From a sweetened filling, to a hearty torta, to a singular dish molded in a clay pot, ricotta cheese migrated from Ancient Rome across Northern Europe to be part of many cultures’ Easter tradition.
Meaning “twice-cooked” or the Latin “recocta,” ricotta is not technically a cheese. Most cheeses are made milk’s protein casein. Ricotta cheese is made from whey, the liquid leftover after the casein cheese-making process, and in which remains the protein albumin. Not to waste a protein, some shepherd a few thousand years ago thought to heat and acidify the whey; the albumin coagulated and curdled, resulting in a fluffy pile of fresh ricotta cheese.
Supposedly first enjoyed in the Roman countryside, in pastures dotted with sheep and shepherds, (The best ricotta, many say, is sheep’s milk.) Sicilians made the curds a staple. Torta di Ricotta, a simple ricotta cheese cake, Pastieri Napoletana, a ricotta pie studded with farro or wheatberries, and Pizza Gaina, the savory ricotta pie richly filled with mortadella and provolone, are all parts of the Sicilian Easter tradition, not to mention cannolis and Cassata.
Easter for the Russian Orthodox means Pashka, a pyramid of sweetened, creamy ricotta cheese – the one molded in a clay pot - thought to have immigrated with Eastern Europeans to New York City, where it was reborn as New York Style Cheesecake. Creeping across northern Europe, ricotta emerges in Finnish Easter tradition as “Pasha,” a similar pyramid of sweetened ricotta cheese.
My Easter choice this year will be Cassata, where ricotta cheese is not necessarily a heavy center piece, or a baked wedge, but the luscious chocolate and pistachio-ed filling for a tower of rum-infused sponge cake, all clouded in whipped cream. Most Italians probably order their Cassatas from a bakery, but this recipe, lifted from a blog, is a simplified version. While there are steps, none are too complicated, and the result has the magnificence a celebration of rebirth merits.
Cassata Cake from the blog “Elly says Opa”
Cake and filling adapted from Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen by Gina DePalma
Frosting adapted from Tartelette
Sponge Cake Layers:
2 cups cake flour, sifted
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt, plus a pinch for whipping egg whites
8 large eggs, separated
1.5 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
one half cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Rum Soaking Syrup:
2 cups granulated sugar
three quarters cup cold water
one half cup rum
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate
three quarters cup shelled whole unsalted pistachios
3 cups fresh, whole-milk ricotta
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
one half tsp. ground cinnamon
zest from 1 medium orange
Stabilized Whipped Cream Frosting:
2 cup heavy cream
one third cup powdered sugar
splash of almond extract
1.25 tsp. powdered gelatin dissolved in 3 Tb. cold water
Preheat the oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center. Lightly grease two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans with butter or nonstick cooking spray, line them with parchment paper, then grease the parchment.
Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium speed until very light and pale yellow in color and doubled in volume. Beat in the vanilla extract, followed by the melted butter. Transfer the egg mixture to a large, clean mixing bowl. Fold in the dry ingredient-quickly and lightly, stopping just before they are fully incorporated. Clean the whisk attachment and mixing bowl.
Place the egg whites and the pinch of salt in the cleaned bowl of the electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites until firm peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter quickly and lightly, incorporate any streaks of dry ingredients that remain.
Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans, rap the pans against the counter top to eliminate air bubbles. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until they are golden brown, a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, and the cakes have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Allow the cakes to cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then carefully unmold and set them out to cool completely on a a wire rack.
While the cakes are cooling, prepare the rum syrup: In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar, water, and rum. Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring the contents to a boil. Lower the heat and allow the syrup to simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Filling: using a microplane or box grater, grate the chocolate into fine, feathery shreds. Finely chop the pistachios. Place the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer and, using the paddle attachment, beat until the ricotta is creamy and soft (it will remain slightly gritty due to its original consistency). Add the grated chocolate, chopped pistachios, and beat just until combined.
Assembling the cake: Have ready a 9-inch springform pan. Using a serrated knife, carefully split each cake layer in half horizontally to make four layers. Place one of the layers in the bottom of the pan and, using a pastry brush, moisten it generously and evenly with some of the rum syrup. Spread the cake layer evenly with 1/3 of the ricotta mixture. Repeat twice with another cake layer, more of the rum syrup, and another third of the ricotta mixture. Place the final cake layer on top and generously brush with the rum syrup. Wrap the springform pan tightly in plastic wrap; this helps the layers fit snugly on top of each other. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Whipped Cream Frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream with the sugar until soft peaks, and add in a splash of almond extract. In the meantime, dissolve the gelatin in the microwave (I did it for 20 seconds, but at 30% powder). Slowly pour the gelatin in one steady stream over the whipped cream and continue to whip until firm. If you add your gelatin a little cooled and before the whipped cream is still at soft peaks stage, it should not clump on you.
Decorate your cake with the whipped cream and return the cake to the refrigerator to chill until you are ready to serve it, at least 3 hours.