I have two favorite cakes. One is simple and traditional: yellow cake with chocolate frosting. You really can’t go wrong with that classic combination. My other favorite cake is less common and more involved: cassata cake.
I love cassata cake. And I mean LOVE. Cassata is an Italian sponge cake that has the same type of filling you’d expect to find in a cannoli, which is one of my favorite desserts of all time. (Sidebar: Chicagoans, where do you buy your favorite cannoli?) I often requested cassata cakes for my birthday growing up (what can I say? I was a fancy kid.) and had one at my bridal shower, too. But, as much as I love it, I’ve never attempted to make one on my own. I have a bit of a fear when it comes to layer cakes in general, so I’ve only made them a couple times.
I saw this recipe on the lovely Helene’s site, Tartelette, and bookmarked it long ago. The original recipe calls for orange zest, which Helene omitted but I included (although less than the original recipe calls for) and a glaze with a little almond extract. I decided to use Helene’s stabilized whipped cream frosting (adding a splash of almond extract) because I think it suits cassata better and unlike the glaze—which had a raw egg white in it—could sit in my fridge a little longer.
Of course, with how delicious this cake is, I’m surprised it made it more than a day, anyway. Everything about this cake was pretty amazing (well, except for the person decorating it. Man does she suck.). The sponge cakes were great, the rum syrup was perfect for imparting a bit of rum flavor without being overwhelming and also in keeping the cakes moist, and the filling was delicious and not overly sweet.
This cake was pretty involved and time-consuming, but not difficult. Keep in mind that the assembled cake needs to cool in the fridge for 4 hours before you can frost it, and then needs to set up in the fridge again once it’s frosted, so this isn’t a cake you’ll want to make a few hours before having guests over for dinner. The only other time I’ve made a sponge cake was for a Boston Creme Pie. The approach for this cake was a bit different and after I added the dry ingredients to the beaten egg yolk mixture, I was a bit worried because it was pretty thick and firm. It made folding in the whipped egg whites a little more difficult, but ultimately it all came together. I did find the recipe for the rum syrup to make a bit too much. I think halving it would be too little, however, so you may want to scale it to about 2/3 of the recipe. Also, I used the convection setting on my oven and my cakes baked up in about 27 minutes, so definitely keep an eye on them earlier than the 35-40 minute mark called for in the recipe, even if you aren’t using convection.
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
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Rum Soaking Syrup:
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup rum
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup shelled whole unsalted pistachios
3 cups fresh, whole-milk ricotta
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
zest from 1 medium orange
Stabilized Whipped Cream Frosting:
2 cup heavy cream
1/3 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 (it took 27 in my convection oven), 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.