Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cassata Siciliana or Italian Strawberry Shortcake from Julie Richardson

Julie Richardson wrote a cookbook devoted to old-fashioned cakes, the ones you may remember your grandmother cooking or at the very least, bringing home from the local bakery.   “Vintage Cakes” (Ten Speed Press 2012) is filled with gems that are not only nostalgic but are every bit as good today as you remember.   Case in point: The Cassata Siciliana or Italian Strawberry Cheesecake, sometimes called an Italian Cream Cake. 

This recipe has a quite a history.  Some food historians would like to attach it to the period when Sicily was under Arab rule in the 10th century.  They supported their point of view using the Arabic word qas’ah from which “cassata” was believed to have been derived.  It means ‘bowl’ and the logic was that the bowl was used to shape the cake.  It took an Englishman, John Dickie, to figure out that the cake’s name was a derivative of ‘Caseata’ which means “cheese concoction”.  He went on to point out that Casatta didn’t even mean it was a dessert until the late 17th century and didn’t look anything like its current incarnation until the 18th century.  Oh those pesky historians!  Then again, Julie Richardson’s Cassata is nothing like the Sicilian version because this particular recipe hails from Cleveland, Ohio, of all places.

A true Sicilian Cassata
The original recipe for a Cassata Siciliana consisted of a round sponge cake, moistened with liquid from liqeuer-lacerated strawberries and layered with ricotta cheese, candied orange peel and a chocolate filling similar to cannoli cream.  Then the whole cake was covered with a layer of marzipan, pink and green pastel icing and decorative designs made with candied fruit depicting cherries and citrus native to Sicily.   The “Cleveland Cassata” was created in the 1920s by LaPuma Spumoni and Bakery which had been around since 1893.  Apparently the children of the owners didn’t like the traditional cake so the recipe was
Cleveland's Cassata from LaPuma Spumoni and Bakery
altered to the one on which Julie Richardson based her recipe.  Sadly, LaPuma Spumoni has closed. So we are left with Julie's take on their recipe.    Except that Julie herself changed the LaPuma recipe by opting to make Lemon Chiffon instead of Sponge Cake. She did away with the candied fruit on top and substituted fresh berries.  She also omitted the candied orange in the cake and substituted orange zest. She reinstated the use of chocolate shavings replacing the chocolate chips the Cleveland contingent used in their recipe. However altered the recipe, the most important thing to know about this cake is that it is a complete show-stopper.  It tastes every bit as good as it looks.  It is the perfect opportunity to use this Spring’s first strawberries, the perfect cake to serve at a dinner party as it serves up to 18 people, and above all, it tastes absolutely fantastic.   Here is the recipe:

Recipe for Julie Richardson’s Cassata Siciliana or Italian Strawberry Cheesecake 

Prep Time: 20 minutes. Cook Time 15 minutes. Total Time:35 minutes

Serves 15 to 18 people.

For the Cake:

1¾ sifted cake flour (7 ounces)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar (2.5 ounces)

cup granulated sugar (4.66 ounces)

5 eggs, separated and at room temperature

½ cup canola oil

½ cup buttermilk at room temperature

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon cream of tarter

For the ricotta cream:

15 ounces whole milk ricotta

½ cup sugar (3.5 ounces)

zest of 1 orange

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

bittersweet chocolate, 2 ounces

1 cup cold heavy cream

For the strawberries:

2 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

3 to 4 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons orange liquor or orange juice

1. First, make the macerated strawberries

Combine all ingredients and set aside while the making and baking the cake

For the cake:

1. Line the bottom of three 9-inch by 2-inch pans with parchment paper and set aside

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

2. In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, salt, brown sugar, and cup of the sugar together and stir to combine

3. In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks, oil, buttermilk and vanilla

Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and mix gently only until smooth - don't overmix

4. In a stand mixer, add the egg whites to a clean bowl and beat on high until just frothy and then add the cream of tarter. Continue beating on high until soft peaks form and then add the remaining cup of sugar slowly, then continue beating on high until firm peaks are formed.

5. Fold about of the egg whites into the flour/egg yolk mixture and then add the remaining egg whites and combine using the fewest strokes possible, using a light touch.

6. Divide the batter equally among the 3 pans (about 10 ounces each) and bake for about 15 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Do not overbake! Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack.

For the ricotta cream:

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar, zest, and vanilla gently until smooth. 

2. Grate chocolate and fold it into the mixture.

Whip the heavy cream and fold it into the ricotta mixture until just combined

To assemble the cake:

1. Drain and reserve the juice from the strawberries

Place one cake layer on a cake board or plate and brush top with of the strawberries juice then top with of the strawberries and of the ricotta cream

2. Repeat with second cake layer.

3. To finish, top the cake with the final layer, brush with juice, and top with strawberries. Reserve the remaining ricotta cream for serving

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