covered with a glaze and decorated with multicolored whole candied fruits. Marzipan was added by the Saracens to the glaze that gave it a green color, adding to both the taste and the eye appeal. Later, when chocolate was introduced from America into the Sicilian cuisine, the filling was enhanced by it. This cake can be built in layers or as one layer and the decorating options are immense.
So, as you can see, Cassata Siciliana is a "mogrel" Italian Dessert in that it is rich with contributions from many other cultures; and, these contributions have created one of the most beautiful desserts your eyes will ever behold.
Behold … The Recipe Is On The Horizon …
In my next post, I'll provide a recipe for the more traditional cake. This cake can also be made with multicolored ice creams for the filling for those who don't care for or who choose not to use the traditional ricotta filling. It then becomes an ice cream cake which is also very beautiful to behold. A recipe for the ice cream version will also be included.
Come on back in a few days and feel free to bring your … friends … you thought I was going to say appetite did you? Yeah … well … you should probably bring that, too …. a camera might be nice, too … you know you ALWAYS take pictures on a tour.