Made in America: Italy’s favorite cake gets a chocolate makeover

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OK, I’m about to confess a deep, dark secret.

I’m married to an Italian, and have been making Italian food for 35 years. I’ve also been baking for well over 35 years.

And in all those years, I’ve only ever found one Italian cake, cookie, pie, or other baked sweet I’m really fond of:

Biscotti.

Ha! You thought I was going to say cassata, didn’t you?

Nope. I’ve never been a fan of this traditional Easter dessert, a rum-soaked vanilla sponge cake studded with candied orange peel, layered around sweetened ricotta cheese and almond paste, and topped with royal icing.

“Gee, no thanks. Think I’ll pass.”

Still, I have a deep bond to tradition, especially at the holidays. I make almond pizzelle and anchovy-stuffed zeppole at Christmas; Easter Pie for Holy Saturday; and Scali bread all year round.

And, I’m not averse to a fresh, crisp cannoli, though I make sure my source is an Italian pastry shop – since my one and only attempt at homemade cannoli was a pine cone-flavored disaster.

Yes, pine cone: I deep-fried the shells around wooden dowels made of pine. Who knew the sap would leak out into the pastry? Not I – until I took that first big bite…

But back to cassata. Biscotti and pizzelle are tasty, but not a big-splash type dessert. People don’t oooh and ahhh when you plop a plate of pizzelle on the table.

How about cake? That’s more like it. Just not a rum-soaked, candied peel, almond paste cake.

But chocolate cake? I’m all over that. Thus my Americanized take on cassata: dense chocolate cake, filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, and iced with creamy fudge frosting.

Hey, don’t balk at the ricotta; it’s mild, smooth, lightly sweetened, and redolent of vanilla. The chocolate chips don’t hurt, either.

How can you resist? In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, let’s make Cassata.

First, the cake.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Place the following in a mixing bowl:

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter, preferably at room temperature for easiest mixing
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon espresso powder, optional, to enhance chocolate flavor
2/3 cup Double-Dutch Dark Cocoa or Dutch-process cocoa powder

Beat everything together to make a sandy, somewhat clumpy mixture. Don’t worry; the eggs will smooth things out.

Add 3 large eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl midway through this process.

There – all 3 eggs added. Didn’t I tell you the batter would look a lot better once the eggs were in?

Now, measure out 1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 3/4 cup milk.

Add half the flour to the bowl, beating at low speed to combine.

Add all the milk…

…then the remaining flour, stirring to combine.

Lightly grease an 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan. Note the size: this will make the best shaped cassata. If you only have a 9″ x 5″ pan, use it; but expect your cassata to be flatter.

Quick tip: If you grease your pan earlier in the process, you can use it as a spoon rest.

Pour the thick batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for about 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

It’ll dome nicely.

Remove the cake from the oven, loosen the edges, wait 10 minutes, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool. The top may look a tiny bit damp; that’s OK. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the center will register 210°F to 215°F, while just under the top will register about 198°F to 200°F.

Let the cake cool completely before filling and frosting. In fact, once it’s cool, you can wrap it tightly and store it at room temperature for a couple of days, then fill and frost the day you want to serve it.

Next up: the filling.

Stir together 2 cups (15 to 16 ounce container) ricotta cheese, part-skim preferred; and 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar.

Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. I’m using my favorite, Vanilla Bean Crush; see the dark smudge of seeds and crushed pods in the bottom of the measuring spoon?

Stir in 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips, mini chocolate chips preferred. Or use your favorite bar chocolate, finely chopped.

Cover the filling, and refrigerate until ready to use.

As with any cake, refrigeration will dry it out. So it’s best not to assemble this cake until the same day you’re going to serve it, preferably just a few hours before, so it can remain at room temperature.

Just before you’re ready to assemble the cake, make the frosting. Here we’re using our Super-Simple Chocolate Frosting. For step-by-step photos, refer to our Cupcakes à Go Go blog post.

Using a long, sharp/serrated knife, cut the cake into three crosswise layers.

Like this.

Put one layer, cut side up, on a serving plate. I’ve slipped pieces of parchment under all four sides, so that when I’m done frosting I can just slip them out to reveal a nice, clean plate.

Rustle up 2 tablespoons simple syrup or vanilla syrup, to brush on the cake. Syrup makes the cake moist, and adds flavor. If you don’t have any, it’s easy to make your own simple syrup.

Brush the bottom layer of the cake generously with the syrup.

Spread with half the ricotta filling.

Top with the second layer, and brush with syrup.

Spread with the remaining filling. Place the third layer on top.

Ice the cake – top and sides – with the frosting.

Like this. See how the parchment catches all the mess? Just pull it out when you’re done.

If you’re going to store the cake in the fridge for awhile – again, we recommend no longer than a day – wrap it well in plastic wrap. When wrapping, stick a couple of skewers or toothpicks into the top, to keep the plastic from sticking to the icing.

To serve, cut 3/4″-thick slices. Wet your sharp knife with hot water before slicing, for the cleanest cut. Repeat before each slice.

Enjoy!

Please read, bake, and review our recipe for Chocolate Cassata.

Print just the recipe.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. "sandra Alicante"

    PJ, you really are evil! You do realise that people in some parts of the world are going to have to bare flesh in swim suits soon? This looks so delish that I shall have to bookmark it for later but I just know that one slice would never be enough…may be tempted to add some mint too.
    God has to be a man, no woman would have put all the calories into yummy things!
    Thanks for the big laughs in the middle of my day Sandra! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  2. celesteu

    My favorite cookies are all Italian: brutti ma buoni, pignoli stuffed with amarena cherries, and sweet taralli made with fennel & wine. Check out the American Academy of Rome Susainable Food Program’s lovely little book, “Biscotti”, full of great cookie recipes (not just the things Americans think of as biscotti). I’m still trying to crack the recipe for the ubiquitous “breakfast cakes” made with almonds and chocolate I ate in southern Italy last year.

    Reply
  3. chinchillalover

    OMG (ending with gosh OF COURSE)this looks fantastic and choclate is the best am i right.Maybe not to people who are allergic to chocolate I have been been baking since I was 6 (including putting things in the oven by myself)and have loved doing it ever since.One of the very first things I made by myself was choclate chip muffins so the chocolate rocks!!

    Reply
  4. argentyne

    Since there’s only me in the house… I wonder if I could bake this up into cupcakes, then make little Mini Cassatas…
    Sounds like it should work just fine. OR how about throwing an Italian dessert party and invite the friends and neighbors? Just let us gals in the kitchen know when to show up! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  5. Michelle | Bleeding Espresso

    Pretty much with you on Italian desserts; I’ve lived in southern Italy for nearly eight years, been with my Calabrian husband for six, but when it comes to i dolci, I’m American through and through. This looks like a *huge* improvement on cassata to me (not a fan of soaked cakes in general). Thanks for sharing — will share as well on FB and Twitter :)

    Thanks for sharing, Michelle – with the ricotta filling, this does give a brief nod to the “real thing,” but most of us Americans just aren’t used to the candied peel/liquor thing… PJH

    Reply
  6. "Paul from Ohio"

    I hope you tested a batch with Cocoa Rouge!!!!!!!!!???? It is hands down THE BEST chocolate in KAF’s cupboard – my opinion of course. I’m hoping for some great recipes for/with it!

    Nope, I didn’t test it, but let us know if you do, Paul – we’ll look forward to hering about your “tasty” results! PJH

    Reply
  7. JoeyDinSD

    Hey PJ… being Napolitan (and from a family that owns pasticceria in the Old Country), I adore Italian sweets… but this one takes the cake. ;) A Cannoli Cake! I substituted amaretto for the vanilla syrup… worked like a dream. Even my 90 y.o. dad gave it a “wink and a nod”.
    Nothing beats a good cannoli, right Joey? Glad the family enjoyed this. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  8. elizalou

    Gorgeous. I’m going to try it next weekend when family comes to visit. But maybe I need to do a test run this weekend? :)

    Has anyone at KAF tried making this with your gluten-free flour mix? That’s what I’ll be using.

    Thanks for the recipe!

    Hi – Use this gluten-free chocolate cake recipe for the cake, OK? And I think you’ll need to bake it in a 9″ x 5″ pan. You won’t have good results just substituting the GF flour blend for regular flour in this cassata recipe; you really need to use a recipe developed specifically for GF cake. The filling and frosting would be the same, however… Enjoy! PJH

    Reply
  9. Margarete

    Check out Carol Field’s book The Italian Baker, you will find some cakes to love, and wonderful fruit and nut tarts!

    “The Italian Baker” has long been my go-to for classic Italian baked goods, Margarete – thanks for sharing this with our readers here. PJH

    Reply
  10. ymscoyle

    I bought the New England hot dog roll pan back when it was featured on this blog, but never got around to trying the recipe. I’m wondering if I could bake this chocolate cake in the hot dog roll pan, then fill with the ricotta filling. The creative juices are flowing! I would love to hear any thoughts, not that experienced in baking sweets.

    Good idea about the filling – how about baking the chocolate cake from this blog, as I know it works? Good luck- PJH

    Reply
  11. fran16250

    This reminds me of a recipe you posted not too long ago about a prize winning cake from the Allentown Fair last year. It was a chocolate layer cake with a chocolate chip filling, a layer of fresh raspberries and then chocolate frosting. I made that cake for my Aunt’s 85 birthday party without the berries. It was a huge hit but it was also a huge cake. this one looks like it would be just the right size for a family of three to have a slice or two. I hope to make this one this weekend.

    Reply
  12. fran16250

    Do you skip the syrup on the top layer? Do you have to skip it or would it prevent the frosting from sticking?
    The syrup goes on the cut side of each layer, so each of the three should be brushed on those sides so that they stay moist. ~Amy

    Reply
  13. joshbingham

    I am using a Kitchen Aid for this. Question. Which attachment do I use for the very first step of mixing the butter, cocoa, etc for the cake (the “sandy, somewhat clumpy mixture”). Do I use the wire whip or the flat beater?

    Flat beater, Josh – it’s faster. Enjoy – PJH

    Reply
  14. kendrasinclair

    Just made this cake for an Easter get together. Oh my gosh… everything is so rich. I did tweak a couple of things, however.

    I added rum to the ricotta chocolate filling; takes it to another level. I also made my own vanilla syrup:

    2 Cups sugar
    1 Cup water
    2 Vanilla Beans

    Place sugar and water in a pot on the stove. Slice vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape all the beans out. Place the beans and the pods in the pot with the sugar and water. Boil 2-3 minutes until the sugar dissolves.

    I let the mixture completely cool. Strain through a fine sieve and keep in the fridge. Now you have gourmet vanilla syrup for your coffee or baking. I put my syrup in a pretty bottle so when I pull it out to use it, it looks nice.

    Very nice idea, Kendra – thanks for sharing your thoughts, and the recipe. PJH

    Reply
  15. mjimd55

    Baker beware. This was planned for Easter and I made the cake and filling on Saturday. Unfortunately my Internet provider decided not to provide on Easter morning and thus I had no recipe for frosting and was to tired (read as lazy) to look in my tons of cookbooks for a recipe. Ghiardelli’s semisweet and cream poured over the top worked great. Thank you for a wonderful treat!

    Ganache is easy and always, ALWAYS appropriate – as you obviously know! Glad it worked out for you – even though your Internet provider decided to go on holiday… PJH

    Reply
  16. kaf-sub-farahsha

    hi,i have been following ur blog for a while now.. i have printed so many recepies will try them all soon :) i have made these cuppy yesterday on my fathers birthday but i was not able to put the cream in it the textre was not that light as u stated above!! where did i go wrong?? have i added the more flour? Kindply reply in order to avoid future mistakes… the next thing in my hit list is choclate cassata ;)
    one more question.. i am not able to find ricotta cheese in my area i have tried some big malls as well but no luck! instead i bought cream cheese is it ok to use this? ur advice will be very helpful

    It sounds like you may have added a bit too much flour, or baked the cakes a little bit too long. Also, the cake flour blend makes for a lighter cake than all purpose, so if you used AP, you might want to switch to the cake flour blend.

    Sure – the filling will be stiffer, and you’ll have to work harder to beat it together with the remaining ingredients; I’dd add some milk, to soften the texture. It’ll also be tangier, but it should work. (I assume you couldn’t find small-curd cottage cheese, which you could drain to approximate ricotta…) Enjoy! PJH

    Reply
  17. jrmack

    Hi….I am not a fan of heavy ricotta/cream cheese fillings. How could I substitute a whipped cream filling and how would I stabilize it so bottom layers will not squish out under the weight of the top layers? Thank you in advance.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Well, you could use our whipped cream stabilizer, of course. Or try freezing the whole thing, for stability. But honestly, if you don’t mind introducing another element, the easiest/best way to make the whipped cream more substantial is to stir in some instant vanilla pudding (or the flavor of your choice). The more you add, of course, the stiffer/thicker/more stable it’ll be, so it’s up to you to find that sweet spot. Good luck – PJH

  18. Jackie

    I’m sure this is delicious, but this is not a cassatta cake. Americanized, at best, it’s a chocolate cake with ricotta filling. The 10 eggs in the original recipe make the cake light and airy. The custard filling studded with shaved chocolate and Italian cinnamon is to die for and you cannot substitute chocolate fudge frosting for real whipped cream. I would eat one piece of the chocolate cake and be satisfied. One piece of the true cassatta cake, because of its airiness(?), only makes the eater want to keep on eating.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for the clarification, Jackie. Your description of the true Italian version does have my mouth watering! Barb@KAF

  19. Donna

    Our family is 3rd generation Sicilian. We try to keep the traditions alive but I myself cannot stand candied fruit. My workaround is a little subtle orange flavoring in the ricotta cream. You can echo this in the cake and frosting (keep it subtle) or even just the simple syrup for a springtime feel at Easter.

    My family’s secret ingredient for cannoli filling is a couple drops of oil of cinnamon. I certainly wouldn’t combine it with the orange but for straightforward cannoli filling its sublime. I think it would work here as well or better than the Orange depending on your meal or mood.

    I also like adding finely chopped toasted nuts (slightly smaller than your chocolate pieces) to add texture. Stir them in last so they don’t go soggy.

    That ricotta filling is a blank canvas. Here in this cassata it’s a nice contrast to the chocolate. In a more traditional recipe it can echo orange or lemon notes in the rest of the layers.

    Reply
  20. Scott

    Tried this yesterday… the filling couldn’t support the cake layers, so the whole thing ended up being a leaning tower of goo. Not a complaint, it was just for my family, and tastes good anyway.

    Richest cake I think we’ve ever had, though. Couldn’t even complete a serving. :-D

    Reply

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