Summer brings about a desire for light, airy desserts.They usually involve cream and the fruit harvest of the season.Imagine a sugary , dense Sicilian cassata , usually a cold weather cake transformed into one perfect for a warm weather party.
David Tanis did just that and wrote about it in his column, A City Kitchen, in yesterday's New York Times Food section Cassata is a passed down kind of a recipe , first originating in Arab ruled Sicily in the late 1100's. It is usually a heavy affair , made with layers of ricotta cheese plus chocolate or vanilla filling.It's covered with a shell of almond marzipan and elaborately decorated. Most Sicilian bakers also soak the cake layers in rum or liqueur It's not what many would think of a dessert for a sweltering late June dessert. Mr Tanis lightens it up considerably.The only part kept is the sponge cake for the layers. Gone is the cloying , sugary icing along with the rococo decorations. The filling is only ricotta while for the liqueur use either the eye opening grappa or vodka . Fresh fruit is used instead of the usual candied ones, so it has the feel of an elaborate shortcake. Home bakers should not be put off by this recipe as they would be by the original. It' 's pretty easy to create and assemble. They can also put their own spin on the recipe. Mr. Tanis uses strawberries but recommends also trying peaches, mangoes and nectarines.If they want , they could even sub in the less sweeter blackberries and raspberries, also in season right now.
What makes cassata so unique is the ricotta. It should be the freshest and the tastiest. Most good cheese stores or salumerias, Italian delis, should have it.It must be moist , without any sourness.Taste it if you can before buying.The texture should be smooth not grainy. Mr. Tanis suggests sampling several kinds to understand the broad ranges of them. As for the soaking the layers, home bakers can play around with the syrup.If the grappa is too intense (and it might be to those who aren't used to its' strong flavor), try light rum or better yet limoncello, the tart Italian liqueur. For a non alcoholic one, sub in a honey syrup, perhaps a floral infused one.Orange liqueur can also be great in soaking the cake layers. One of the best things about cassata is that the cake layers can be made a day ahead. They are a classic sponge made with six eggs. flavored with true Sicilian flavors, almond and lemon. Bake it the day before serving because it will be easier to slice into layers at a day old. The ideal time to assemble a cassata is in the morning so that the flavors will meld . Paint the layers first with the liqueur infused lemon syrup then spread the layers with the ricotta.Settle it in the fridge for the afternoon, or the entire day if you have time.Add the strawberries or any other fruit on top just before serving. the berries can be tossed in sugar and lemon before or just dusted with confectioner's sugar.
A toned down cassata is the perfect cake for summer. Add some fresh strawberries along with grappa or vodka for zing. It's a nice treat on a sultry night,