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you oughta try the cassata

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

adding vanilla

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.

slicing layers

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

first slice

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”

Chocolate Cassata
[print recipe]
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.

ricotta filling
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.

39 nibbles at “you oughta try the cassata”

  1. debbie says:

    wow…just beautiful.

  2. Laurie says:

    You have such brilliant ideas for making cakes and this is absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Kristin says:

    Gorgeous! John may think you’re a cheap date, but keeping your kitchen stocked with good booze & other ingredients….maybe not so cheap!

  4. farmerpam says:


  5. Kristen says:

    I saw this on FB and came here to simply say my first thought upon seeing the photo: You are a goddess.

  6. Margie says:

    Heaven on a plate!
    (another bookmark)

  7. Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar says:

    Waaaaant!! Love this!

  8. Villy @ For the love of Feeding says:

    Very elegant! It must be delicious!

  9. Anna says:

    Mind blown.

  10. Darla says:

    Dying!! I am not a huge fan of cakes. When I do “eat cake”, it has to be a realllllly good one. THIS is something I would make and eat. So not on my diet at all, but pistachios are good for you and so is dark chocolate, right!?! Thank you for sharing!!

  11. Eileen says:

    I’m sorry, but you cannot call yourself lazy in any way, if you made this cake. The garnish is beautiful, the cake is beautiful, and you are, too.

  12. Claire says:

    very elegant!!! Looks wonderful, love to try my hand at that!

  13. Linda says:

    Can you leave out the rinds and pistachios? I was thinking of amaretto and slivered almonds. I dont personally like candied rinds.
    Last question- would this make a decent 3 layers ? I am at sea level-I hope this recipe is ok for that. Thanks.

  14. Jenny says:

    If you are lazy – then I am technically dead. That is beautiful! Someone make this for my big birthday next month!

  15. L. says:

    Beautiful! If I had one in front of me I would just eat the whole thing for breakfast right now. (So I guess it’s good that I don’t?)

    My mom makes a cassata that is not as, shall we say, authentic, and also doesn’t contain booze (major downgrade), but is super tasty nonethess. It uses pound cake, a sweet ricotta filling containing chocolate chips and chopped maraschino cherries (and maybe one other thing I can’t recall), and a very hard and intense chocolate frosting made from dark chocolate, butter, and a little bit of coffee.

    I know that store-bought maraschino cherries are filled with all kinds of crazy chemicals and dyes that would be out of place in this cake, but I could see using one’s own booze- and sugar-soaked cherries in the filling for added fruity zing, and potentially incorporating the coffee into the glaze…. no? Too overboard?

  16. Denise Dewire says:

    This recipe sounds divine and can’t wait to try it. Appreciate your time and energy in every recipe you develop and every image you shoot and process. So glad I found your site!

  17. Kathy Swanson says:

    Truly loverly!!!

  18. Allie says:

    This is gorgeous and slightly reminds me of the Austrian cake Sachertorte… which is amazing apricot dark chocolate-ness. YUM!

  19. betz says:

    I was thinking of a Christmas dessert and this came to mind. It has been years since I made this cake. I like your version with chocolated cake. The last time I made this I used a pound cake. Delicious then, delicious now.

  20. Kurt Jacobson says:

    That is one of the prettiest cakes I have ever seen! I travel to France every couple of years and look at all the patisseries I can while I am there. Your cake looks as good as any of those. Reminds me of the cakes in Japan where they have developed a style of baking similar to the French but more visually appealing. Your blog and photography continue to amaze, and inspire me.

  21. Nina, Brittany says:

    This cake is so beautiful with pretty colors ! This is better than any cake I’ve seen in France … believe me cos I live there :)

  22. Shut Up & Cook | The Attainable Gourmet says:

    All your friends and family know how lucky they are, right?

    Everything you make is a work of art!


    officially jealous.

  23. Joy says:

    The cake recipe looks wonderful. I had to save it.

  24. Jen says:

    Finishing up making this cake for a surprise birthday get together. Thanks so much for posting this recipe.

  25. Kris says:

    Well, I see the cake, but where’s the grief counseling?

  26. Dana says:

    Jen, you never cease to amaze me. My mom made a cassata when I was a kid and I think there must have been ice cream in it because she would pull it out of the freezer. I remember that boozy taste and thinking it was all so grown up. Hers did NOT have a chocolate glaze – I would have requested it for every birthday if it had. Although yours looks so different (and a million times better), you brought back some pleasant memories for me – it was her “company” dessert. Happy Thanksgiving!

  27. Relish Blogs – Blogs We Love Week 11.19 says:

    […] has made what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cakes we’ve ever seen.  Literally.  Chocolate Cassata Cake isn’t something you’re going to whip up for dessert tonight – it’s an event cake – but […]

  28. jenyu says:

    Laurie – no, I just riff off of other ideas and reassemble them :)

    Kristin – ha ha! John bought Andrea (of Andrea’s Recipes) and myself drinks at the hotel after a conference dinner so we could chat, and I wound up getting seltzer water and grapefruit juice because booze makes me sleepy and I had tons of work to get done. That’s why he called me a cheap date ;)

    Kristen – you’re too sweet xo

    Darla – I don’t eat a ton of cake either, but I really like making them!

    Eileen – you’re a doll, thank you xo

    Linda – I think you can pretty much take out and put in whatever you like as long as it doesn’t affect the stability of the filling (don’t put in too much liquid or it might run). And yes, you can make it 3 layers, you’ll just have lots of leftover scraps for noshing. I believe the chiffon cake is quite stable at sea-level. I omit the baking powder, but you should not.

    Jenny – ;)

    L – well, it sounds good! I say make it your own :)

    Denise – thank you! xo

    betz – I guess this could be a nice holiday cake with all of the chocolateyness.

    Kurt – oh, you are just too kind xo

    Nina – xoxo

    Shut Up & Cook – pshaw!!! xo

    Jen – yay!! You rock!!

    Kris – ha ha ha!!

    Dana – Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friend. If you come to visit me, I will make this for you :) xo

  29. Brandon @ Kitchen Konfidence says:

    Wow, this cake looks *beautiful*. I’m most impressed with all of the flavorings though. Booze, nuts, citrus peel AND chocolate? Sounds so good.

  30. Wizzy says:

    Wow this cake is so very pretty and looks like it came from a professional bakery.

  31. tut says:

    I made this cake twice in two weeks with my “Baking Coach.” The second cake was for a NYE 2012 dinner party. As the twelfth course of a thirteen course dinner party we had our work cut out for us. We followed the recipe, with my learned Baking Coach making a few adjustments where necessary to improve upon the finished product. The cake takes a while to make but it was well worth it. All ten dinner party guests enjoyed every bite of it, and my Baking Coach is a bona fide baking super star to her friends.

    The ricotta filling is what really makes this cake shine. If you want to add something special to plain old boxed brownies from the store, a dab of the ricotta filling makes any baked good taste scrumptious.

  32. Preetz says:

    Thank you thank you soo much for this recipe! Made this for my husband’s birthday and we absolutely love it!!!! Wonderful combination of flavors!!!!

  33. Gina says:

    I am planning to make this cake tonight, but I am unsure of your conversions. For the cake itself, you say 9 oz. of sugar equals 1 1/4 cups, but then 8.75 oz. of confectioners sugar equals 2 cups. None of the ratios seem to add up. Am I missing something? It seems inconsistent, which measurement should I go by?

    Gorgeous cake, really looking forward to making this for a birthday celebration!

  34. jenyu says:

    Gina – yes, the ratios for regular sugar and confectioner’s sugar (also known as powdered sugar) are different because their densities are different. Density = mass/volume and confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar) is less dense than granulated sugar. So you should go by both measurements for their respective ingredients as listed by the recipe.

  35. Ines says:

    I absolutely LOVE the recipes that you kindly share. My goodness, this chocolate cassata cake looks delicious. I have used ricotta in other Italian cake recipes, and it is delicious. I can’t wait to prepare this dessert. I’m working on your tiramisu recipe today. It’s perfect. In Italy, Tiramisu is frequently prepared using raw eggs for their Zabaglione part. I prefer the cooked egg custard version. Can’t wait to sink my teeth in this dessert. Thank you so much!

  36. Ines says:

    I did want to add that one of the best additions to my baking equipment is a digital scale. I ordered my scale online. When a weight is given, I use my scale for a more accurate measurements

  37. Dawn says:

    This was beautifully done! I love the combination of chocolate and pistachios, and this seems simple enough to pull off. Love how you’ve given so much detail in this. I can’t wait to give it a try!

  38. JoAnn says:

    Not sure if I should use cakes flour or regular flour. Please advise. I do have cake flour.

  39. jenyu says:

    JoAnn – You can use either, but I think cake flour is the original recipe.

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