“Of course I know it — cassata Siciliana, my mom used to make it,” says Cecelia Maiogan, a Chicago-area resident who grew up in a small town outside of Palermo on the Northern shore of Sicily. “From the time I was seven or eight, around Easter, she would send me on foot to town to go buy the candied fruit that we used to decorate it with,” Maiogan says, “and as a treat for my errand I got to have a small piece of the fruit. I remember really liking that, the sliver of candied pear I had maybe once a year.”
Carmela Martire Ianos, a New Jersey resident, also grew up with cassata, a sweet ricotta cake. “I haven’t had it in awhile, but we had it when we were kids,” says Ianos, whose family is from Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. “It’s a cake that my mom would buy at a shop in the Bronx after we moved to New York from Italy. That was our holiday cake; we had it every year for as long as we lived in the Bronx. To us, it was a sign of Easter.”
According to historian Clifford Wright in A Mediterranean Feast, “cassata is a lavish cake from Sicily… a liqueur-soaked sponge cake interspersed with sweetened ricotta cheese.” Among pastry chefs and those who grew up eating it in Sicily or the U.S., it’s agreed that the cake called cassata Siciliana is prepared in a pan with sloping sides, and decorated with a ring of green marzipan and candied fruits. But its origins and variations are matters of colorful debate.
Almost every source says there is a link between cassata and the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 10th century. “The Arabs brought the technique for sugar production to Sicily,” says Linda Civitello, historian and author of the forthcoming Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking. Many sources suggest the word cassata could have its roots in the Latin word for cheese, caseus.
But Wright echoes many pastry chefs, authors, and Sicilians — who speak of its cloyingly sweet taste — when he writes, “cassata is, more than anything, born of a fascination with sugar, not cheese, and sugar was not cultivated in Sicily during the Roman era.” It wasn’t until the Arabs arrived that sugar took hold in Sicily. That supports the argument that the cake’s name comes from the Arabic word for a wide circular pan with sloping sides, qas’at — the type of dish a cassata is traditionally made in.
Not everyone accepts this historical link. “The myth that it’s a contribution from the Arabian occupation of Sicily in the 9th and 10th centuries? That’s nonsense, an alternative fact,” author Mary Taylor Simeti says with a laugh. “It comes from the Latin word for cheese.”
At least everyone agrees that “Easter is cassata’s grand moment,” as Simeti says. Documents show the cake was made by both nuns for Easter and Sicilian Jews for Purim; they called it cassati. Civitello says that when the Arabs occupied Sicily they brought their sugar-making traditions and merged them with the pastry-making that was happening in convents. According to Wright, “cassata was so delicious and seductive that as late as 1574, the Diocese of Mazara del Vallo had to prohibit its making at the monastery during the Holy Week because the nuns preferred to bake and eat it than pray.”
The cake is believed to have originated in or around Palermo, where sheep’s milk ricotta, pistachios, and citrus were prevalent. The Arab occupation could also explain why candied fruit often graces the top of the cake in a baroque or, some say, Arabian pattern — but Simeti doesn’t subscribe to this theory. “The Siciliana is an invention of a pastry chef in Palermo in the 1870s who had made an excessive amount of candied fruit,” Simeti says. “He used it to decorate a ricotta cake, which was and still is a common cake in Sicily.”
Origin story aside, “whatever you do, don’t call it ‘cassata cake,’” Civitello says. It’s just “cassata,” and Civitello notes it’s likely that the dish started out as a far more humble pie. Rosetta Costantino, who wrote Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily in 2013, agrees. “There are two cassatas: cassata al forno is like the country bumpkin, a simple ricotta filling, sometimes studded with chocolate, baked inside a pastafrola crust,” she says. (Pastafrola is Italy’s answer to pie dough; it’s typically sweetened and enriched with egg.)
This is still a commonly made version, sometimes found in pastry shops, but more often baked at home. Civitello notes that the al forno version could have been the original, but as pastry-making and sugar production evolved in Sicily, and as overall wealth increased, people could afford to use fresh ricotta and dress their cakes with more bells and whistles. “Cassata Siciliana,” Costantino says, “is the sophisticated city cousin.”
To make the most popular version of cassata Siciliana, a thin layer of marzipan tinted green is pushed up against the sides of a plastic-wrap-lined metal pan with sloping sides. (Some say the marzipan border should be striped vertically in green and white.) Author Fabrizia Lanza, a cooking school instructor and authority on Sicilian cuisine, makes her lush cassata with pistachio marzipan, or almond marzipan tinted green with pistachio paste.
Then, slices of pre-baked sponge cake known as pan de espana are fit tightly into the bottom. The cake is brushed with a sugar syrup sometimes spiked with maraschino liqueur, marsala, or rum. The center is filled with a thick layer of sweetened ricotta cheese that can be flavored with orange zest; sometimes chocolate bits are folded into the cream, too. Another layer of sponge cake caps the cake, and it’s wrapped tightly in plastic film and sometimes weighted down slightly before sitting overnight in the refrigerator. (It is not baked.)
The next day, it’s inverted and unmolded. The top is covered with a soft white fondant, or sugar paste. It’s then decorated with candied fruits. “Traditionally a candied mandarin goes in the center, with slices of candied squash forming petals around it, and candied pear, citron, and cherries lining the perimeter,” Costantino says. Some bakeries also opt to gild the lily with royal icing atop the fruit and on the sides.
This is how pastry chef Biago Settepani of Pasticceria Bruno in Staten Island decorates his, producing 200 or 300 at a time. Settepani moved from Sicily to Brooklyn in 1973, and a couple weeks later, landed a job at a long-gone Italian bakery in Williamsburg called Sabatino’s. “That’s where I learned to make it,” he says. “When I opened my own shop in 1981, I put it on the menu for special occasions.”
Though his family is from cassata’s birthplace, Settepani never tasted it as a kid. “We grew up — I don’t want to say we were poor, but we weren’t rich,” he says. “We used to do a different version at home. It had nothing to do with this one.” He describes biancomangiare, a sweet white pudding, which his family would layer between sponge cake that was soaked in coffee and rum. “But when I came to New York and saw this one, with the candied fruits, I knew I wanted to serve that version in my shop.”
According to Settepani, there are “six, seven, maybe 10 different varieties of cassata in Italy,” but the one he makes at his bakery is “Palermo-style.” Bruno sells “six to seven dozen” individual cassata each week, and a few dozen more of the 10-inch version — which, due to its richness, can serve up to 30 people — each Easter (New Yorkers interested in purchasing a whole cake should try to order ahead by phone). The larger cassatas go for $30 for an 8-inch version, and $50 for the 10-inch. “By the time you fill it with ricotta, add the fondant, all of the marzipan, and then the candied fruit, it’s a very sweet, heavy cake,” Settepani says. “People can’t afford to eat it all the time.”
Cassata was traditionally only served once a year precisely because of its cost: Making it is a multi-day affair, and between the labor-intensive ricotta, nuts for the marzipan, fondant, and candied fruit, even by today’s standards, it’s a very expensive cake.
As Settepani pointed out, there are as many types of cassata in Italy as there are types of American pie. Cassata al forno, the one baked in a pastry crust, can be made with a ricotta custard thickened with a grain like barley, flavored with bits of candied fruit, or studded with nuts or chocolate. Some Italians call a sponge cake filled and iced with ricotta cream — sans marzipan and with or without candied fruit decorations — cassata. (Others call that a torta di ricotta.) In some parts of Sicily, individually-sized cakes called cassatella di Sant’Agata are the norm. The small dome shape is completely covered with marzipan and topped with a single candied cherry. It’s meant to mimic the shape of St. Agata’s breast, an allusion to the torture — her breasts were amputated — the saint endured before her death.
Cassata Siciliana has inspired an ice cream cake of the same name, also decorated with candied fruit, but layered and served frozen. These recipes came with the Italians who immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, and their variations spawned a whole new variety of cassatas in the U.S., from versions spiked with chocolate and coffee to some — like the fruit-forward one popular in Cleveland — made without that otherwise key ingredient: ricotta.
But to traditionalists, “the ricotta is important. It should always be made with ricotta,” Maiogan says. The mother of two grew upon a farm in Sicily, “and I used to watch my father make the ricotta from milk from our sheep and cows.” Today, though it’s hard to come by candied fruit or finished cassata Siciliana at bakeries in Chicago, Maiogan has maintained the family tradition. “It’s always been too sweet for a lot of people but my kids love it,” she says.
Maiogan’s daughter Diana perks up when she talks about it. “This is coming from somebody who doesn’t even like cannoli: It’s the most wonderful, amazing thing,” the next-generation Maiogan says. “As a kid, you don’t even know what that green stuff is, it just reminds you of slime like in Ghostbusters, and then you realize it’s like chewy almond candy and it’s amazing. To this day, it’s one of the only Sicilian things I grew up with that I’ve always truly loved.”