Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
September 28, 2023
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

The Sicilian cake called cassata is arguably the most famous sweet of Sicily. Cassata is today a complex cake of layered liqueur-soaked genoise interspersed with sweetened ricotta cheese, fruit preserves and jellies surrounded by marzipan and decorated with Baroque garnishes and flourishes of marzipan fruits, rosettes, flowers, and curlicues. Cassata probably originated as a simple egg, sugar, and ricotta cheese cake.

As with all preparations that carry the same name through time, there’s no doubt that cassata became different things in different eras. Some of the earliest written evidence of a Sicilian cassata cake by that name goes back to the fifteenth century, but it’s not clear how similar the medieval cassata resembles the contemporary one.

Popular Sicilian tradition sometimes places the origins of cassata in the fourteenth century and food writers such as Giuliano Bugialli claim an unequivocal Latin derivation. Although the etymological derivation of cassata is not yet a settled matter, the notion that cassata comes from the Latin caseus, the word for cheese, because it can be made with cheese, was called “far-fetched” by the famous etymologists da Aleppo and Calvaruso.[1] The Latin derivation is not as far-fetched as they make out, because even in the fourteenth century, Angelo Senisio, a Sicilian abbot who wrote a dictionary of Sicilian vernacular in 1348 defines cassata as a torta (cake), and later as an ice cream, derived from the Sicilian casu, that is, cacio (cheese), a food of bread and cheese (vivanda di pane e cacio).[2] In the anonymous fourteenth-century Tuscan cookery book Libro della cucina edited by F. Zambrini a recipe for casciata has as its base cheese and beaten eggs. But this “cake” is clearly a savory pie and not a cake in the Sicilian sense. The history in verse La vita di lo Beato Corrado composed by the nobleman Andriotta Rapi of Noto, perhaps in the fifteenth century, also records the word cassata which C. Avolio in Introduzione allo studio del dialetto siciliano defines as “a cake with a base of cheese (caseata).”[3]

However, the Latin etymologies for the Sicilian cassata might be tenuous because the various words used to describe a cheese cake might either refer to a cake with cheese unrelated gastronomically to the Sicilian cassata or they might refer to something completely other than cheese. For example, in both Pasqualino’s eighteenth-century Sicilian-Italian dictionary and Mortillaro’s nineteenth-century Sicilian-Italian dictionary the definition of cassata also means, besides a kind of cheese cake, a sweet-box where sweets are kept, derived from casseta a kind of small box.[4]

The Latin derivation is not likely for two reasons. First, cassata is, more than anything, born of a fascination with sugar, not cheese, and sugar was not cultivated in Sicily during the Roman era. It was only when the Arabs brought sugar to Sicily and an energetic sugar industry took root in the tenth century that sweet inventions using this product appeared. Second, the proposed derivation of cassata from the Latin word for cheese, caseus, doesn’t make sense because the Sicilian word for “cheese,” which does derive from the Latin word, is casu, not cassu. The more likely derivation proposed is from the word for the baking tray or earthenware bowl the primitive cassata was cooked in, the Arabic qascat.[5]

The genesis of the Sicilian cassata may very well be traced to the Arab era, or shortly afterwards to the Arab-influenced kitchens of Norman-Sicilian monasteries, as a very simple concoction of eggs and flour. After some centuries of evolution, it is today a richly decorated baroque cake of aristocratic proportions. The foundation of cassata is an egg cake or genoise, that is pan de Spagna—known by the English misnomer “sponge cake.” It is sprinkled with a sweet liqueur such as Maraschino cherry and orange flower water and has a filling made from strained fresh ricotta mixed with sugar, pistachios, cinnamon, candied fruits, and chocolate. Baroque decorations are added using sugar icing and colored candied fruits, apricot preserves, apricot jelly, and marzipan delights such as miniature pears, cherries, kumquats and slices of candied citron twisted into bows, curlicues, or rosettes. There’s a wonderful demonstration of its final assembly:

Cassata was early on a springtime cake traditionally made as an Easter specialty by the monastery nuns or for Purim by Sicilian Jews. Cassata was so delicious and seductive that as late as 1574 the diocese of Mazara del Vallo had to prohibit its making at the monastery during the holy week because the nuns preferred to bake and eat it than pray.[6] That this cake was an important part of the celebrations of two major monotheistic religions and possibly derived from a third, Islam, is a testament to how close these populations were in medieval Sicily, and it illustrates the statement of that great historian of science Charles Haskins, who said that nowhere else (but in Sicily) did these great civilizations “live side by side in peace and toleration.”[7]

Documents show that large purchases of ricotta were made in Sicily before the end of Lent. The ancient relationship of cassata to the period around Lent is noted, for the Jews, by the explicit reference to festum Judeorum nuncupatum di li Cassati (for the Jewish festival it is called cassati) which must be Passover, as contrasted to Easter, which the reference festum Azimorum in the documents must mean (azimorum means “unleavened”).[8] A goat’s milk ricotta was used to make a cake called cassata, a cake eaten by both Christian and Jewish Sicilians. Sicilian Jews, were not only consumers of ricotta and tuma, a fresh mozzarella-like cheese usually made from sheep’s milk, but cheese retailers too, and they usually made it for Passover.[9]

The earliest and clearest reference to cassata as a specifically Sicilian cake made with ricotta cheese, as it is today, is from a delivery contract of 1409 to a Jew named Sadon Misoc.[10] But the first mention of the possible ancestor of cassata appears in the Paris manuscript of the Riyād an-nufūs, a tenth-century description attributed to Abū Bakr al-Mālikī, who we otherwise know nothing about. He reports that Abū al-Fadl, an orthodox jurist from the Aghlabid capital in Tunisia, refused to eat a sweet cake called a kack because it was made with sugar from Sicily, then ruled by unorthodox Shi’ites.[11]

Although pan de Spagna is today known and translated as sponge cake, in the Middle Ages it was called bizcocho in Spain, a word that today refers to the egg cake as well as hardtack. In the twelfth-century diet book of Abū Marwān ibn Zuhr, Kitāb al-aghdhiya (literally meaning, book of diet), a kack is described as a kind of twisted ring-shaped bread or cake fried in oil and finished with pistachios, pine nuts, or almonds, rose water, and honey. It is spoken of in the same breath as bishmat or bizcocho, both words meaning hardtack.[12] This certainly sounds like a precursor of cassata far more than casciata of the Libro della cucina or the cassata of the lexicographer Senisio in 1348.

Another manuscript from the Middle Ages is the Al-kalām cala al-aghdhiya of al-Arbūlī, a scholar working during the Nasrid reign in Granada. The work is from 1428 and today is in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid. Al-Arbūlī mentions the word kack, a kind of cake that is originally Egyptian, and not Persian, that may be the ancestor of the Sicilian cassata.[13] In Andalusia it referred to a kind of round or twisted bread loaf or cake with a hole in the middle.[14]

Michele Amari, the preeminent historian of the Arabs in Sicily, was the first to note, in his monumental study Storia dei musulmani di sicilia (History of the Muslims in Sicily) published in the nineteenth century that vestigial Arabisms permeated the Sicilian language. Linguistic researchers during the following century compiled thorough registers of Arabisms that appear in Neo-Latin languages, especially in Iberian and Italian languages and dialects. The culinary language of Sicilian is replete with examples of Arabisms, especially concerning sweets, sweet dishes that are fried, and sweets containing raisins, almonds, ricotta, and/or semolina.[15] For example, there are cubbàita, an almond nougat made with honey and sesame, from the Arabic qubbayta, a kind of dried confection made with raisin juice and other ingredients, and the famous Sicilian sfinci, a beignet made of ricotta, associated with the festival of St. Joseph, derived from the Arabic isfanj, a yeast dough fritter eaten with honey.[16]Sfinci is mentioned in Palermo in 1330 where it is sold by the sfingiari.[17] It is still made to this day in both Sicily and Tunisia. It seems quite possible that cassata was part of this Arab-influenced repertoire of Sicilian cooks.

Even with all the circumstantial evidence it is too difficult to make a final determination of the origin of the cassata except for stating that it is a cake made with cheese and sugar. In any case, cassata’s Baroque proportions which make it so famous today could only have developed after 1600, a period often identified as the beginning of the Baroque era in art. Baroque art was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church because it appealed to the masses and not just the educated. In gastronomy, the word eventually came to mean elaborate or rich preparations.

[1] da Aleppo, P. Gabriele Maria, and G.M. Calvaruso, Le fonti arabiche nel dialetto siciliano, Rome: Ermanno Loescher, 1910; this etymology was also dismissed by another great Italian etymologist G. Alessio, see Cortelazzo, Manlio and Paolo Zolli, Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, Bologna: N. Zanichelli, 1979-88, 5 vols.

[2] Marinoni, A., ed., Dal “Declarus” di A. Senisio: I vocaboli siciliani. Collezione di testi siciliani dei secoli XIV e XV 6. Palermo: Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani, 1955; Uccello, Antonino, Pani e dolce in sicilia, Palermo: Sellerio, 1976, pp. 91-92.

[3] Zambrini, Francesco, ed., Il libro della cucina de secolo XIV. Testo di lingua non mai fin qui stampato. Bologna: Romagnoli, 1863; Avolio, C. Introduzione allo studio del dialetto siciliano, (Noto, 1888), pp. 37, 193.

[4] Pasqualino, Michele, Vocabulario siciliano, etimologico, italiano, e latino Palermo: Dalle Reale Stamperia, 1785; Mortillaro, Vincenzo, Dizionario siciliano-italiano Palermo: Vittorietti, 1983; Uccello, op. cit.,p. 93.

[5] da Aleppo and Calvaruso, op. cit., p. 130; De Gregorio, G. e Chr. F. Seybold, “Glossario delle voci siciliane di origine araba,” Studi glottologici italiani vol. III (1903), p. 232; Amari, Michele, Storia dei musulmani di sicilia, Catania: Dafni, 1986, (3) pt. 5, 892 n. 2.

[6] Algozina, Rosaria Papa, Sicilia araba Catania: Edizioni Greco, 1977, pp. 128-32.

[7] Ahmad, Aziz, A History of Islamic Sicily Islamic Surveys 10. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975, p. 88. The contemporary historian of Sicily, Carmelo Trasselli, went so far as to argue that the very spirit of the Renaissance penetrated feudal Sicily through its urban patrician class, see Trasselli, Carmelo, Siciliani fra quattrocento e cinquecento. Messina: Michele Intilla, 1981, p. 12.

[8] Bresc, Henri. Un monde Méditerranéen. Économie et Société en Sicilie 1300-1450. Rome: École Française de Rome; Palermo: Accademia di Scienze, Lettre e Arti di Palermo, 1986, vol 2, p. 586 n. 44; also see García Sánchez, Expiración. “Ibn al-Azraq: Uryuza sobre ciertas preferencias gastronómicas de los granadinos,” Andalucía Islamica, vol. 1 (1980), p. 151, 151 n. 58.

[9] Bresc, op. cit., 1986, (2), p. 163.

[10] Archivio di Stato di Palermo, Not. Inc. Sp. 1; 30.1.1409, in festo Pascatis de Cassatis judeorum, cited in Bresc, op. cit., 1986: (2) 163.

[11] Amari, op. cit., 1986, (3) pt. 5, 919 n. 2, 808 n. 4, (2), pt. 2, bk. 4, 509, 509 n. 6.

[12] Abu Marwan cAbd al-Malik b. Zuhr [died 1162]. Kitab al-Agdiya (Tratados de los Alimentos). Expiración García Sánchez, ed. and trans. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto de Cooperacíon con el Mundo Arabe, 1992, p. 49; García Sánchez, op. cit., pp. 151, 151 n. 58; Arié, Rachel. “Remarques sur l’alimentation des Musulmans d’Espagne au cours du bas Moyen Âge,” Cuadernos de Estudios Medievales, vol. II-III (1974-1975), p. 305.

[13] Dozy, R. Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes. Leyden: Brill, 1881. [reprinted Beirut: Librarie du Liban, 1991], vol. 2. Some linguists see an Arabic derivation while others believe cassata derives from the Latin word for cheese.

[14] Diaz Garcia, op. cit., p. 17.

[15] Bresc, op. cit., 1986, p. (2) 586 n. 42.

[16] Pellegrini, Giovan Battista. Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine con speciale riguardo all’Italia. Brescia: Paideia, 1972, vol. 1, pp. 203, 206-07.

[17] Michele De Vio, Felicis et fidelissimae urbis Panormitanae selecta aliquot ad civitatis decus et commodum spectantia Privilegia (Palermo, 1706), p. 107, quoted in Bresc, op. cit., 1986, (2), p. 586.