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13/11-13 at 14.19
We can thank the Arabs, and their 9th century arrival in Sicily, for introducing sugarcane and giving the island its sweet tooth. Iconic Sicilian desserts date to this time, including the layered ricotta cake Cassata. Unfortunately, thanks to the 80’s and those frozen desserts at local reception centers and pizza places, many people have been lead to believe that Cassata is an ice-cream cake. The fact is real Cassata is actually made from ricotta. This traditional Sicilian cake is often featured at Sicilian weddings and involves a layering of all of the most incredible Sicilian ingredients - from marsala soaked sponge, sweet ricotta and marzipan.
 
There are many theories as to how the Cassata came about and how it got its name. I had originally learnt that it got its name from the Arab word ‘Q’as at’, which is the name for a traditional box or bowl used to make the cake and give it its shape. Years later when I met Sicilian chef Fabrizia Lanza, she told me that the origins may be even older from the time of the Romans, and that Cassata may take its name from the Latin word for cheese ‘Caseus’. This is what is so lovely about Cassata, and why I will always consider it the most Iconic Sicilian dessert. Centuries of history are contained in the layered components of the cake, from Greek ricotta, Arab citrus fruit, sugar and almond paste, right through to Spanish sponge, chocolate and candied squash.
 
On our culinary tour of Sicily this year in June we visited Fabrizia Lanza at her cooking school. After living in the north of Italy and working as an art historian for 25 years, Fabrizia returned to her roots and her aristocratic family’s estate in the centre of Sicily. Here she took over her mother Anna Tasca Lanza’s cooking school, and is as dedicated as Anna was to the preservation of Sicilian culinary traditions. In her book ‘Coming Home to Sicily’, Fabrizia explains that she “realised that learning how to make a Cassata was no less interesting than analysing a Botticelli. I consider both to be works of art.” During our cooking class with Fabrizia, watching her dress the freshly iced Cassata that she made before us from scratch with colourful lashings of candied fruit, was also just like watching an artist at work.
 
Fabrizia took us through the steps of making and layering the Cassata, using her senses of touch, sight, taste and even sound to make the cake. She explained to us that you know when a sponge is ready "as it should make music". Fabrizia delicately squeezed the sponge and to our amazement it really did make a sound, gently squeaking and letting us all know it was ready. It’s always a joy to watch someone so effortlessly make something from scratch, without the need for a recipe or measurements. Here is Fabrizia’s exact recipe for Cassata, and with enough practice, hopefully one day I too can make it the same way as Fabrizia - just from using the senses.
 
Serves 10-12
 
SPONGE CAKE
6 eggs
¾ cups sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange or lemon zest
1 1/3 cups sifted flour
 
RICOTTA CREAM
2 cups whole milk ricotta, preferably sheep’s milk
½ cup sugar, or to taste
 
MARZIPAN
1 ¾ cups almond flour
½ cup shelled pistachios, very finely ground
¾ cup powdered sugar
1-2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon liquid glucose or light corn syrup
Green food colouring
 
ASSEMBLY
¼ cup Limoncello or Marsala
2 cups powdered sugar
Candied fruit and squash for garnish (and/or chocolate)
 
Make the sponge cake: Preheat the oven to 175C. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs until pale (about 5 minutes). Add the sugar and zest and continue to beat until the mixture has thickened and ribbons form when the beaters are raised (about 15 minutes). Gently fold in the flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a knife inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean (25-30 minutes). Transfer the pan to a rack to cool completely.
 
Make the ricotta cream: stir together the ricotta and sugar until light and fluffy. Set aside
 
Make the marzipan: Mix together the almond flour, ground pistachios and powdered sugar and mound together on a work surface. Make a well in the centre and add 1 tablespoon water, the glucose and a few drops of green food colouring to the well. Knead the mixture together like a dough so that everything is evenly incorporated (if the mixture is too dry, add more water, drop by drop). Dust a work surface with powdered sugar, then roll out the marzipan ¼ inch thick. Cut the marzipan into long 2 inch-wide strips. Knead the remaining marzipan into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for another use.
 
To assemble, line a 12-inch cassata pan, or a 12 inch pie pan with plastic wrap. Line the sides of the pan with the marzipan strips, pressing together at the seams to make a continuous band. Trim any excess.
 
Cut the sponge cake crossways into ½ inch slices. Line the bottom of the pan with a layer of cake slice, trimming to fit. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of Limoncello or Marsala over the cake. Spread the ricotta cream evenly over the cake slices. Carefully top the ricotta cream with another layer of cake slices, trimming to fit, and drizzle with the remaining liquor
 
Make the icing: whisk together the powdered sugar and enough lemon juice to form a smooth shinny icing with a thin spreading consistency
 
Invert the cassata onto a large serving plate. Carefully lift off the pan and peel off the plastic wrap. Pour the icing over the top of the Cassata and smooth with a spatula, leaving the marzipan sides of the cake visible. Decorate the top of the cake with candied fruit and or/chocolate. Refrigerate the cake until set for about 2 hours. 
30/9-13 at 14.31

Sicilian Caponata is a ‘contorno’, or side dish, and is an iconic part of Sicilian cuisine. A staple to the Sicilian diet, it has many regional and seasonal variations. Its versions simply cannot be numbered. Essentially it is a dish of cooked vegetables (usually eggplant), stewed in a range of sweet and sour flavours, a method of cooking known as Agrodolce.

While always a vegetable side dish of the ‘cucina povera’, or poor man’s kitchen, the 1700’s saw the rise of Caponata also used as a main course by nobles and aristocrats. French chefs called Monsù were bought to Sicily to prepare cutting edge French cuisine in the palaces of nobles and aristocrats, and they often added their own twists to local cuisine. To Caponata they added ingredients such as lobster, swordfish or chicken to make this rustic classic more exciting and more suited to the extravagance of the aristocratic cuisine.

See a fantastic recipe for Caponata in The Gourmet Traveller’s Italian edition Cookbook

30/9-13 at 11.17

Street snacking is a way of life in Sicily with pop up stands all over the cities and even on the roadsides selling a vast array of Sicilian versions of fast food. Arancine are by far the most popular, the go to snack for Siciliani on the run.

Arancine means little oranges in Italian, as this is exactly what they look like. Arancine are prepared throughout the island, and are essentially balls of rice that are stuffed with delicious flavours, crumbed then fried. The fillings for Arancine vary, however are typically beef and pork ragu, with peas, soft boiled egg and mozzarella cheese. Even the way the rice is prepared differs greatly, often the sugo is mixed through the rice, or the rice can be flavoured with saffron or jasmine.

It is believed that Arancine were created during the Arab rule in around the 10th century. It was customary at the time to place a large tray of saffron rice mixed with meat and vegetables in the centre of a banquet table. Guests would help themselves by taking a handful of the mixture. During the following Norman rule, Frederick II came along and had the brilliant idea of crumbing and frying the mixture into balls, so that the King and his men could carry this delicious mixture out with them while hunting. And there you have it, the easily transportable, non perishable and tasty take away food now known as Arancine was born!

Read a fantastic recipe for Arancine by The Age Epicure’s Jill Dupleix, where she also mentions fantastic places where you can score yourself a seriously good Arancina.

30/9-13 at 11.15

My most favourite pasta in Sicily is by far ‘Pasta con le Sarde’. What is so magnificent about this dish is the way it incorporates all of the most delicious flavours that the Arabs bought to Sicily during their rule from the 9th century, especially saffron, currants and pine nuts. The Arab influence is the main ingredient that makes Sicilian cuisine so different to that of the mainland and so unique.

In 827 AD the Arabs arrived at Mazara del Vallo on the west coast of Sicily. Sicily was then ruled by the Byzantines. It is believed that Euphemius, commander of the Byzantine fleet of Sicily forced a nun to marry him and was then driven out to North Africa by authorities. There he asked the Emir of Tunisia to help him reclaim the island, and so the Arabs arrived and did so successfully. Regardless of reason for their arrival, the fact is that the Arabs had the greatest impact on Sicilian gastronomy, giving it the sophisticated flavours that still make it unique 1000 years later.

The Arabs bought in new produce such as oranges, lemons, apricots, peaches, melons, date palms, raisins, mulberries, almonds, pistachios, eggplant, rice and couscous as well as new spices such as cloves, cinnamon and jasmine. They introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation which allowed agriculture to flourish. The Arab’s are probably most popular in Sicily for introducing sugarcane and giving Sicily its sweet tooth. Iconic Sicilian desserts date back to this time such as Cassata, Cannoli, Marzipan and Nougat.

Under the Arab rule, Palermo became the second largest city on earth after Constantinople (Istanbul). The impact of the Arab rule can still be seen on the west coast in Sicily’s prized Arab influenced architecture, some of the best on display at the Monreale just outside of Palermo. On this years tour in June, after a visit to the Monreale and taking in Palermo’s Arabesque atmosphere, I took our group to the market to purchase all of the ingredients for Pasta con le Sarde and then our host in Palermo made it for everyone for dinner that evening. This was a perfect way to bring the Arab influence in Sicily into context after a gorgeous day in the grand city of Palermo uncovering its rich history.  Here is a perfect recipe for Pasta con le Sarde (Serves 6)

 

Ingredients
  • Handmade Maccaruni pasta (see the recipe below)
  • 600g fresh sardines
  • 2 bulbs fennel, sliced thin (including tops)
  • 1 spanish onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads or powder, dissolved in a little hot water
  • 5 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
  • 50g currants
  • 50g pine nuts, toasted
  • 100g mollica (fresh bread crumbs pan fried in olive oil)
  • Handful of torn mint or parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

 

Method
  • Scrape any scales off the fresh sardines and then leave to dry on a paper towel until required
  • Bring a well salted pot of water to the boil to cook the fresh maccaruni
  • Heat the olive oil in a medium sized saucepan and fry the spanish onion and sliced fennel until translucent
  • Stir in all of the spices and saffron and cook for 2-3 minutes
  • Add the anchovies, currants, pine nuts and sardines and cook for another 5 minutes
  • Add the Maccaruni to the pot of boiling water and cook until ready (fresh pasta takes about half the time to cook as dried pasta)
  • Drain the pasta, and add it along with the mollica and herbs to the now cooked sauce and mix through well
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve

 

PASTA DOUGH FOR HAND MADE MACCARUNI
  • 1kg plain flour
  • 10 eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil
  • Water to blend dough together

 

In a mixing bowl, mix the flour, eggs, salt and olive oil with your hands, and then slowly add water until the dough binds together (you can use a blender if you prefer)

Knead on a bench for 2-3 minutes and then wrap in cling film and let rest for 30 minutes

Roll out, cut into long strips and roll into shape around a knitting needle or pencil

30/9-13 at 10.59

One of our favourite foodie places in Sicily is Catania’s lively fish market La Pescheria, situated just off Piazza Duomo. Located in both Piazza Pardo and Piazza Alonso di Benedetto, in and around the 17th century arch of Porta Uzeda and the walls of Charles V, La Pescheria is one of the most vibrant fish markets on earth. Coming from Piazza Duomo, after taking in Saint Agatha’s grand cathedral made of Etna’s black lava stone characteristic of the city's architecture, you will be sure to hear the fish market before you see it. Heading towards the port, you will pass a fountain and then head down a flight of stairs. By now your jaw will have dropped when you see the sheer array of fish that is on offer, the masses of people literally packing the space and the vibrant atmosphere in the black cobblestoned square.

From fishmongers in their gumboots screeching the days catch at their top of their lungs, to locals from chefs and housewives looking for the freshest and best bargain, the market provides one of the world’s best theaters. You can just stand on the raised area above the square and watch the excitement below, or if you are up for it definitely head on in there and get amongst it. Just make sure you are wearing closed shoes (and ones you don’t care too much about, or will be able to clean easily)- it’s very wet so be careful (also be careful of your wallet!) Here you will see some seriously fresh fish, many still in rigor mortis, having just come into the port from neighbouring seas that morning.

La Pescheria, as well as all of Sicily’s markets, are one of the best preserved Arab traditions in Sicily. This outdoor market, or ‘Souk’ tradition was bought to Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, and is still very much a part of daily life in Sicily today. Another of these Arab traditions related to the market is the art of the ‘Abbanniata’, the practice of calling out your wares at the top of your voice. It’s a fantastic sound and makes walking through the market so much more of a thrill.

One of our favourite things to do in La Pescheria on our tour is to eat vongole (clams), cozze (mussels) and oysters straight off the market stands, drizzled in fresh squeezed lemon. This is then best washed down with a ‘Seltz’, a delicious lemon fizzy drink that can be purchased at stands all over the market. You don’t get fresher than that!

La Pescheria, Piazza Pardo and Piazza Alonso di Benedetto, open 5am – 2pm daily except Sunday (and obviously the earlier you get there, the better!)

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