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Cassata - history on a plate

"'the sum' – of all Sicilian culinary adventures, a culinary palimpsest in which you can see the layers of influence – Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, French – all of which were assimilated into the Sicilian whole. " Fabrizia Lanza

This photograph caught my eye when I was trawling through one of those old magazines - in this case a Gourmet Traveller from April 2003 - a long time ago. Mostly because it was beautiful, but it did bring back memories of having made a cassata just once in my life I think.

The one I made is, I think, this one which comes from my very old Time Life The Cooking of Italy which was written by Waverley Root - a vaguely familiar name but not, somehow associated with food. (So I looked him up and I was sort of right - he started as a well-known journalist and then turned to food essayist - most notably books on Italy and France.) But I digress. As you can see this one looks very different from the one above, but there are similar elements. And it's those elements that demonstrate that thesis that I have mentioned before that if you dig just a little way into what is on your plate, all history, geography, politics, sociology - life in fact is there. In this case:

"Cassata can also be seen as a snapshot of thousands of years of Sicily's history. From the sweetened-ricotta filling – sheep and goat's milk ricotta was made by Greeks in Italy as early as 650 BC – to the marzipan, royal icing or fondant outer layer of the cake that can be attributed to the Arabs who invaded in the 9th century and planted sugarcane. The pan di Spagna or sponge, meanwhile, was likely brought to the island by the Spanish." Maggie Scardfield - Gourmet Traveller

Interestingly that photograph from the Time Life book also stresses the cultural history of Sicily with the striking Sicilian puppet Bradamante from the puppet cycle Orlando Furioso which is still performed on a regular basis with these very traditional old puppets.

The origins of the name of cassata are disputed as well. There are two potential sources, both of which it seems to me have the right credentials - so why can't it be a fusion of both? The first is from the Latin 'caseus' which means cheese, and the second is from the Arabic qas'ah which refers to the shape of a bowl in which it was originally cooked - like this one here. These days, of course, that shape is not always strictly adhered to - as in both of my examples above. And neither is the colour which traditionally seems to be green. For that coating is a marzipan flavoured with pistachios.

Whilst we are still on shape though, there is also a smaller, individual version called a Cassatella di Sant'Agata. Now this shape has rather more gruesome origins - it represents the breast of Saint Agata whose breasts were lopped off as part of her martyrdom. I'm not sure I would be wanting to eat something that reminded me of something so sickening.

Cassata seems to have gone out of fashion somewhat. Indeed I'm not really sure that it was ever very much in. It is ignored by Elizabeth David in her book on Italian Food, and Robert Carrier too in his Great Dishes of the World. But then it does feature rather gloriously - in a totally different form it has to be said - in my Time Life book. If you feed cassata into Google Images though you will get a plethora of beautifully over the top decorated cakes. And if you look for recipes you will find the same: the first one below is from my Italy the Beautiful cookbook and demonstrates the other common variation - rather more cakelike, without that outer coating of marzipan, but a similar filling - no recipe for this one I'm afraid. I think it's more like a sort of summer pudding construction - soaked sponge cake on the outside and filling within. Then there is Rolled cassata from one of Jamie Oliver's nonnas; Cassata Siciliana Cake from Rachel Roddy via Fabrizia Lanza - a Sicilian cook/teacher whose name pops up frequently, and finally Fabrizia Lanza's own version of Cassata cake which is not quite the same as the one in Rachel Roddy's column.

The decorations are always constructed with candied fruit which is also in the ricotta filling, and which are a speciality of Sicily.

But like me, back before I made my Time Life cake, you probably thought that cassata was an ice cream. And indeed there is a cassata which is an ice cream, but this time from Naples. It's sort of a mix of the Neapolitan ice cream that we still see - three different layers of ice cream - vanilla, strawberry and chocolate - which I confess I have never liked - and the Sicilian cassata cake. This is because it's a dessert structured around the three layered ice cream with a bit of cake involved somewhere. I can't find an origin story for this but assume it was influenced by the Sicilians. Well that was what it was back in the 70s and 80s and apparently very popular in India for some reason. Nowadays I think it tends to be more of a ricotta based iced dessert with the candied fruit and nuts, and chocolate bits and no cake. Plus some kind of liqueur - as in these three: Cassata (ice-cream) from the Australian Women's Weekly; Jamie Oliver's Cassata semifreddo and Annabel Langbein's Cassata (ice-cream).

And I see that all three have retained at least one feature of the original - layers for the Australian Women's Weekly, the original pudding kind of shape for Jamie Oliver, and the profusion of mixed candied fruits and nuts for Annabel Langbein.

Alas I could not find the recipe for the beautiful Gourmet Traveller version, but the casing is pastry, not marzipan and the filling is ricotta held together with egg, and flavoured with cinnamon, orange flower water and all those candied fruits, chopped nuts and bits of chocolate. Then it's all baked in the oven, so is actually a baked cake rather than a cake constructed from liqueur or coffee soaked layers of sponge cake and the ricotta fruit and nut mixture. The original is not cooked, just constructed.

You don't see cassata on the menus of Italian restaurants these days - well not often unless they are 'doing' Sicily as it were, and it is obviously one of those sweets that lends itself to individual interpretation - like the almost equivalent English trifle. All those enthusiastic cake decorators would have a ball though.

And I forgot to say that traditionally it was just eaten at Easter, sometimes Christmas, but these days any time.

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