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!

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