Friday, 16 September 2016

History Bakers: Sicilian Cassata

I took some liberties with this month’s History Bakers, as the recipe itself is not from the archive. I’ve spent most of my time at the History Centre working with the papers of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), and really wanted to use something from that collection for my inspiration. So when I was going through a file of papers relating to a chief officers conference held in the 1960s, and came across a menu featuring a dessert I had never heard of, it seemed the perfect opportunity. So the inspiration for today’s recipe, cassata, comes from a menu card for the 2nd ACPO Autumn Conference Dinner held in 1965.

U DPO/10/864

A Cassata is a traditional Sicilian dessert, often made for celebrations, and is made up of a marzipan outer shell filled with cake, sweetened ricotta, candied fruit and dark chocolate. I managed to find a recipe online. I’m going to be honest, this did not turn out quite how I had hoped, and it certainly did not look like the picture on the website. I’m not much of a baker and thought I’d cracked this by selecting something which included pre-made cake. Think of this article as the History Bakers’ equivalent of when someone drops a freshly-iced three-tiered masterpiece on The Great British Bake Off.


According to the website, this recipe requires (be aware of my comments in square brackets if you are attempting this)

For the cake
5 oz of marzipan [you will need more than this. I used closer to 9, or around 250 grams]
1 lb of ricotta cheese [I had some of the ricotta cheese mix left over at the end]
7 oz of confectioners’ sugar [I used icing sugar]
3.5 oz of candied fruit [I used mixed peel and glace cherries – the best my local supermarket had to offer!]
3 oz of chocolate drops [I assumed they meant dark chocolate drops. That seemed to work]
1/8 oz of vanilla [or half a teaspoon of vanilla extract]
3.5 ounces of dark chocolate [I used cooking chocolate]
5 oz of sponge cake [This is not enough cake. Use more cake. I used a Madeira loaf]
3.5 tablespoons of rum

For the glaze
1 egg white
5 oz of sugar [I used icing sugar again. This is not enough sugar. Use more sugar].

For the garnish
3.5 oz of candied fruit

First, you need to line a shallow spring form cake tin of 7-8 inches (I used a deep one. Error). According to the recipe, if you dust the inside of the pan with icing sugar, the marzipan won’t stick. This is a lie, but we’ll worry about that later. Go ahead and dust your pan, then roll out your marzipan to around 4 mm thick, and carefully line the tin. It probably shouldn’t look like this.

Marzipan lined cake tin

The next step is to melt some of the dark chocolate, and brush it all over the marzipan using a pastry brush (or any kind of brush I suppose, provided it is clean). The recipe suggests you need to temper it, but instead I used cooking chocolate. This process was strangely satisfying, and I recommend brushing melted chocolate on things as an activity. You then line the tin with slices of the cake. It was at this point that my suspicions about not having enough cake were realised. This was on a Sunday evening after the shops had shut. You brush the cake with the rum (gently or it will all crumb, as I discovered).

Marzipan brushed with melted chocolate

Layer of cake added on top of the chocolate

Now it’s time to make the ricotta filling. This is a mix of the ricotta, sugar, fruit, chocolate drops and vanilla. I felt reassured when this was quite tasty, albeit incredibly sweet. This mixture is placed inside the cake, and I spread it flat with a spatula. I didn’t use all of the mix as I knew I would have to match up the base with how far the cake went up the sides, so had quite a bit left over afterwards. You then lay the remaining slices of cake over the top, and brush them with rum. I was seriously running out of cake at this point, so some very thin pieces of cake got squished into the ricotta mix, with bits of crumb filling up the gaps. The bottom was well and truly soggy. This was when I stopped taking pictures as I was finding it all a bit traumatic. There was a lot of marzipan left above the cake level on the sides of the tin so I just folded it over the bottom to try and give the base some more structural integrity. We’ll find out why that was a mistake later on. You then pop the whole thing in the fridge for an hour or so to chill before adding the glaze.

To make the glaze the recipe would have you mix the egg white and the icing sugar. I am almost certain the recipe does not have enough icing sugar, the mix was really watery and it barely stuck to the marzipan, and mostly just slid off. I would experiment with adding more sugar (and generally practice glazing things more first). Also be sure to sift your icing sugar, or you get unsightly lumps in your glaze. This is probably more obvious to seasoned bakers, which I am not.

The next ‘fun’ bit is turning the cassata out onto a wire rack ready to glaze. That tip about lining the tin with icing sugar at the start? Yeah, it still stuck. While attempting to remove the base of the tin from the top of the marzipan as gently as possible, large cracks started to appear. Still, I managed to get it out mostly in one piece, and proceeded to glaze it with the overly wet, lumpy glaze. As you can probably imagine, it looked beautiful.

The finished cassata

After you’ve relocated your cassata on to a plate (make sure you haven’t folded the marzipan over the bottom like I did as it will sag through the wire rack and you’ll have to sheer the whole thing off using a very large, sharp knife), the final step is to decorate the cassata with the remaining candied fruit. I made a glace cherry sad face as it nicely summed up how I felt about the entire experience. Even more sadly I forgot to take a picture of it at this stage.

For me, the cassata was a little sweet and sickly, but I wonder if that would be less the case if there’d been a different cake to ricotta mix ratio. Everyone was very kind about it in their feedback.

Staff comments:
Indulgent sweet treat!
Delicious! All the ingredients work really well together. Fab
Sweet and tasty!
Extremely good, why the sad face?
Surprisingly sweet and indulgent, really liked the dark chocolate chips
Creamy and delicious
I loved it. I am a sucker for anything with marzipan in. A real change – well done!

As an interesting addendum to this - while finishing off the file that referenced the cassata, I discovered that maybe the creators of the dinner enjoyed by members of the ACPO in 1965 didn’t even experience the joys of making one. A draft version of the menu revealed that perhaps theirs was a little easier to prepare than mine. Can’t say I blame them.

Alex, ACPO Project Archivist

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