Cassata Cake

My opinion of the "best dessert ever" is always changing. One day it might be Magnolia's red velvet cake, another it might be a boca negra, yet another it might be macarons, of any flavor. The sweet I seem to always come back to, though--without doubt, without pause--is biancomangiare, which you may know as the delicious, creamy filling of cannoli :)

Now, in Italy, cannoli are not traditionally filled with biancomangiare, not as far as I know. I believe they do serve them that way, but it's really an Italian-American tradition, much like how you may find that the "Mexican food" at restaurants in America is not the same as what you'd find in Mexico. Traditionally in Italy, cannoli are filled with a ricotta cream...and I know what you're thinking...EW. Cheese? But like mascarpone cheese (one component of the delicious cream you'll find in tiramisu!), ricotta is mild and can be made creamy and sweet. It's flavored with canela, a type of cinnamon unlike any other you'd commonly know, and, I believe, studded with a maraschino cherry at each end. This is not my favorite way to eat cannoli, though! Not at all...

While the ricotta cream is perfectly decent, and some feel far superior to biancomangiare, it's just not right. I suppose my feelings may be a result of growing up with biancomangiare, which is more like a sweet, silky, cinnamon pudding, but I just think ricotta is too fluffy and rather dry, at least in comparison!

Anyway, this filling is so good...so, so, so, so, so amazingly delectable and addictive...that Italians appear to put it in everything. I couldn't even possibly name all the desserts you can find "cannoli cream" inside, but I assure you there are several. Edise...sfingi...sfogliatelle...pasticiotti...baba...peaches...cannoli...and finally, the best of all...cassata cake.

In my family, a cassata cake is layers of lady fingers covered thickly in biancomangiare. We line the sides and bottom of a springform pan with lady fingers. Then we spread an equally thick layer of biancomangiare. Then more lady fingers, more biancomangiare, and finally some chocolate shavings. It's as easy as that! After refrigerating over night, the sides of the pan are removed and there you have a beautiful, free-standing cassata cake.

At Italian bakeries, the cake is a little different. Instead of lady fingers, it's layers of yellow cake thinly filled with biancomangiare and frosted in stabilized whipped cream. My mother loves this, but in my opinion, it sucks. Honestly! My problem is 1) I don't want whipped cream on my cassata. It takes away from the cream filling--ruins the texture. 2) Those bakers skimp, majorly, on the best part! While our homemade cake might have up to an inch of biancomangiare per layer, theirs have half an inch, at the most, but more like a quarter. I like to say that it's simply "frosted" in cannoli cream...and I don't want a tasteless yellow cake "frosted" in cannoli cream. Sorry!

That's what I consider "enough" cream :)
Another version you'll find in some bakeries, the original from Italy, I believe, is called a Sicilian Cassata cake. This has one layer of cake (I imagine sponge is more traditional than yellow, but I can't promise that), which is soaked in rum, topped with a big fat layer of ricotta cream (instead of biancomangiare), and covered in smooth, green marzipan. There is also usually candied fruit inside/on top. Replace the ricotta with biancomangiare and remove the candied fruit and I'm in! I've actually only eaten Sicilian Cassata once, which was a few months ago at a bakery called Josef's. It's owned by a--get ready--Italian-Canadian-American. Ha! Anyway, he's very traditional and does not sell anything with biancomangiare in his bakery. The cannoli and cassata are made one hundred percent with ricotta. It's not my preference, obviously, but that cake...oh my goodness, that cake. I only had a tiny, individual one, but it was insane. The rum is probably what had me. When I do my version of my family's Cassata, I soak the lady fingers in rum (in the same manner that you soak them in espresso for tiramisu) because I saw it in a recipe from one of Mario Batali's restaurants. It makes a world of difference! I also like to decorate the top with pistachios (to mirror the flavor of chopped pistachios decorating either end of a cannolo), which add another level of flavor that just kicks the amazing up another notch, but that's beside the point.

There are obviously many ways to make cassata and Italians always seem to be very opinionated about what’s “the best.” And, of course, my opinion is that mine is the best ;) A mixture of my grandmother’s lady finger-stacked “cake” with biancomangiare, a traditional Sicilian cassata soaked in rum, and the flavors of pistachio studded cannoli, I think creates the perfect marriage! One day, I’d like to learn to make a really good sponge cake, at which point I may nix the lady fingers, but until that day, they are absolutely perfect!


Homemade Freezer Fare

This past week, I decided to give myself a four-day weekend in order to get my house more in order, spend a better chunk of time with my baby, and cook a mass frenzy of meals to keep in the freezer for easy, no-prep dinners during weeknights in which I just don't have time to cook (sometimes I don't have time to eat!). Of course, I ended up taking a little "me time," which set me back on the organize/cook tasks, but it felt incredible, so I'm going to say that's okay ;)

I wanted to blog about the meal preparation, though. Last year, a friend asked advice about how she could prepare homemade meals when she gets home from work so late that she has no time to cook. Back then, I didn't have what I'd consider the greatest answer. I had a few tips that I'd picked up from some cookbooks, such as batch cooking and freezing, but no definite ideas. Now that I work until 5 pm and have to start my six-month old daughter's bedtime routine by 6:30, during which time I usually fall asleep myself (because it takes two to three hours to get her to fall asleep!) and don't make it back downstairs until 5 am, I find there just isn't time to cook. Because I tend to fall asleep with my daughter, I really don't eat anything unless it's within the hour after I arrive home, but that leaves no prep time and when am I supposed to wind down? I don't.

While there's not much I can do about the lack of relaxation time after a ten-hour work day, I can at least find a way to eat a meal. So, this weekend I set about making as much freezer fare as possible, which is going to be healthier, more delicious, and cheaper than eating store-bought freezer meals! Emphasis on the "more delicious" part. Just this morning (between 7 and 10 am) I made eight servings of my own apple cider chicken (chicken thighs simmered in apple cider with cranberries and onions), and four servings of Gina Neely's "Get Yo' Man Chicken," which is chicken simmered in a tomato sauce with onions and herbs. After breakfast, I made a massive pot of roasted winter vegetable soup (several quarts!) and while I'm probably going to skip the pot of nutty sweet potato soup and the six servings of risotto (I'm exhausted after a late night with the baby and a last-minute mall venture for some much needed makeup to hide my mom face), I still feel like I accomplished a ton in just a day...just a few hours!

Outside of what I cooked today, I have five slices of a potato and Italian sausage torta (like a big, Spanish frittata) from yesterday morning's leftovers, several servings of Bolognese sauce (cooked the exact same way as a pot of chili, which I wish I had in the freezer!), a ton of tomato sauce (all that's missing are the meatballs, which will take 30 minutes of prep), and three servings of Coq au Vin in the freezer just waiting to be defrosted, cooked, and devoured.

What's important about all this is the method behind it. Maybe it's because I had never thought about it before, because the answer is pretty obvious now, but I never realized how to properly make a freeze-ahead meal and have it turn out properly afterward. I always kind of figured that you cook a meal and freeze the leftovers, which would give you overcooked food once you reheat it. I am not a reheat fan. I don't own a microwave, have no plans to ever own a microwave, and though food turns out much much better, still am not a fan of food reheated in the oven/on the stovetop. Everything just ends up overcooked! There is a time recommendation in your recipe for a reason. If chicken thighs are to cook 40 minutes and you do that, then cook them for ten or more minutes a few days later for leftovers, your chicken is now dried out! That's why I either don't keep my leftovers or I use them for cold meals like chicken salad or for soup, in which I'm not really re-cooking my food, but warming it up in a bath of liquid.

Anyway, that's what I thought mass produced, frozen meals were. Fully cooked, frozen, and reheated. Then, when faced with the option of either eating mass produced, frozen meals or starving, I figured out the proper way to prepare them. All it takes is doing all the prep work up until the point of cooking. Then, you portion the meal as needed per your household and freeze it!

To illustrate...Billy and I love Coq au Vin. Love, love, love it! We can't get enough. And Coq au Vin is basically a fricassee, which is a method of cooking in which meat or veggies are simmered in a bath of liquid. That meal always sounded complicated to me, but it's really not--all the more reason to mass produce it for future meals. To make my version of Coq au Vin (which is missing a few ingredients from the traditional), I brown chicken and set it aside. Then I soften onions in the same pot, deglaze with wine, add the chicken back to the pot, pour in stock to cover the chicken, and add some herbs. I bring the liquid to a boil and allow it to cook for 30-40 minutes, until the chicken is ready. Afterward, I remove the chicken, reduce the liquid, add a thickening agent (cornstarch), and then serve it all atop a bed of rice. Simple!

So, for the freezer meals, I did everything up to the point of simmering all of the ingredients. Instead, I took out as many Ziploc freezer bags as necessary, placing two chicken thighs in each (one each for Billy and myself) and evenly dividing the cooking liquid and onions between all of them. Then, I sealed the bags, used a Sharpie to note how long to cook the meal (30 minutes of simmering for bone-in thighs or 10 minutes for boneless, skinless chicken breasts!), and popped them into the freezer. When we decide we'd like Coq au Vin for dinner, all we have to do is take out the bag ahead of time to defrost (or even possibly defrost it in the cooking pot that night, since liquid melts quickly and chicken comes to temperature faster in liquid), drop it in a pot, cook it, and then reduce/thicken the sauce. Oh, and cook some rice (big deal). We could even have rice in the freezer, but I find that unnecessary. So, for maybe twenty minutes of prep, I end up with several future meals that are not reheated leftovers, but freshly cooked dinners! And unlike crock pot meals, I don't have to prep every night in order for my meal to cook all of the following day--I never understood that. "Slow cookers make cooking so much easier!" No. Cooking your food in an electric pot all day long while you're at work is not less work than cooking it for an hour in a pot or the oven once you get home. The cooking isn't the problem--the preparation is. You still have to prep slow cooker food; you don't get to dump a bunch of raw ingredients and expect it to taste great. The solution? Prep a mass amount of the food ahead of time, freeze it, and THEN just dump it in the slow cooker (or a pot on the stove or in the oven) when you want a delicious meal on the fly. That's what takes away time and effort. Sillies... ;)

Anyway, I used the same process for my apple cider chicken (recipe to come one day, hopefully soon!) and the "Get Yo' Man Chicken" as I did for the Coq au Vin. Both are essentially fricassees, so they had similar processes of browning chicken, softening onions, and adding liquid/herbs to simmer. What made the effort even faster for some dishes, though, was the fact that I had certain ingredients prepped with other meals. For instance, I had softened a bunch of sliced onion yesterday for the torta, but didn't use it all, so I popped it in the fridge figuring I'd have it for another meal. Come today, I realized my apple cider chicken needed sliced, softened onions, so I ended up using half the leftovers for that, skipping the entire softening process for that particular meal! Though, it only takes a few minutes. Also, I needed chopped onions for Gina Neely's chicken dish, so I prepared some extra at the same time because I knew I'd need it for risotto later. Those would have been simple things to do last-minute, but it's obviously a process that can be taken further to eliminate steps in cooking processes. So, if you'll have something to use it in later, why not cook a larger amount and save yourself time later? It actually doesn't really take any longer.

In the same vein, if you're cooking a meal anyway, why not prepare more than you need and freeze some of it for later? Two servings usually take the same amount of time as four (or simply add several extra minutes, at the most). Whereas two different nights of prep are always double that of the first. Eight meals in three hours, people...that includes the time it took to clean up after the first meal and dawdle playing around with my daughter. If I had wanted eight servings of just one of those recipes, it would have been done in under an hour. A week of food in under an hour! It's amazing to me how simple.

Now the problem, for moms like me, is finding the time to repeat this regularly when you and your fiance don't usually have a day off at the same time, which means you're taking care of a baby alone and trying to cook at the same time :) We'll see how it goes. At least now I know that, when I do find the time to cook, I should prepare several servings and cook only two for that night, freezing the rest for any time I please :)

FYI, this method will work for many different dishes. For the risotto, I planned to cook it half way, so it only needs to defrost and be finished off in order to retain the proper consistency (this is fully an experiment--I know it works for refrigerating the rice, but I'm not sure about freezing--here's hoping!). For stews, you'd prepare all the ingredients until the point at which you simmer them together for x amount of time. You can bread or marinate meats and only have to defrost/pop them into the oven/on the stove top. You can simply brown meat, deglaze with a little bit of stock, and freeze it all together for quick meals with that extra flavor and no extra step of  browning. You can bake almost anything and freeze it--bread, muffins, cake, scones, cookies (chocolate chip is so tasty straight out of the freezer!). In fact, these things taste fresher, almost like they were just baked, when frozen and defrosted rather than when left to age in the refrigerator! You can pre-cook vegetables for mixing into soups, stews, pot pies, risottos, rice dishes, pasta, whatever, and simply defrost before your meal (it's a great idea for leftovers, especially if you're like me and tend not to eat them). I plan to do this with sweet potato, butternut squash, and cherry tomatoes because I love to throw these things in pasta, risotto, and rice! Why should I regularly make small batches when I could pull a bag out of the freezer and just pop it on the stove to defrost before dropping it in my dish?

I'm really excited and I hope that anybody who reads this and finds themselves under similar circumstances may gain some inspiration themselves!
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