We’re in the middle of a deep freeze here in Canada but on the other side of the pond, in Italy, they’re gearing up for one of their biggest holidays of the year, Carnevale. To celebrate in style, I’m sharing this recipe for Sicilian Cassatelle with Ricotta. These little crescents of dough are filled with a sweetened ricotta mixture and can be fried or baked. I opted to bake my Sicilian Cassatelle with Ricotta in order to lighten up my recipe and believe me they are definitely tasty baked instead of fried. As always, I did some research with regards to typical Sicilian sweets for Carnevale. My mother recalls that cannoli or pignolata were almost always made for special occasions. I then checked with my sources back in Sicily who confirmed that other than Cassatelle, graffe covered in sugar (which are equivalent to our sugar covered doughnuts) or chiacchiere (crispy fried dough strips covered in icing sugar) are commonly served. Do you detect a theme here? Basically everything is fried! Why are the tastiest foods always fried, sigh! Anyhow, given my love for anything with ricotta I decided to post my version of cassatelle.
Before getting to this recipe, let me tell you a little bit about Carnevale. When I was a child my mother always told me that they dressed up in costumes and received sweets on this day therefore I always referred to it as the italian version of Halloween. Carnevale is actually the Italian equivalent to Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday, however you call it. It’s basically a final day of partying and indulgence before lent and the restrictions that come with it begin on the following day. Probably the most famous Italian Carnevale occurs in Venice where celebrations begin two weeks prior to Mardi Gras and are characterized by their famous masks. Instead in most parts of Italy, including Sicily, Carnevale is celebrated on one day, this year on February 13th. Hence all the delectable fried desserts!
I do recall my mother making a similar version of these when I was young, but unfortunately she hasn’t made them in years. She also did not refer to them as cassatelle but when she consulted her little black book of recipes, she found them under Tortellini di Ricotta. Sounds appropriate!
By the way, have I told you about my mother’s little black book of recipes? Here it is!
She probably would not approve of this picture but I think it is priceless! This is the book of recipes that I am attempting to document one recipe at a time so I thought it would be nice to show you what it looks like. It is actually a 1966 miniature agenda given to her by my aunt in Italy back in 1966 of course! Now back to the cassatelle.
A few tips:
One of the few differences between her original recipe and this one is the use of Marsala in the dough. Not only does it give the cassatelle a nice golden colour, you can detect the sweetness of the liqueur in the dough as well. If you don’t happen to have Marsala on hand, red Port will substitute nicely.
The filling is simply ricotta sweetened with sugar and a hint of cinnamon. You can also add some chocolate chips to the filling if you’d like.
I used a 12cm empanada mold that I happen to have handy to cut the circles of dough. Be creative and use whatever you may have on hand that is approximately 12cm wide. I found that an empty yogourt container also has a similar sized opening. The amount of cassatelle you make may vary according to what size circle you use. I managed to make two dozen cassatelle.
You must resist the temptation to overfill the cassatelle. About 2 tsp is just enough filling, otherwise the ricotta will ooze out when baking or frying and I’m speaking from experience! Make sure to crimp your edges well to seal them using the tines of a fork.
Cassatelle may be baked or fried. My recipe gives instructions for baking. But, if you wish to try them fried simply fill a heavy pot with about an inch of vegetable oil. When the oil is very hot, carefully place a few cassatelle (do not overcrowd the pot) in the pot and fry until the dough is golden and puffs up, turning the cassatelle once to brown both sides. This will only take about 2 minutes. Place on a paper towel covered platter and allow to cool slightly before dusting with confectioners sugar. The filling will be very hot so wait before digging in!
Cassatelle do not keep for very long due to the ricotta filling. If you don’t serve them right away, I suggest you keep them refrigerated and dust them lightly with confectioners sugar before serving.
So there you go, you’re now ready to make your Sicilian Cassatelle with Ricotta. Happy Carnevale to all!
Sicilian Cassatelle with Ricotta
For the dough:
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
- pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp. cubed cold butter
- zest of 1 orange
- 2 eggs lightly beaten
- 2 tbsp. Marsala wine or red Port
For the filling:
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1 egg yolk with 1 tbsp. milk for brushing
- confectioners sugar for serving
- To prepare the dough mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the cubed butter and orange zest. Using your fingers, crumble the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a course meal. Stir in the eggs and Marsala and shape into a dough. Turn the dough onto counter and knead for about 5 minutes until smooth. If the dough is dry, add a tbsp. of water at a time, just enough for the dough to come together. Flatten into a disc, wrap in a sheet of plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a bowl combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon and stir until smooth. Set aside in the refrigerator.
- Preheat oven to 350F. Cut the refrigerated dough into 4 pieces. Using a pasta machine, roll the dough pieces until the setting before last. Alternately, use a rolling pin to roll the dough until very thin, about 2 mm. Using a 12 cm shape (or approximately 12 cm) cut circles of dough. Keep covered until ready to fill to prevent from drying. Place about 2 tsps. of filling in the center of each circle of dough. Fold over the edges to form a half moon shape and using the tines of a fork seal the edges well. Transfer to a parchment covered baking sheet. Continue with the remaining dough. Brush each cassatelle with the egg yolk/milk mixture.
- Bake for 20 minutes until golden in colour and lightly browned underneath. Allow to cool before dusting with confectioners sugar.