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Grana Padano

The Marilyn Monroe of desserts: A pie in the face of Misery


“Cassata is today a complex cake of layered liqueur-soaked Genoise interspersed with sweetened ricotta cheese, fruit preserves and jellies surrounded by marzipan and decorated with Baroque garnishes and flourishes of marzipan fruits, rosettes, flowers, and curlicues.” Food writer, Clifford Wright, gives this rather proper definition of this popular Italian sweet and perhaps the richest of all. Cassata is the result of a composite manufacture utilising the combination of many ingredients: a sweet liqueur, Maraschino (a liqueur made with ripe Marasca cherries but rum is also used), orange flower water, ricotta enriched with sugar, pistachios, cinnamon, chocolate and candied fruits. Indissolubly tied to Sicily, and to its capital: Palermo, the Sicilian cassata “looks regal because of its colours enhanced by the white, its perfect shape that recalls ancient magic symbols, the circle induces us to think of the sun as a source of life, sacred fantasy that justifies its role of magnifying an occasion, a ceremony, the feast, and for this reason it became the Easter sweet,” writes the somewhat impassioned Sicilian author, Carlo Di Franco.


A cake in the face of Misery,” the late Sicilian poet and humorist, Renzino Barbera, chose these words to describe cassata, “the delicious sweet for the mouth and for the eyes.” In his poetic allegoric tale, Suocera Miseria (Mother-in-law Misery), cassata appears as invented, by chance, a long time ago by a kitchen servant who was married to Vita Amara (Bitter Life), the daughter of Misery. “He was cleaning the kitchen /when Misery started to make fun of him.Upset, he threw at her all sorts of things – obviously belonging to his employer: sugar on her nose, ricotta on her chin, zuccata or cucuzzata, a special Sicilian candied pumpkin, in her eyes, chocolate on her front, and pan di spagna (Genoese sponge) in her hair. Then he threw white sugar and colourful candied fruit, plums, organges and figs at her. Bitter Life had just come back: “What have you done? / Look at how you’ve ruined Misery.” However, she tried what her mother had on her face and laughed: “You did well, my beloved husband / it doesn’t’ matter if Misery is my Mother / Throw some more, more, more at her.”

Marilyn Monroe

Allegories aside, the real origins of cassata alla Siciliana are clearly Italian, and Sicilian in particular, but nonetheless, controversial, as is the case of many Italian sweets. There are many bad imitations made daily around the world, and many confused ideas about it, as that New York based journalist who made an unworkable parallel between cassata and Baked Alaska. Fortunately many Americans know the original and love it. Apparently Marilyn Monroe was one of them:Cassata was a favourite of Marilyn Monroe,” says Francesco Elmi, executive pastry chef in Bologna, who has carried out all the step-by-step video recipes of La Vita è Dolce. There is no evidence whatsoever of this passion, but Marilyn had a housemaid called Lena Pepitone, which sounds vaguely Sicilian, who may have prepared a cassata for the actress, for her to savour after her favourite meal of braciole di vitella (veal involtini) and Champagne, in bed. Perhaps the hearsay was born recently after the Italian writer Roberto Scarpinato in 2004 wrote that Sicilian cassata is like Marylin Monroe; as the actress was too beautiful to make love with, the sweet is too good to be eaten. To enjoy it deeply one must have wisdom and be a kind of aficionado. Not by chance, Pino Correnti, a refined Sicilian gastronome and food commentator, reminds us that in Sicily cassata is said to a beautiful woman. Indeed this glorious sweet has suffered discriminations also at the hands of Italians, as in that book on Italian Cuisine (Cucina italiana, Giunti, 2004) from which Cassata is left out while Sacher torte is included.

The original Cassata al Forno
The original Cassata al Forno

Some authors identify an ancestor of Cassata alla siciliana in a sweet painted on an ancient villa in the archaeological site of Oplontis (Torre Annunziata, near Naples), dating back to the Roman Empire. The sweet “appears” as if covered with something looking like frosting sugar and candied fruits. The only apparent difference to the modern cassata is the external decoration, which is red, perhaps from almond peels, and not green. Latin writer Petronius left the description of a sweet made with ricotta and honey, but the one painted in Oplontis cannot be a cassata because at the time of Ancient Roma sugarcane was not cultivated in Italy. It arrived Sicily with the Arabs, in the 10th century, and went straight into what was the precursor of cassata, a very simple concoction of eggs and flour, to which shepherds added ricotta. That sweet, with some variations – the dough became over time a shortcut pastry – is still made today in Sicily and is called cassata al forno. Many authors think that the name ‘cassata’ comes from ‘qashatah’, the Arabic word for ‘deep bowl’, in which possibly the sweet was made.


In his History of Muslims in Sicily, Michele Amari reports that a mention of the cassata precursor is found in the Riyād an-nufūs, a 10th century manuscript of a certain Abū Bakr al-Mālikī. He writes that an orthodox Muslim jurist in Tunisia refused to eat a sweet cake called a ‘kack’ because it was made with sugar from Sicily, which at that time was ruled by unorthodox Shi’ites. The first reference to cassata as a specifically Sicilian cake made with ricotta cheese is contained in the “Declarus”, a Sicilian-Latin dictionary written by the abbot Angelo Sinesio (1305-1386). A cassata is mentioned also in a contract dated 1409 signed by a Jew named Sadon Misoc. The cake was then possibly refined in the Arab-influenced kitchens of Norman-Sicilian monasteries. Not by chance, it became a sweet for the celebration of both Catholic Easter and Jewish Purim. It was so popular by the end of the 16th century that, according to the Sicilian history writer Rosaria Algozina, the 1575 Synod of diocese of Mazara del Vallo had to prohibit its making at the convent during the holy week because the nuns preferred to bake and eat it rather than to pray.

Pasta Reale or Frutta Martorana, marzipan paste shaped as small fruit
Pasta Reale or Frutta Martorana,
marzipan paste shaped as small fruit

Chef and food writer, Giuliano Bugialli, doesn’t agree with the Arabic origins of the word Cassata, which according to him comes from Latin. He quotes Giacomo Devoto, one of Italy's greatest etymologists, according to whom the name derives from its main ingredient, ricotta, which is cheese, in Latin ‘caseus’ and in Sicilian ‘casu’. ‘Casu’, certainly, but not ‘cassu’, with two s, as ‘cassata’, object critics to this interpretation. Arabic or Latin origins, as Carlo di Franco writes: “ All the ancient references are related to the baked cassata, which we all know well, and not to the contemporary Sicilian cassata born well after.” Cassata al forno is the only one mentioned in the 1785 dated Sicilian Etymological Dictionary by Michele Pasqualino and still in the one authored by Vincenzo Mortillaro in 1870.

Zuccata or Cucuzzata, candied pumpkin
Zuccata or Cucuzzata, candied pumpkin

In fact, cassata alla siciliana, as we know it today was born in 1873, created by a Sicilian pasticciere, Salvatore Guli of Palermo, and presented at a Vienna exhibition. He was one of the biggest producers of zuccata and, of course, put plenty of it on the “new” cassata.Guli apparently was the one who replaced the shortcut pastry with the almond paste, abolished the baking, and added some pasta reale, or Martorana fruits.

Cassatine, small cassata
Cassatine, small cassata

These are another characteristic Sicilian product, made with almonds paste, as marzipan, purportedly invented by the Benedictine nuns of the Martorana Convent in Palermo. “For long time, Sicilians called it Cassata Guli, to differentiate it from the original baked one,” says Sicilian food writer Luigi Farina.

Rosario Scarpato

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