One of my occasional readers recently asked if I knew of a place in Los Angeles where it was possible to eat original Sicilian cassata. Aside from the fact that “original” should be used loosely as there are probably as many cassata recipes as there are Sicilian grandmothers, the answer would probably be no. At least, not that I found.
Cassata is an old-fashioned and extremely ancient and fairly elaborate cake that, for centuries, was synonymous with the Easter festivities. Its simplest incarnation is made of sponge cake filled with ricotta (possibly sheep’s), covered in fondant and candied fruit. Its presentation can veer towards the extremely fancy and the fondant replaced by almond paste. Some recipes will also call for nuts, maraschino cherries or liqueur. Intensely sweet, it is not surprising to know it’s an offspring of the Arab pastry tradition. The Arabs ruled over Sicily between the IX and XI century and, culinary speaking, they introduced cinnamon, bitter oranges, mandarins, citron and almonds.
Originally, cassata was just a roll of pastry dough, filled with sweet sheep’s ricotta (a cheese that Sicilians had been making for centuries) and baked. Under the French domination a few centuries later, Sicilian nuns started producing an almond dough that went on to replace the simple flour one. Fast forward in time and the Spaniards brought sponge cake (in Italian still called Spanish bread) and we arrive to the contemporary version. The Baroque period contributed the elaborate candied fruit decorations.
Cassata is pretty heavy and not for the faint of heart or those watching their weight. These are only a couple of reasons why it’s seldom found on restaurant menus or in pastry shops – it takes time to make and the candied fruit required is not the round of the mill that is easily available but the chunky, sweet, soft and colorful one that might need to be imported (read: expensive). After pouring over a myriad recipes plucked from some of my books and Italian websites, I have come to the conclusion that making a traditional cassata here in the States is ridiculously hard. One would have to source sheep’s ricotta, find an importer that carries Sicilian candied fruit and buy fondant – or else make fondant. There are shortcuts one can take or creative solutions but the “traditional” part of the recipe would be tossed aside. I have come across some iterations for American magazines that are not really worth the bother.
Maybe some dishes are best confined to our memory or to occasional trips or, in this case, the luck of meeting a Sicilian grandmother willing to make a cassata for you. But for those determined souls, I did find a great recipe I am in the process of adapting and translating. More tomorrow…..In the meantime, should you know any secret place in Los Angeles that serves a mean cassata, please enlighten us.