This cake makes me think of sitting on the porch swing in my Italian grandmother’s lanai. It was about 1973 and I would have been 6 years old and eating something sweet and spring-like. She had hanging baskets of flowers dangling from the ceiling from elaborately woven macramé; in shades of orange, chartreuse and gold. I’m sure I was eating Jell-o, but it should have been this cassata, with its basket weave icing and magical candied fruit flower. Ok, truth be told, my grandmother isn’t Italian, she didn’t have a lanai, I just like the word, and there probably was macramé, but I don’t actually remember any. But, this cassata makes me wish all these things were true. Not only is it visually stunning, but the cake is so delicious I licked the plate clean.
I really made the cake with my friend Bret, who I’ve known since I taught my very first baking class at Cooks of Crocus Hill about 13 years ago. He is a dynamite chef and baker, and I love playing in the kitchen with him. We decided to make this classic Italian ricotta cake after seeing it on the pages of Saveur magazine, just in time for Easter. Bret’s interpretation honored the traditional style of the cake and I went for a more 1973-macramé-hanging-on-the-lanai look. We were in a zone and made, not only the cake and all of its parts, but we also candied all the fruit. I discovered that one of my all time favorite taste sensations is a whole candied kumquat. They become translucent jewels in the process of cooking and the flavor is both tart and sweet. I ate them like popcorn. The candied citrus is a perfect compliment to the creamy smooth layers of ricotta and the orange liqueur soaked sponge cake. The frame around the cake is made from pistachio marzipan, which is a revelation of its own. I adore marzipan made with almonds, but this is exponentially better and adds a bit of flash to the outside of the cake; as if the basket weave and candied fruit flower weren’t enough.
Sicilian Ricotta Cake (Cassata) Inspired by one I saw in Saveur, but with my own flare for the dramatic.
1 cup flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon zest of lemon or orange
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup shelled pistachios
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 egg white
For soaking the cake:
1/2 cup Simple Syrup (equal parts water and sugar, boiled until all sugar is disolved)
2 tablespoons orange liqueur or juice
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
1 pound ricotta cheese, full fat, drained overnight in a cheese cloth (This step is only necessary if you are using a homemade or fresh ricotta. Most store bought brands don’t have that much excess liquid)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Cream Cheese Icing:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 ounces butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon or orange zest
Candied fruit – I recommend you make your own, but you can use store bought in a pinch. We made Meyer lemon, pink grapefruit, orange, lime and kumquats. Make a bunch, they last a long time in the refrigerator, up to a month.
To prepare the sponge cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center of the oven. Line a 13 X 18 Baking Sheet with parchment paper and grease the paper.
Beat the sugar, zest, and eggs in a stand mixer using the whip attachment, on high speed for about 5 minutes. The eggs will be light in color and very thick.
Sift the flour over the egg mixture and fold it in carefully.
Pour into the prepared pan and spread it out evenly in the pan.
Bake for about 18 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool completely.
While the cake is cooling prepare the Pistachio marzipan:
In a Food Processor pulverize the nuts and powdered sugar,
Until they are powdery.
Whisk the egg white in a small bowl and add most of it, but not all to the pistachios and blend until it all comes together in a ball. If the dough is too dry to come together, add the rest of the egg white.
Remove from the bowl and knead for a minute on a surface covered with powdered sugar.
Prepare a 4-1/2-by-8-1/2-Inch Loaf Pan by covering it in plastic wrap.
Roll the marzipan in powdered sugar until it is 1/4-inch thick.
Measure the loaf pan sides and cut the marzipan in strips to completely cover the sides. Set aside.
To prepare the ricotta filling:
In a stand mixer beat together the cream cheese, strained ricotta, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt.
Beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth.
Measure the bottom of the loaf pan and cut a piece of the cooled cake to fit the bottom. Mix together the simple syrup and liqueur, then brush it on to the cake. You want enough to really flavor the cake, but not so much that it because soggy.
Cover the cake with a layer of the ricotta filling to reach almost midway up the pan. Repeat this process with another later of cake, more soaking syrup and ricotta filling.
Top the ricotta filling with another layer of cake and soaking syrup. It should come just to the top of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but overnight is best.
Unmold the cake onto a serving platter.
Mix the cream cheese icing:
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese, butter, confectioners’ sugar, and zest.
Using a pastry bag and a basket weave tip to pipe the icing onto the cake. Here is a Basket Weave 101.
Then use a small star tip to pipe a border along the base of the cake.
Decorate the top of the cake with the candied fruit in a pattern that makes you happy.
I sliced up the fruit to create the petals and stem of the flower.