Spring in Sicily is welcomed ‘big time’ and spring produce is embraced.
Sicilians make a fuss about the preparation and eating of seasonal spring produce: asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, fennel and ricotta. It is the time when the island comes alive – flowers bloom, vines sprout and vegetables ripen.
The menu at Waratah Hills Vineyard was a celebration of Spring, and all who attended the class enjoyed all of that produce and the occasion in such a beautiful vineyard.
We ate local garfish rolled around a Sicilian stuffing (commonly used for sardines called Beccafico), stuffed artichokes and a pasta with a dressing made from sautéed spring vegetables, moistened with wine and stock and topped with nutmeg and creamy ricotta.
We drank excellent, matching wines with each course and used local, extra virgin olive oil made by Judy and Neil’s (proprietors of Waratah Hills Vineyard and organizers of this event) neighbours .
Cassata of course was the final culinary jewel; I coated it with not-too-sweet marzipan…..and I have my tongue out in anticipation…(I do not know what I was saying!)
A few dressed Sicilian Green olives at the start did not go astray (garlic, orange rind, chilli flakes, wild fennel fronds, bay leaves, extra virgin olive oil) and a fennel and orange salad as a palate cleanser eaten after the fish was a good choice .
Thank you to all those eager and friendly people who made the event a success.
I usually coat my cassata with marzipan and every time I do this people tell me how much they have enjoyed eating the marzipan and how it compliments the flavours of the cassata.
The last time I made cassata with marzipan was Saturday 23 March at Food And Culture In Sicily: Easter Cookery Workshop offered by La Trobe University and once again the people who attended the session liked the marzipan and said that they had never enjoyed eating it in the past.
The session began with a very interesting lecture on the history of food and feasting in Sicily, Italy and the Mediterranean. Dr Gillian Shepherd is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Director of the A.D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University. During her lecture she focused on the literary and archaeological evidence for food production and consumption in the ancient world.
The lecture was followed with a food workshop and cooking demonstration that reflected the ways Sicilian cuisine has been influenced by the dominant cultures of the Mediterranean from ancient times to the modern day, which includes Greek, Roman, Arabic, French and Spanish cultures.
The cassata was very appropriate for this session, not just because of its derivation, but also because it was essentially and still is an Easter dessert. In time it has also become popular for Christmas.
Sicily produces large quantities of almonds and almond meal is used extensively for making traditional almond sweets and pastries. Marzipan fruit originate from Sicily and Sicilian pastry cooks are esteemed and employed all over Italy.
Marzipan when made in the traditional method is made by cooking a strong syrup of sugar and water and then adding freshly ground almonds. The mixture is kneaded till smooth (like bread dough) and then shaped.
The modern and easiest way is to make it with almond meal, icing sugar and water. It is still kneaded and rolled with a rolling pin. Unless you can buy fresh almond meal it is best to blanch the almonds and grind them yourself.
Over the years I have been making marzipan and adapting a recipe from Bitter Almonds, Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian girlhood. Maria Grammatico has a very famous pastry shop in Erice in Sicily and her recipes have been recorded by Mary Taylor Simeti.
In a food processor, grind the almonds with about 2 tablespoons of the sugar until very fine, almost powdery.
In a food processor or in an electric mixer, combine the nuts, the rest of the sugar, the water, vanilla, and the almond extract.
Process or mix until the paste is very smooth. Remove to a marble slab or other cold work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead briefly by hand.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. Marzipan will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.
****This is what I do: I use 2 cups of ground almonds and 1 and ½ cups of pure icing sugar combined with ½ cup of caster sugar – this adds the crunchy texture that compliments the ground almonds.
I really like the taste of natural almonds and if I am using fresh almonds I see no necessity to use vanilla or almond extract.
I usually mix the sugars and almond meal with my fingers and add the water slowly. I am cautious with water because if the mixture is too wet I may need to add more almonds and sugar. I knead it as if I am making bread and if it needs more water I add it to make the mixture pliable.
This is not the first time that I have written about Cassata or Easter or Marzipan and there are many other posts about these three topics on this blog.
When my children were young they used to refer to me as the food police; everything had to be just right and particularly when we went to a restaurant I often seemed to find fault.
I cannot always be a purist. Sometimes I take shortcuts and this shortcut did not look or taste too bad.
I used sponge fingers, dipped in Cointreau. These formed the casing of the sweet – the bottom and top layers. In between I used a sweet ricotta filling, in fact it a similar ricotta filling that I use when making a cassata. I then covered the top layer of sponge fingers with a whipped cream with a little ricotta, topped it with summer strawberries and leaves made from marzipan. The result is very much like a summer cassata and very suitable for the Christmas season.
The flavours and process of dipping sponge fingers or sponge cake in liqueur and layering with a cream filling are very much Italian. After all, I have been making cassata, zuppa inglese and tiramisu for years.
I have maintained the Italian colours.The only problem is what do I call this dessert?
The marzipan can be made days beforehand, wrapped in cling wrap and left in the fridge. The leaves can also be made beforehand and placed in a sealed container with baking paper in between each leaf.
This dessert fed 6-8 people – the strawberries were huge and because of their large size they give a wrong sense of scale.
500 g fresh ricotta,
100 g caster sugar,
1 cup Cointreau or to taste
50g of chopped blanched almonds
some orange and citron peel previously soaked in Cointreau for at least 1 hour
small pieces of dark chocolate
cream to cover the dessert, add as much as you like
Arrange sponge biscuits in a square container lined with cling wrap. Sprinkle them with orange flavoured liqueur.
Beat 450g ricotta with a dash of cream, sugar and vanilla. The mixture should be creamy but stiff.
Fold in nuts, chocolate, and drained peel. Reserve the Cointreau.
Place this on the layer of sponge fingers and finish off with a top layer which you have sprinkled with more Cointreau – I used what I drained off the peel.
Leave it for at least 5 hours.
Close to serving, (I did this an hour before my guests arrived) decorate it with the whipped cream (mixed with a little vanilla, 50g of whipped ricotta and a little caster sugar to taste).
Place strawberries on top and decorate with leaves.
100g blanched almond meal
100g g icing sugar
1 egg white
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 drop green food dye
Mix contents together and use your fingers to knead the mixture; add more sugar of meal if the mixture is too wet.
Place the marzipan in between two sheets of baking paper and roll it out thinly. Cut it into shapes of leaves.
One of the cassate (plural of cassata )I have made covered with green marzipan.
This is a small pasticceria in Polozzi Generosa, in the Madonie Mountains, not that far from Palermo. I have misplaced the photos of the pascal lambs I found in this shop, but they were beautiful.
These are Pascal lambs from Dolcetti. It will give you an idea of what I mean.
In Sicily, the traditional pascal lambs (agnellini pasquali) are made with marzipan, however I have found a recipe for making the lamb out of pasta garofolata (dough flavoured with cloves/ cloves are chiodi di garofano in Italian). This same dough is used to make ossa dei morti (bones of the dead, customary Nov1st/ 2nd, the day of the Dead/ All saints Day).
Here is another version from a different Pasticceria in Sicily.
For those of you who may wish to try making a pascal lamb (could be fun to make with children), here is the recipe from: Culinaria Italy, Claudia Piras, 2004:
Pasta Garofolata per Ossa Dei Morti o Agnellini Pasquali
2 pounds sugar — (approximately 1 kg)
2 pounds all-purpose flour — (approximately 1 kg)
10 whole cloves — ground
In a saucepan, bring the sugar to the boil in a little water. When the
sugar is dissolved, lower the heat and sift in the flour, stirring
constantly with a wooden spoon, being careful that no lumps form. The flour
MUST NOT be allowed to brown, it must stay snow white.Stir in the powdered cloves.
Once everything is thoroughly mixed and the flour is nice and white, remove from the heat.
As soon as it has cooled down enough to be handled make little bone shapes
or lambs out of the dough.
Alternatively, if you have appropriately shaped molds (spelling as in Culinaria text), you can brush them
with a little almond oil and fill with the dough.
Leave for a few days in a dry place. Remove from the molds if you used
them. Brush the undersides with water, place on a baking sheet and bake in
a preheated 350F (180C) oven. When the sugar has risen and turned the
distinctive colour of a monk’s habit, the cookies are ready.
NB. There are many recipes for making ossa dei morti; many use almond meal and egg white.
In Sicily, the dessert has to be cassata – not the Neapolitan one made with ice cream, but with ricotta, and Sicilians use sheep’s milk ricotta because they can.
Each time I make a cassata it always looks different, but they always taste good. on occasions I have even made made marzipan with pistachio nuts – a long process peeling off their skins!
In pastry shops many cassate are covered with glassa (fondant):
There are many recipes where icing sugar is melted in water over a stove and then poured over the cassata – I find this too hard to work with and far too sweet. The following fondant is much easier to work with:
Beat 1 egg white till stiff, add 350 g of icing sugar (which has been infused with a vanilla bean). Add juice of one lemon and a few drops of green colouring. Beat till smooth. Spread over cassata. Many pasticcerie use white and green fondant.
One of my readers has made the cassata (following the recipe on the blog) and has attached photos of it – it was the celebratory cake on New Years Eve.
She also made the mazipan fruit (following the recipe on the blog) and used them to decorate the cassata. She has sent me some photos. Doesn’t it look wonderful!!!
She writes: Your recipe works a treat and it is a great celebratory dessert. Everyone on new years eve thought it was very special! Some even ate the marzipan fruit!
With more time I would have created a fancy edging with small leaf shapes. Your sponge recipe was most successful! The cake was delicious and I was generous with Cointreau. Everybody was delighted with the cassata – it was the highlight of the meal.
I followed your recipe closely but added more couverture choc (which isn’t so sweet) and glace orange and citron to the ricotta. The glace orange doesn’t have the intense flavour of candied orange peel so you need a bit more of that. I would be inclined to bump up the use of Cointreau next time to make the sponge even moister and to bring out the lovely orange liqueur flavour even more.
Could you also try adding honey to replace some of the sugar in the ricotta mix? It could make the ricotta a little moister too but wouldn’t make it too sloppy as it is stored in the fridge (the honey becomes more viscous when cooled). It has stored well in the fridge (hasn’t gone weepy at all). We had some for morning tea today with friends and it was greatly enjoyed.