Recipe: chocolate cassata cake
It’s cake season. This means that it is cool enough for me to want to turn my oven on. It means that it is cool enough that I am willing to work with chocolate. Even so, making a cake can fill me with dread and be downright frustrating at times – mostly because of elevation issues. I’m always keen to try new recipes, but hate the idea of wasting time, energy, money, and good wholesome ingredients on cakes that fail. A recipe tester, I am not. But this cake has been bouncing in my head since October.
let’s make some candied orange and lemon peels (lemons, orange, sugar)
slice the peel off
combine sugar and water to make a syrup
simmered peels (2 hours)
I have never had an authentic Italian cassata before. The only reason I knew anything about cassata was that I had made an adaptation from Marcel Desaulnier’s Death by Chocolate which involves yellow spongecake soaked in rum and layered with a shaved chocolate pastry cream rather than the traditional ricotta cheese filling. I read that Italian cassatas are commonly served around Easter. But when I had lunch at Pizzeria Locale last month, I saw cassata on the dessert menu and impulsively ordered it.
chocolate chiffon cake: oil, eggs, confectioners sugar, milk, flour, cocoa, sugar, almond extract
mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients (except egg whites and granulated sugar)
folding whipped egg whites into the chocolate batter
pour the batter in buttered pans lined with parchment paper
What arrived was a slice of chocolate cassata: chocolate spongecake with a creamy, almost buttery ricotta filling studded with pistachios, and all topped with a nice dark chocolate glaze. Brilliant. I had to attempt this at home – it was so lovely! I did a little research and decided to make a layer cake… because I am partial to layers. There would be four components: chocolate spongecake, ricotta cheese filling with candied orange peel, chopped pistachios, and shaved chocolate, a boozy simple syrup to soak the cake layers, and a dark chocolate glaze.
ricotta cheese, vanilla extract, grated chocolate, chopped candied citrus peel, pistachios, cinnamon, powdered sugar
stirring in the pistachios, candied peels, and chocolate
Unfortunately, the first chocolate spongecake recipe I tried was a major FAIL, so I returned to my trusted chocolate chiffon cake which behaves nicely and plays well with others. Of course, right as I started to make the second round of cake, my kitchen scale met its most-deserved demise. I have a new and improved scale en route to my house as I type, but had to convert all the weights to volume measures on the fly. Math is good for you.
i flavored the simple syrup with grand marnier to accentuate the orange
add several tablespoons
The second cake worked beautifully. The ricotta filling seemed a little too runny at first, but when I mixed the nuts, peels, and grated chocolate, it firmed up. Still, it wasn’t quite the buttery texture of the ricotta filling I had at Pizzeria Locale, but I was running out of time. I don’t drink often as I can’t handle much alcohol at all (John has called me a “cheap date” before!), but I don’t think there is anything quite so sublime as layers of delicate cake soaked in booze. Cake is fine. Booze is fine. Boozy cake is the pinnacle. Yes, this is how I really feel.
for the glaze: heavy cream, dark chocolate, butter
stir the butter into the ganache
If you are a planner (which I am), it’s best to make the candied orange and lemon peels first, maybe even a day ahead. Give yourself a few hours on that. Next you can bake the cake and mix the ricotta filling. Let the cakes cool completely otherwise there will be excess moisture inside the cakes which makes slicing them a little messy. You can freeze the cakes and refrigerate the ricotta filling if you want to wait on assembly. Make the chocolate glaze an hour or so before assembly so it can cool. The glaze is most fluid when it is hot and the viscosity increases as it cools and eventually solidifies. You want to use that glaze when it is warm enough to spread easily, but cool enough that most of it stays on the cake rather than drips off of it.
applying the simple syrup
spreading the ricotta filling
When I bake this chocolate chiffon cake recipe, I always get a domed top which I trim off. I highly recommend baking in 9×3-inch round pans rather than the more common 9×2-inch round pans. Overflow in the oven sucks. Once you have assembled the layers of the cake, take a cup of the chocolate glaze and pop it in the freezer for a few minutes. You want it to get firm enough so that it’s like a super soft truffle. It shouldn’t be solid, but it shouldn’t flow on its own either. I use this for a crumb coat along the sides of the cake and as “spackling” for any cracks or holes on the top of the cake. It isn’t necessary, but it gives me a cleaner finish when I glaze the cake. Now you’re ready to glaze. Test the consistency of your glaze such that it doesn’t leave marks when you run your spatula over it, but also doesn’t run straight off the cake. Glaze the cake on a cooling rack over a baking sheet so the excess drips off.
apply the crumb coat
pour the glaze over the cake from the center
move the glaze to the edges and evenly smooth it around the sides
Garnish (or don’t garnish) the cake however you like. I try to keep it simple, mainly because I’m lazy and by this stage of the game I am so ready to be done with the cake. I love green and when I skinned the pistachios, I reserved the greenest ones in a small bowl for garnish. A very sharp knife and a lot of patience and care can get you beautiful green slices of pistachios to sprinkle over the cake. I made sure to put them on while the glaze was still wet, but this resulted in darker pistachios after a day in the refrigerator. They just look like little green leaves or petals – something we won’t see in the mountains again until June. Then some unsweetened whipped cream piped around the edge finishes it. At this point, you can transfer the cake to your serving plate. Do this carefully! I used two very wide and strong metal spatulas for this job.
and she’s done
the nice thing about tall cakes is that they are meant to be shared
This chocolate cassata is not overly sweet, which I like. It is dominated by orange and chocolate with hints of pistachio. The cake and filling are moist and lend to the weightiness of the entire ensemble. However, it is not a dense and heavy dessert. It’s lovely. If you let it sit for a day in the refrigerator, the flavors really come together.
“it was a fun test, and we’re all impressed at how much you won”
inspired by Pizzeria Locale
2 9-inch chocolate chiffon cakes
2 cups boozy simple syrup
4 cups ricotta filling
3 cups chocolate glaze
Make the components: Timing wise, make the candied citrus peels first. Then bake the cakes. Make the ricotta filling and the boozy simple syrup. Finally, make the glaze. Now you’re ready.
Assemble the cake: Slice the cakes into two even layers each so that you have four layers of cake. Set the base of one of the cakes, cut-side up, on a cooling rack over a baking sheet (reserve the other base for the last layer). Apply the boozy simple syrup to the cake with a pastry brush. Spread a third of the ricotta filling over the cake. Set another cake layer on the ricotta filling and repeat the previous steps. When you get to the final layer, set it on another cooling rack, cut-side up. Apply the boozy simple syrup to the cut-side and then CAREFULLY turn the cut-side down and place it on top of the final ricotta layer. Make sure the layers are all aligned. Scoop a cup of the ganache into a small bowl and place it in the freezer for a few minutes until it begins to thicken. Use the thickened ganache to spread a crumb coat around the sides of the cake (to fill any gaps and essentially create a smooth surface). If there are any holes on the top of the cake, use some ganache to fill those in too. When the rest of the glaze is the right consistency (smooths out any disruption on the surface, yet thick enough that it doesn’t run straight off the side of the cake), pour it over the center of the cake (keep a little bit for touch ups). Use a spatula to smooth it from the center out to the edges. Work on one location at a time and push the glaze over the edge, quickly smoothing the glaze around the sides. Continue to do this around the cake until the entire cake is glazed. Decorate as desired and refrigerate the cake. Serves 10-12.
candied citrus peels
2 cups sugar
3 cups water
2 lemons, peels of (no pith – the white stuff!)
2 oranges, peels of (no pith – the white stuff!)
Place the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and stir over high heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring the sugar to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the peels. Let simmer for 2 hours or until the peels are translucent and candied. Drain the peels. Reserve the citrus syrup for other uses (cocktails, cakes, syrups, etc.).
chocolate chiffon cake
makes 2 11×17-inch sheet pans or 2 9×3-inch rounds
10.5 oz. (2 1/3 cups) cake flour (I used all-purpose flour)
4 oz. (1 cup) cocoa powder
8.75 oz. (2 cups) confectioners sugar
0.5 oz baking powder (omitted at 8500 ft.)
7 oz whole milk
6 oz canola oil
3 eggs (4 eggs if small)
1 tsp almond extract
13 oz. (or just 12 large) egg whites
9 oz. (1 1/4 cup) granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 375°F. Prep pans by buttering bottom and sides. Place parchment in pan and butter the parchment. Sift dry ingredients, except the granulated sugar, into a large bowl. Mix all ingredients, except the 13 ounces of egg whites and the granulated sugar, in the large bowl until combined. Whip whites and granulated sugar to medium peaks. Fold into batter gently a third at a time (tempering the batter). Bake until set, about 20-25 minutes for sheet pans and 35-40 minutes for round pans. I recommend checking them early with the toothpick test – it should come out clean or have crumbs stuck to it – but no goopey batter! Remove from oven and remove from pan. Let cool completely on a rack.
2 lbs. ricotta cheese (whole milk), strained of excess liquid
2 1/4 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsps vanilla extract
1 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, grated
1/2 cup candied orange and lemon peel, chopped
1 cup dry-roasted unsalted pistachios, chopped*
* If you want to peel the skins from the pistachios, blanch the nuts in boiling water for a minute, then drain. Rub the pistachios with a kitchen towel or peel them by hand. Let dry.
Mix the ricotta cheese, confectioners sugar, ground cinnamon, and vanilla extract together. Stir in the grated chocolate, chopped candied orange and lemon peels, and the chopped pistachios. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
boozy simple syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup (or more) Grand Marnier or liqueur of your choosing
Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan over high heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil for a minute. Remove from heat and let cool. Add the Grand Marnier.
1 lb. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
Place the chocolate in a medium bowl and set over a hot water bath for a few minutes until it begins to melt. Alternatively, you can microwave the chocolate at half power for a minute at a time until it starts to melt. Heat the heavy cream in a saucepan over high heat until it begins to boil. Remove from heat and immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let sit for a minute, then stir together until it becomes a dark and shiny ganache. While the ganache is still hot, stir the butter in by pieces until melted and completely incorporated.