My mom absolutely loved to entertain. She often reminded me of The Barefoot Contessa, cooking and decorating and making people feel special with her food and kindness, and making it look so easy. When we lived in Denver my parents entertained a lot. They set their tall, old ice box up as a bar, fitted the dining room table with the extra leaves and filled it with scrumptious appetizers and finger foods, my dad’s paté, smoked salmon, warm bread dip & anti-pasta trays. So many choices. I loved it when the house began to warm up with friends and neighbors. More often than not, snow drifted down outside on a chilly fall or winter night.
Once in a while my parents would invite a smaller group of people over, and my mom cooked a meal that took more time, a roast leg of lamb, her cannelloni, beef fondue. And one of the prettiest desserts she made, her chocolate cassata cake.
My mom’s was not the traditional Sicilian one with almond paste and elaborately decorated tops. She used pound cake, that dense buttery, eggy deliciousness. First she sliced it lengthwise into two or three sections, then she spread a mixture of ricotta, jelly and orange liquor. Finally she frosted the entire thing with her homemade chocolate frosting. Mmm, perfect with an after dinner drink or coffee, or both. It was both beautiful and delicious, and honestly not that difficult to make, but it was definitely one she reserved for special occasions.
When I saw this recipe for Mini Cassata Cakes in Food & Wine’s Special Collector’s Edition: Best Italian Recipes on the newsstands, I earmarked it.
A few weeks ago, our good friends were making the ferry trip over to see us. Remnants of Typhoon Songda were supposed to drench us or blow us away or both, but we had candles and propane and lots of food and wine, so we were prepared. And what better way to hunker down during a storm than with great friends and a fabulous meal.
I knew these mini cassatas had to be a part of the menu. A pretty, mini cake for each person has special written all over it. I took the super easy Food & Wine recipe a little further to make it even more delectable and because I wanted to include my husband, Greg, who has celiac. Like my mom, I don’t need everything I make to be super easy, sometimes I enjoy the time and love a dish takes to make.
I made a gluten-free pound cake using Pamela’s Gluten-Free Pound Cake recipe, and I made homemade ricotta because it’s so much better than store-bought.
These little gems taste wonderful, not too sweet, and a bit of tartness from the ricotta. And the amaretto liquor brings all the flavors together, the orange, the chocolate, the buttery pound cake. The original recipe calls for using a 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter to make the round slices, but I used my 1 1/2-inch round to make them smaller. Honestly you can cut out your own shapes if you don’t have cookie cutters. The best part was letting the kiddos help put the layers together.
Oddly enough, the storm missed us completely. But as usual, with these friends, we rocked the menu of new cocktails, great wine, and the food, well, I think I licked my plate that night it was so fabulous.
If you’re looking for a special dessert to make your holidays sparkle, and to make people feel cherished, these mini cassatas are the perfect choice.
- 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
- 1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur
- 2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped candied orange peel (see Note)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- One 16-oz. pound cake, sliced 1/2-inch thick and cut into twelve 2 1/2-inch rounds (or size/shape of your choice) with a cookie cutter
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Finely grated orange zest, for garnish
- In a mini food processor, combine the ricotta, confectioner’s sugar and amaretto and puree until very smooth. Add half of the chocolate and candied orange peel and pulse just to combine. (I just stirred this all together by hand.)
- Spread the granulated sugar on a small plate. Lightly press both sides of each pound cake round into the sugar to coat, tapping off the excess sugar. In a large nonstick skillet, melt half of the butter. Add the sugared pound cake rounds in 2 batches, using the remaining butter for the second batch, and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until the rounds are golden and the sugar is caramelized, about 1 minute per side. Transfer the rounds to a rack and cool slightly.
- Place 6 rounds on plates and top with half the ricotta mixture. Top with remaining rounds and ricotta mixture. Sprinkle the remaining chocolate and candied orange peel on top, garnish with orange zest and serve.
- Homemade ricotta is amazing in this dessert, but if you are buying ricotta, make sure to use the full fat ricotta, because it has all the flavor.
- Candied orange peel is available at candy shops and specialty food stores. It’s also easy and fun to make your own.
- The ricotta mixture can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.