Cassata is a wonderful dessert. It’s perhaps, sponge cake at its very best. Brush on some Lemoncello®, smear on a ricotta-mascarpone filling and serve with a wonderfully fresh, macerated fruit compote and YUM! There’s just one other thing…this has to be made ahead, which makes it the perfect dinner party dessert.Sponge cake is a really nice cake to have in your baking repertoire. It’s a base for many cakes and it just tastes so very good. It’s eggs, sugar, flour and flavoring. That’s basically it. Simple, right? While this is a simple cake to make, success is about technique. The main thing to know is that you’re going to heat the eggs and sugar, in the mixing bowl, over simmering water (think double boiler). When you heat eggs, mixed with sugar, over simmering water, until they become very warm to the touch and the sugar melts, you will increase the beaten volume by about 3 times! Pretty incredible, huh? Boy, that was a mouthful. I’ll break it down a bit. You want a relatively deep saucepan and you put about 3/4 inch of water in the pan. Bring it to the boil; turn the burner to low. Don’t forget to turn the heat down before you place the bowl over the water. Now, break the eggs in the bowl you’re going to beat them in. Pour in the sugar and whisk until they are well combined. Hang on to that whisk. Place the bowl over the hot, hot water and begin whisking. You want this mixture moving constantly, so as to not end up with sweetened scrambled eggs! If that happens, you’re going to have to toss the mixture and begin again. Keep whisking and you’ll notice the eggs begin to change color and foam will begin to form. This is good, but keep whisking. This is a good workout!The eggs will become foamy and less opaque. Remove the bowl and dip your finger into the mixture; it should feel very warm to the touch, and there should be no gritiness from the sugar. If it still doesn’t feel warm, replace the bowl over the water and keep whisking. Sometimes there will be an actual wisp of steam that comes off the eggs. This process will take from 4-6 minutes.
Now, it’s ready to whip in earnest. Place the bowl on the mixer and turn the mixer to the highest setting and let it go! You will notice that the mixture becomes lighter in color and begins to increase in volume. This is what we want. You’re going to end up with the bowl almost completely filled with the egg mixture! It’s pretty amazing, actually. You’ll feel like a real baker when you do this. Stop the mixer and add the extracts. Beat again until the mixture becomes thick, lightly lemon-colored and soft peaks have formed, about 5-6 minutes of beating.
The original recipe calls for cake flour. Well, The Goddess has used her cake flour up, and she’s not going to the market to get more. So, we’ll do a substitution and this is something for you to remember in the future. Cake flour is wheat flour, but it’s milled from soft wheat, which has less gluten and therefore is perfect for cakes. (Bread flour is milled for hard wheat, which is higher in gluten, which gives bread the strength you need for great bread, but nasty cakes!) I greased the spring-form pan with butter, dumped the flour mixture into the greased pan, and then poured the flour out onto the parchment. It’s extremely important to sift the cake flour. You’re adding air and that’s good. Air is good when making a sponge cake. I use a simple strainer and sift it through three times. I put the flour on parchment so I can just slide the sifted flour on top of the beaten sugar/egg mixture.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently sprinkle the flour over the beaten egg mixture. Fold the flour into the eggs very gently. You want to preserve as much of the volume as possible. You’ll notice that there is a small amount of baking powder added to the mixture and that it’s optional. This gives the finished cake a nice height, just in case you deflated the mixture too much. I usually do add it, but it’s up to you. Add it; don’t add it. It’s just there as an option. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top; place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake until there are still a few crumbs on the skewer. Don’t over-bake sponge cake or it will be too dry.
When the cake comes out of the oven, place it on a cooling rack and cool to room temperature. I prefer to make the cake the day before I’m going to assemble this. You can make the filling, by just stirring all the ingredients together. I do this the day before and store it in the fridge until I’m ready to assemble the cake.
I sliced the cake into three layers, but you can do four layers. As you can see, the cake tore slightly when I sliced it. Don’t worry, no one will see that. It will be our dirty little secret. Once the layer is placed, you’re just going to gently push it back into place and the filling will hold it there…easy-peasy! I brushed each layer with some Lemoncello®; I used about 1/4 cup per layer and I brushed the cut side (the under side that will be placed directly on top of the filling) of the top layer. Place filling in between each layer, using 1/3 of the filling for a three layer cake and 1/4 of the filling for a four layer cake. “Frost” the top layer with the remaining third of the filling.
Oh yes, one more thing. This cake really needs to be assembled, covered and chilled for at least 24 hours before you plan to serve it. Otherwise, the cake has a tendency to be slightly dry, which is the nature of sponge cake. When I served it, the cake had only been chilling for about eight hours; it was on the dry side. But, I just ate a piece that had been in the fridge for 5 days and it was wonderfully moist and flavorful, so that “make-ahead” option is really less of an option and more of a “must-do”. And now, finally, to the recipe.
Cassata with Ricotta-Mascarpone Filling
- For the cake:
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/3 cups sifted cake flour, plus 1 tablespoon (see NOTE)
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (optional—see the text)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon, lime or orange zest
- Pinch kosher salt
- 6 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- For the syrup:
- 3/4 cup Lemoncello® or Grand Mariner®
- For the filling:
- 2 cups fresh ricotta
- 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
- 1/3 cup sugar, or more to taste
- 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- For the garnish:
- 1 1/2 cups ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
- 1/2 cup raspberries
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons frozen orange juice concentrate
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Bake the cake: Heat oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan; dump the flour into the pan and shake it around, coating the pan completely; set aside. Dump the flour out onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper; tap the pan to remove the excess flour. Add the salt, baking powder, if using, and citrus zest to the flour. Sift the mixture three times (I use a simple strainer); set it aside.
In a heavy, deep saucepan, add water to the 3/4-inch level. Bring to the boil. Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer, add the eggs and the sugar, whisking well. Turn the burner to low, and place the bowl over the water; make certain that the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl. Continue to whisk the mixture constantly. The mixture will become slightly thicker, darker yellow, almost golden and foamy. Be very careful to keep whisking (you don’t want scrambled eggs). Dip your finger into the mixture; it should feel extremely warm to the touch. It will take about 4-6 minutes.
When the mixture is extremely warm, remove the bowl from the water and place on the mixer stand fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat egg mixture on high. The mixture will lighten in color, become thick and foamy and will increase in volume by about 3 times! This is good. This is what we want. When the mixture is almost to the soft peak stage, add the extracts. Continue beating for another minute or two. This will take about 5-7 minutes of beating.
Remove the bowl from the mixer. Gently sift the flour over the egg mixture; fold in flour gently, but quickly. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 34-39 minutes or until a skewer, inserted into the center of the cake emerges with almost no crumbs attached. Cool completely on a rack. This cake is best made a day in advance.
To make the filling: Whisk together the cheeses, sugar and vanilla extract until it’s a spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake: Slice cake into 3 or 4 thin layers. Place 1 layer on a cake platter. Using a pastry brush, generously with the liqueur of choice, about 3-4 tablespoons per layer. Spread with 1/4 or 1/3 filling, depending on how many layers you choose. Repeat with remaining 2 or 3 layers, stacking as you go. Smooth the cheese over the top. Cover and chill for at least 24 hours. Refrigerate until an hour before serving. This cake must be assembled, ready to serve at least 24 hours, but I think 48 hours ahead is even better. It keeps well, tightly covered, for up to 6 days.
To serve: Combine the berries with the sugar, lemon juice, orange juice concentrate and balsamic vinegar. Let macerate no more than 15 minutes. You can either spoon the berries over cake or serve them on the side (I prefer this option). If you serve them on the side, slice a couple of whole berries, fan them and place them in the center of the cake. Serve.
NOTE: If you need a substitute for cake flour, use 1 cup of all-purpose flour and 1/3 cup cornstarch. Stir until well combined and proceed with the recipe.
Cassata with Ricotta-Mascarpone Filling Recipe©Marcia Lahens 2016. All rights reserved.
This is a beautiful dessert. This is not an excessively sweet cake. It’s light and rich, all at the same time. That’s a good thing. I slice the fruit and add the sugar no more than 10 minutes before serving. You just want some juice, but you don’t want it be watery. I like a mixture of strawberries and raspberries, but you can use just plain fruit and it will be truly stellar. The better the fruit, the better the cake. I usually serve the fruit on the side and just garnish the cake with several fanned-out strawberries or raspberries. That’s it. This time, I served the Cassata for brunch. I just sprinkled a few raspberries around each slice. It was delicious.
I am going to make this cake with cocoa, replacing part of the flour with cocoa and use only raspberries or cherries with Kirsch, instead of Lemoncello®. I’ll keep you posted.
NOTE: If you wish to make this cake more autumnal, you might like to add some Vietnamese cinnamon to the cake batter or the filling, use Calvados or rum, instead of Lemoncello® and serve with sautéed apples.