Everyone in my family called Italian cheese cake casssata. Traditionally, Cassata Siciliana is made up of a round sponge cake flavored with liquor and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel and a vanilla or chocolate cream similar to cannoli cream. It’s covered with a shell of marzipan and decorated with icing and candied fruits are placed on top for more decoration. This is nothing like the cassata my family made.
Other variations include the same ingredients except the ricotta filing is replaced with layers of gelato, making it similar to an ice cream cake. This isn’t what my family made either.
My family came from the province of Catania and what they make there is similar to a pie, containing a lattice top and bottom crust, filled with ricotta and baked in the oven…Cassata Catanese, Italian cheese cake.
I grew up all my life hearing my family call this cheese cake cassata. And when I researched the name it only came up with the other two versions. So when you go into an Italian restaurant and order Italian cheese cake what you’re really getting is cassata Catanese. To each region its own.
I never remember my grandmother baking anything. Her sister, my Aunt Mary was the baker in the family. And she would always make the cassata for the holidays. For Christmas she would make it plain. Around Easter she would add grain to the filling, calling it cassata au grana. We always looked forward to desert when Aunt Mary would cut a slice of her cassata and serve it to everyone with a cup of espresso and anisette. Everyone enjoyed it and the holidays would not be the same without it.
Once again, this is a recipe that got lost from my family tradition. This is just too good a cassata to fade away and I hope you will find it as enjoyable as I have and keep it as your own. There are many variations of “Italian Cheese Cake” that you can find on the Internet and in Italian cook books. Everyone adds all sorts of things to this simple cassata….raisins, pine nuts, citrus peel, cream cheese, and on and on. They are all trying to reinvent the wheel. When I eat out in an Italian restaurant and order Italian cheese cake for desert, I always bite my tongue. Because nine out of ten times I get a cheese cake that is closer to New York cheese cake than Italian cheese cake. If I wanted New York cheese cake I would order it. I enjoy a slice of the rich and creamy cheese cake. But it is not Italian cheese cake, cassata. Cassata is not a dense, heavy cheese cake like New York style cheese cake. It is much lighter and has more of a grain to it because of the ricotta. This is a simple cheese cake and in its simplicity is perfection. Don’t try and out do it.
For the crust (Pasta Frolla)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon of baking powder
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 stick butter
- 3 tablespoons of whole milk
- 1 tablespoon of vanilla
In a pastry blender or food processor, beat eggs and sugar together. Then, mix flour and baking powder and add to the egg mixture. Mix everything together. Then add the melted butter, milk and vanilla. Mix it well. Remove the mixture from the pastry blender or food processor and turn onto a lightly floured board or counter. Knead the dough until smooth. Form into a ball and set it aside for a short while. Cut the dough in half. Then roll out the dough, approximately 1/4 of an inch and line the bottom of the pie tin, cutting the excess dough around the edge of the tin. With the remaining dough roll it out to about 1/4 of an inch, cut out long strips and set aside for decorating the top of the pie.
For the filling
- 32 oz of whole milk ricotta cheese*
- 5 large eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- pinch of salt
- grated zest of 1 large lemon
- grated zest of 1 large orange
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup of heavy cream (optional)
*Invert the open container of ricotta into a fine mesh strainer over a bowl. Place in the refrigerator overnight to allow the ricotta to drain off most of its moisture.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and salt till pale yellow. Add the ricotta, lemon and orange zest and vanilla. Beat until blended well. Beat in the cream.
Divide the chilled dough in half and roll out one of the balls to fit an 9-10 inch deep dish pie pan. Line the pan with the dough, trimming the dough at the edges of the pan.
Pour the ricotta mixture into the prepared pan up to the top of the crust. Roll out the second piece of dough 10 inches round and with a sharp knife cut 1 inch strips out of the dough. Form a lattice of the strips and place on top of the pie, pressing the edges down and trimming them.
Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until the top of the cake is golden brown. Completely cool and refrigerate the cake before serving.