"You're as beautiful as a cassata," goes the Sicilian saying. The ricotta-filled sponge cakes, elaborately covered in jewels of candied fruit and found all over Sicily, are certainly the pasticceria's most flamboyant sweet.
But it's not all about looks. 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.
A Sicilian proverb says, "sad is the one who does not eat cassata on Easter morning." But we'll have it all year around.
There are many versions of cassata, but the two most common are the simple al forno, studded with chocolate and baked inside a sweet pie dough, and the cassata Siciliana, pictured here, with green-tinted marzipan as the outer layer. Both are typically prepared in a wide pan with sloping sides called a qas'at.
Traditionally, cassata was enjoyed around Easter, when the milk for the ricotta was sweetest. These days, the filling is typically sweetened with sugar and flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and chocolate. It's also common for the layers of pan di Spagna to be splashed with maraschino liqueur or Marsala for a little oomph.
The bright candied fruit and rinds, elaborately arranged in Baroque-inspired patterns, are a cassata's crowning glory. Find candied pears, oranges and other preserved fruits in David Jones food halls, Simon Johnson, or Italian delis, of course.