Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Cassata in a van

Lillo the Sicilian makes his living from driving a van filled with local produce from his home town just outside Palermo to the north of Italy. He makes the 1,300 km journey at least twice a month. In the winter the van is packed with crates of fresh oranges, mandarins and large, knobbly lemons, as well as bottles of extra virgin olive oil. He spends a couple of days parked by the roadside just down the street from my house, in the freezing cold, selling the fruit by the crate. Lillo’s always smiling and there’s always a brisk trade around his van. His fruit is of the highest quality – and everyone takes the opportunity to make their year’s supply of limoncello.

A few years back, on a particularly cold day, I took him a flask of pastina (little pasta) in chicken broth and a bottle of wine. We’ve been friends ever since and today, when he comes, he always brings a little something extra for me in his van. A couple of month’s back it was a large tub of olives, before that wine from his own vineyard. This time his wife made me a cassata – ‘it’s for the children’, he warned.

Cassata Siciliana is a sweet from Palermo in Sicily. It was traditionally made and eaten over Easter but today it can be found in bakeries all year round. There are mixed views on when or how it originated. Some claim that its roots lie in the Muslim Middle Ages, the name deriving from the Arabic word qas’at, meaning the large kettle or container which was used as a mould for the cake.  This theory is disputed as some food historians believe the name originates from the Latin word for cheese, caseus, possibly making it a dish of Roman origin. It could be that there is truth in both theories as the ingredients point to influences from both directions.

It’s a moot point. Lillo’s wife’s cassata was everything a good cassata should be – colourful bordering on garish on the outside and very sweet, slightly alcoholic, fresh and creamy on the inside. The interior of the cake is made with an unctuous mixture of creamed ricotta, sugar, sponge, liqueur, candied fruit and chocolate chips. The sides are lined with a further layer of sponge and then encased in a layer of green marzipan. Traditionally the case would have been made with an almond paste, an idea which was claimed to have originated in the convent of Martorana in Sicily. However, today it’s prohibitively expensive to make cassata in this way and so a simple coloured marzipan is used instead.  The top of the cake is then decorated elaborately with crystallised wedges of candied fruit – oranges, pears, lemon wedges and cherries – and, traditionally, zuccata (pieces of candied pumpkin).  

It’s not a cake I’ve ever tried making myself. It’s laborious and elaborate work and just decorating the top is an art form in itself. What’s more, in my excitement last night, I completely forgot to ask Lillo if he could give me his wife’s recipe. I’m going to go and see him this afternoon. There’s a sbrislona baking in the oven as my wife wants to return the favour. As soon as I get the recipe I’m going to give it a try and I’ll get back to you!


  1. It looks just gorgeous Mario, but certainly rather labour intensive. I would be interested to see the recipe.

  2. Thanks Cathy, although I can't take any artistic credit this time. But I will post the recipe as soon as Lillo gets back from Sicily.