4.07.2012

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!



Cassata Cake

Note: This is actually a three-day process. Day 1) Biancomangiare. Day 2) Assembly. Day 3) Eat!

Biancomangiare - Day 1

Ingredients

  • 2 qts Half & Half
  • 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 4 large, whole sticks canela OR 2 tsp very finely ground canela
  • chopped milk chocolate
Directions (You'll find identical directions in my Cioccolato-Mangiare Cake because it's the same filling, just chocolate!):

In a large pot, mix the sugar and cornstarch; if you don't mix them, the cornstarch can more easily end up getting clumpy. Add the milk and ground canela, mixing well. 

Bring to a slow boil, constantly stirring and making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot so that the pudding doesn't burn. Be patient, taking longer at a lower heat will ensure success; I generally cook mine around medium or medium-high, lowering the temperature, if necessary. You'll know it's getting near the finish when you can pick up big clumps of pudding in your spoon. From here, it fairly quickly comes together. 

Once the pudding has clearly thickened and come together, remove it from the heat immediately and add the vanilla.

Cover the pudding with plastic wrap, making sure it's actually touching. Don't worry about the plastic touching the hot pot and pudding, either; I promise you, it won't melt. Just be careful setting it on so that you don't burn yourself. Let the pudding cool at room temperature for a while before setting it in the fridge. Leave overnight.

The next day, beat the mixture until it becomes a fluffier consistency. I use a hand mixer directly in the pot, but you can transfer it to a bowl, if you like, or use a stand mixer. It's very thick, so this isn't something you can likely do with a whisk in your hand! Fold chopped chocolate evenly into pudding and it's ready for use in anything you want! Even a bowl and a spoon ;) And, as always, I'm not certain how much chocolate to use. At least one large Hershey bar, chopped into quarter inch pieces, but possibly two! Just use your judgement--some may prefer less chocolate, some more. Some may even prefer dark chocolate!

Rum Syrup (for the lady fingers on Day 2!)

Ingredients
  • 3 oz water
  • 3 oz granulated sugar
  • 3 oz dark rum
Basically, equal parts water, sugar, and rum--so make as much as you like and store it in the fridge or freezer! It will keep in the fridge for up to a month.

Cassata Cake Assembly - Day 2

Ingredients
  • Savoiardi lady fingers (found at any Italian produce market and even many grocery stores now! They're crisp, not soft like you may be accustomed to)
  • Rum syrup
  • Biancomangiare (likely half the recipe above)
  • Pistachios, chopped (optional)

A note about lady finger Cassata cake: You have two choices. One is to line the outside of the cake with lady fingers, which will help it stay together by keeping all the filling inside. The other is not to line the cake in lady fingers, but you do take the chance that it may fall apart. With my free-standing, whipped cream trifles, there's no issue with the "cake" falling apart because the whipped cream has no movement itself. It's very stable and, therefore, keeps the lady fingers stable. Biancomangiare, however, is more like pudding, so it has movement and can push the lady fingers apart from one another, enabling it to fall apart. A thicker pudding prevents this more, but then you're messing with consistency--it's really your choice, though! I often don't line my Cassata in lady fingers because I prefer the rustic look and I don't really like to eat the outer cookies because they don't soften as the rest do from soaking up the rum syrup and moisture from the biancomangiare. Others, however, prefer to know, without doubt, that their cakes won't fall apart. Another option is to skip the lady fingers and use sponge cake layers, which I absolutely plan to start doing as soon as I learn to make proper sponge cake! As of right now, mine is just rock hard ;)

Anyway, you'll need a 9-inch springform pan to mold your cake (size isn't a big deal, I've made bigger and smaller, it simply changes the amount of lady fingers/filling you use). If you're going to leave out the border of lady fingers, you'll want to line the sides with parchment/wax paper. If you're going to create a border of lady fingers, you can skip the paper and simply line them up (sugary side out), vertically, around the sides of the pan. Then, with either style, cover the entire bottom of the pan with ladyfingers, cutting some in half/quarters, as necessary. 

Next, drizzle/brush at least a 1/4 cup or so of rum syrup evenly over the lady fingers. The measurement here is not exact; I tend to spoon the liquid over the fingers so that the tops are just wet and the cookies emit the perfect hint of flavor. Sometimes I don't use enough, sometimes I use too much--figuring out an exact amount would be smart and, perhaps, I'll try next time ;) If you don't like the flavor of the rum, though, try a liqueur such as Kahlua, or any other liquid that compliments the flavors of the cake. You do need to soak the lady fingers, though, because they'll be too hard otherwise. And I don't feel that switching to soft lady fingers solves that problem because, though they're soft, they're still a bit dry on the tongue in comparison, if there's no liquid. I prefer a moist "cake" and believe others would too. I've even soaked cakes in milk to get the texture without added flavor, so do whatever!

If you want to use pistachios, try mixing them (chopped) into the biancomangiare. I like to do this because I love how the flavor is reminiscent of cannoli, but some people don't like that the nuts soften. It's up to you; if they're chopped finely enough, the softening isn't as noticeable. If you don't mix them into the filling, you can still decorate the top with them, which will add a little flavor (and some nice decoration!), just not as much. Again, no measurement. But one day!

Spread the biancomangiare to your own desired thickness; I make it at least as thick as the ladyfingers (more pudding, please! Haha). And don't forget that this cake will only use, perhaps, half of the biancomangiare from the recipe! I like to eat any leftovers straight out of a bowl, just like pudding :) It really is the best! You can also pipe it into cannoli shells (found at Italian produce stores/bakeries!), ice cream cones...whatever!

Then, add another layer of lady fingers and repeat the entire process, ending your cake with a top layer of biancomangiare. You should end up with two layers of lady fingers and three of filling.

Lastly, decorate the top. I like to sprinkle chocolate shavings over it and create a border, along the top edge, of whole or chopped pistachios. You can really decorate however you want, though. 

Once your Cassata is complete, cover the top with foil (create a hood so that the foil doesn't touch the top) and leave in the fridge at least overnight. 


Eating - Day 3


You know that didn't need a header...I just wanted one! Haha. 


Carefully remove the sides of the springform pan and gently peel the parchment paper away from the Cassata (if you haven't used lady fingers). To serve, cut just like cake! Make sure you have a good sharp knife, though, and an empty stomach because you won't want to stop eating ;)

A note about springform trifles/cakes: I don't know if others make these sorts of things all the time and don't have this problem, but I can never seem to get the cake off the bottom of the springform pan and I never want it there for serving! So, instead of layering my cake on the pan bottom, I actually just set the side of the springform on top of whatever I plan to serve the cake on--it may be a cake stand, a serving platter, or just a cardboard round like from a bakery. Then, I layer the cake right on that surface! When I remove the sides, the entire thing is standing perfectly on the surface on which it's to be served instead of a slippery piece of metal that doesn't look as nice atop a pretty little cake stand ;)

I believe the problem is the lady fingers--trying to slip something beneath them and then pulling that to pick up the cake/set it down shifts the lady fingers, causing everything to fall apart. I had this problem last year when I moved the cake for a photo and then put it back on the cardboard round. With that in mind, I bet it wouldn't be as difficult a task with full sponge cake layers rather than separate lady fingers. Because the layers would be intact, there isn't really reason for them to come apart. If you can make a good sponge cake, I highly recommend this route. You can even do yellow cake, though I don't think the flavor and texture are up to par. Either way, just be sure to slice thin layers, about the size of the lady fingers, so that you can be sure to get the proper ratio of cake-to-filling :) Like I keep saying...MORE PUDDING! :)



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