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.
This is the original recipe:
2 cups (300 g) whole blanched almonds
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar *
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
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.
This post has the recipe for making cassata: