Sicily is renowned for dishes that are a feast for both the eyes and the palate, and cassata is no exception. It is an ancient Easter dessert that, in its dazzling decoration, reflects successive contributions to the list of ingredients, which include ricotta, pan di Spagna, zuccata and other candied fruit, glacé icing and pasta reale (Sicilian marzipan).
The most quoted theory regarding the origin of the name mentions the Arab word qas'at, which reportedly describes the bowl-shaped mold used to make the dessert. An alternative theory refers to the Latin word caseus (cheese). A layer of pan di Spagna is used to line the mold, then the sweetened ricotta is added, then another layer of pan di Spagna. When cassata is then taken out of the mold, the surface of pan di Spagna becomes the base of a flamboyant decoration.
Sicilian pastry shops may offer also a miniature version of cassata, called cassatina. In looking online for a photograph of both delights, I found myself walking unexpectedly down memory lane, when I landed on the website of the famous pasticceria Dagnino, which has a store in the Esedra Gallery in Rome. When my family visited some relatives who lived nearby, my father would always go to Dagnino to buy pastries. One day there was a mix up at the counter and when we opened the beribboned package at the end of our lunch, we found an array of Sicilian cannoli and other similarly decadent (and quite expensive) pastries. We felt sorry for the people on the other side of the accidental exchange, but, I have to admit, that did not prevent us from luxuriating in the intense flavors of the pastries that had found their way onto our table. If you visit Rome and stop at Dagnino, then you can walk over to the nearby church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, designed by Michelangelo as a creative restoration of a portion of the Roman emperor Diocletian's baths.
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