My cassata cake is like an Italian trifle without the bowl. Lady fingers brushed with rum syrup, layered with sweet cannoli cream that’s studded with chocolate, and then topped with chocolate shavings and pistachios. Getting the whole thing together is a three day process, but each step is very simple and well worth the wait. On the first day, make the cream. On the second day, assemble the cake. On the third day, eat 🙂
Day 1) Make the biancomangiare (cannoli cream).
Day 2) Assemble the cake.
Day 3) Eat!
Don’t forget to check out my Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions at the bottom of the recipe.
Biancomangiare, Day 1
(makes more than enough to fill cassata cake)
- 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup + 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 2 qts half & half
- 4 large, whole sticks canella, broken in half OR 2 tsp finely ground canella
- 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch.
- Add the half and half, whisking until the cornstarch is dissolved.
- Add the canella.
- Bring to a slow boil over medium to medium-low heat, constantly whisking slowly and gently, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot so that the pudding (biancomangiare) doesn’t burn.
- Once the pudding has thickened and come together, about 12 minutes in a 12-inch diameter pot, remove it from the heat immediately.
- Remove the sticks of canella and discard.
- Add the vanilla, stirring to incorporate.
- Transfer the pudding to a sturdy mixing bowl for storing in the fridge.
- Cover the pudding with plastic wrap, touching the plastic to the pudding so that it doesn’t form a skin. Remember the pudding is still hot, so be careful.
- Place in the fridge to chill overnight.
Biancomangiare Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions
Half and Half: You can play around with this if you like. Half and half is about half whole milk, half heavy cream. Since biancomangiare is, essentially, a pudding, using half and half isn’t strict, but realize whole milk will be thinner and sweeter while heavy cream will be thicker and less sweet.
Canella: This is a very specific cinnamon and if you use a different one, the taste will blatantly change and be wrong. I always say to play with flavors, but please don’t mess with canella in Italian desserts. You can find this at most Italian produce stores and on Amazon.com; the sticks are very large, sometimes almost an inch in diameter. I’d leave it out before I substitute it.
I’ve never found ground canella, so if you want to use ground, just break off a little bit from one stick and grind it in a spice grinder for 30 seconds or so, until fine. I like using whole sticks so no canella goes to waste since I don’t use it often, but ground is easier to mix in and lends a bit of a stronger flavor, which can be wonderful.
Store the canella in a cool, dark place and discard when you can no longer smell the spice, which means it will be flavorless.
Mixing Cornstarch: When cornstarch is added to warm liquids, it clumps up. This is why we mix it with the sugar and half and half before turning on the burner. It will dissolve in the cool liquid, ensuring there are no clumps of cornstarch.
Cooking the Biancomangiare: Be patient, taking longer at a lower heat will ensure success. Just relax and stir. The time it takes depends on the size of your pot; if it has a wide base, such as 12″, it’ll cook faster than if you use something like an 8″. You’ll know it’s getting near the finish when your whisk scrapes up big clumps of pudding. From here, it fairly quickly comes together.
Why use a whisk and not a spoon or spatula? So your pudding isn’t lumpy. If you decide to stir rather than whisk, you may get little tiny lumps throughout, which isn’t a big deal at all, but if you want it nice and smooth, use a whisk.
If you do end up with some lumps, just pour the hot pudding through a sieve into the mixing bowl you plan to store it in. That’ll take care of all those little pesky lumps.
Storing the Biancomangiare: On Day 2, you’ll need to fluff the biancomangiare with either a hand mixer or stand mixer, so if you’re like me and allergic to washing dishes, you’ll want to keep this in mind. I like to store my biancomangiare in the same vessel I’ll use to fluff it the next day so that I’m not then transferring it to a mixing bowl appropriate for use with a mixer. In fact, I often just store it in the pot I used to cook it, but you have to be extra careful covering with plastic wrap since the pot is hot and you’ll want to allow that to cool down before transferring to the fridge unless you place it on a cooling rack inside so it doesn’t burn/melt a shelf.
Assemble the Cassata Cake, Day 2
- 3 oz granulated sugar
- 3 oz dark rum
- 3 oz water
- savoiardi (crisp Italian lady fingers, not soft ones)
- biancomangiare, chilled from the previous night
- chopped milk chocolate, about 1/4-inch dice, 6-8 oz, but as much as you like
- a whole bar milk chocolate, for shaving
- shelled whole or chopped pistachios (optional, but highly recommended)
- 9-inch round springform pan
- parchment paper
- sharp paring knife
- pastry brush
- soft silicone spatula
- vegetable peeler
- Combine sugar, rum, and water in a medium saucepan.
- Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cooking until liquid is clear and sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes.
- Do not stir or the sugar may crystallize. You may gently swish the pot in a circle to mix the ingredients and you may use a pastry brush to bring water up the sides of the pan to dissolve the sugar that sticks to the sides (though I never do this), but never stir.
- Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Prepare the Filling
- Remove the biancomangiare from the refrigerator and beat it with a hand or stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, until it looks fluffy, creamy, and there are no lumps.
- Fold the chopped chocolate into the pudding until evenly distributed, using as much or as little chocolate as you like.
- This means taste it and add more as you like! A perk of being “the cook” 😉
- Optionally, mix some chopped pistachios into the pudding until evenly distributed, using as much or as little as you like.
- The nuts will soften somewhat in the pudding, which is why some may not prefer to add them.
- Cut parchment paper to line the sides of the springform pan (like this pan, but without greasing the pan or lining the bottom).
- Put a layer of savoiardi lady fingers on the bottom of the pan, covering the entire thing.
- You will have to cut some lady fingers with a sharp knife in order to completely cover the bottom. Don’t worry if they break, nobody will see them; wedge in whatever you can.
- Drizzle or brush rum syrup over the lady fingers so that the tops are just wet, about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp per lady finger.
- I gently pour straight from the measuring spoon, but do whatever you prefer.
- Spread the biancomangiare over the lady fingers in a layer that is at least as thick as the lady fingers.
- Repeat this process once more, adding another layer of lady fingers, brushing with rum syrup, and topping with biancomangiare.
- Decorate the top now or just before serving.
- Use a vegetable peeler to make chocolate shavings/spirals to sprinkle over the top of the cake.
- Sprinkle chopped pistachios over the top of the cake and/or make a border around it. Remember, the nuts may soften after chilling.
- Once your cassata is complete, cover the top with foil (creating a hood so that the foil doesn’t touch the top layer of biancomangiare) and leave in the fridge overnight.
Assembly Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions
Rum Syrup: The purpose of the rum syrup isn’t only for flavor, it’s to soften the crisp ladyfingers. Without it, the cake would be too dense. If you don’t end up liking how the rum tastes in the cake, feel free to experiment with other liqueurs you think are appropriate, such as Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur), amaretto (almond liqueur), or with a non-alcoholic liquid, such as plain simple syrup or even just milk.
Savoiardi: These crisp lady fingers are more appropriate for this dessert than the soft ones and they can be found in most grocery stores’ international aisles or in an Italian produce market. That being said, you should feel free to sub with soft if you can’t find them or even if you just prefer them. I still recommend brushing with liquid to break down the cakey texture so it isn’t as dry and dense.
Biancomangiare: You’ll very likely have leftover biancomangiare, and that’s fine! In fact, that’s great. You can fill some cannoli shells (which you can buy at some grocery stores’ international aisles and at most Italian bakeries or produce stores, just ask them) or do as I do…just eat it out of a bowl like pudding 🙂
Chocolate: Our family uses milk chocolate by tradition. Anything else would just taste wrong with our family recipe. You should feel free to use whatever chocolate you think tastes good. But please, for goodness sake, do not ever use white chocolate. Not in this recipe, not in any other recipe you get from me 😉
Pistachios: Different people use different nuts on the ends of their cannoli. Some use pistachios, some almonds, and some peanuts. I like pistachios best, so that’s why I chose them for this recipe (remember, biancomangiare is also used to fill cannoli). Feel free to experiment. And, as stated in the recipe, if you mix nuts into the biancomangiare, they will soften. I don’t mind that, at all, but others might. If you want to use them without softening, simply top the cake with them at the last minute.
Building a Cake on a Springform: When building a cake with lady fingers, you can’t safely transfer the completed cake to another surface or it might fall apart, which means if you build it on the bottom of a springform pan, you’ll be able to remove the sides, but will have to serve it on top of the springform bottom.
That’s not my preference, so instead of layering my cake on the pan bottom, I actually just set the side of the springform on top of whatever I plan to serve the cake on–it may be a cake stand, a serving platter, or just a cardboard round like from a bakery. Then, I layer the cake right on that surface! When I remove the sides, the entire thing is standing perfectly on the surface on which it’s to be served instead of a slippery piece of metal that doesn’t look as nice atop a pretty little cake stand 😉 You just have to make sure it fits in the fridge!
Other Options for Forming the Cake: My favorite way to build this cake is the method I describe in the recipe. I think it looks the most beautiful when I can see the layers of ladyfingers and the filling. The rest of my family line the sides of the springform with ladyfingers standing up, so when you unmold the cake, the sides are covered in ladyfingers. Another choice would be to assemble it in a bowl, like a trifle. Of course, then it’s a cassata trifle, not a cassata cake, but if you want to make things slightly easier on yourself with the same great taste, by all means, go right ahead!
Cake Size: Since this is a cake that you essentially build, you can make it whatever size you like. Feel free to cut this recipe in half and make a smaller cake…assemble it in a big rectangular pan in order to serve more people…whatever you like!
Why Chill Overnight? When assembling a cake made of lady fingers, it needs to chill overnight in order to set up so that it doesn’t fall apart when you unmold it. The lady fingers also need time to soften, not just from the brushed on syrup but also from sitting in the pudding.
How Long Will It Keep? A cassata is best eaten the day after it’s made. As the filling sits, it sets up and begins to weep and separate and it does this moreso filled with chunks of chocolate and nuts because those create pockets in the pudding. If it were simply in a bowl, it could be beaten with a mixer to bring it back to a creamier, homogenized mixture, but there’s nothing to be done when it’s filling inside a cake. That’s not to say that it won’t still be delicious, it’s just that the overall experience won’t be as pleasurable as eating it the day after it was made. So, if you’re serving others, especially those who haven’t had cassata, be sure to assemble it the day before you plan to serve.
Serving, Day 3
- Carefully remove the sides of the springform pan.
- Gently peel the parchment paper away from the cassata.
- To serve, slice like a cheesecake, dipping a sharp knife in warm water before making each slice (to remove the residual pudding stuck to the sides).
- If the cake falls apart for any reason, just laugh and grab a big spoon to serve. It will still be amazingly delicious and that’s all that matters.
My opinion of the “best dessert ever” is always changing. One day it might be Magnolia’s red velvet cake, another it might be a boca negra, yet another it might be macarons, of any flavor. The sweet I seem to always come back to, though–without doubt, without pause–is biancomangiare, which you may know as the delicious, creamy filling of cannoli 🙂
Now, in Italy, cannoli are not traditionally filled with biancomangiare, they’re filled with a sweetened ricotta. As with many ethnic foods, though, recipes tend to change in America. So biancomangiare, from what I know, is really an Italian-American tradition. And while the ricotta cream is perfectly decent, and some feel far superior to biancomangiare, it’s just not right, to me. That’s not what I grew up with, it’s not what I think of when I think about cannoli. Beyond that, I think the ricotta filling is too fluffy and dry compared to the silky, creamy texture of biancomangiare, which really is just like a pudding.
It’s just so good…so, so, so, so, so amazingly delectable and addictive. So much so, that Italians (in America) appear to put it in everything, even in pastries where it doesn’t traditionally belong like edise, sfingi, sfogliatelle, pasticiotti, baba, peaches, cannoli, and finally, the best of all…cassata cake.
In my family, a cassata cake is layers of lady fingers covered thickly in biancomangiare. We line the sides and bottom of a springform pan with lady fingers. Then we spread an equally thick layer of biancomangiare. Then more lady fingers, more biancomangiare, and finally some chocolate shavings. It’s as easy as that! After refrigerating overnight, the sides of the pan are removed and there you have a beautiful, free-standing cassata cake.
At Italian bakeries, the cake is a little different. Instead of lady fingers, it’s layers of yellow cake thinly filled with biancomangiare and frosted in stabilized whipped cream. My mother loves this, but in my opinion, it sucks. Honestly! My problem is:
1) I don’t want whipped cream on my cassata, especially stabilized whipped cream, blechk. It takes away from the cream filling–ruins the texture.
2) Those bakers skimp, majorly, on the best part! While our homemade cake might have up to an inch of biancomangiare per layer, theirs have half an inch, at the most, but more like a quarter. I like to say that it’s simply “frosted” in cannoli cream…and I don’t want a tasteless yellow cake “frosted” in cannoli cream. Sorry!
Another version you’ll find in some bakeries is called a Sicilian Cassata cake. This has one layer of cake (I imagine sponge is more traditional than yellow, but I can’t promise that they use it), which is soaked in rum, topped with a big fat layer of ricotta cream (instead of biancomangiare), and covered in smooth, green marzipan and candied fruit.
Replace the ricotta with biancomangiare and remove the candied fruit and I’m in! I’ve actually only eaten Sicilian Cassata once, which was a few months ago at a bakery called Josef’s. It’s owned by a, get ready, Italian-Canadian-American. Ha! Anyway, he’s very traditional and does not sell anything with biancomangiare in his bakery. The cannoli and cassata are made one hundred percent with ricotta. It’s not my preference, obviously, but that cake…oh my goodness, that cake. I only had a tiny, individual one, but it was insane. The rum is probably what had me.
When I do my version of my family’s cassata, I soak the lady fingers in rum (in the same manner that you soak them in espresso for tiramisu) not just because of the Sicilian cassata, but because I saw it in a recipe from one of Mario Batali’s restaurants and figured, why not, let me try this! It makes a world of difference! I also like to decorate the top with pistachios (to mirror the flavor of chopped pistachios decorating either end of a cannolo), which add another level of flavor that just kicks the amazing up another notch, but that’s beside the point.
What you need to know is that there are many ways to make cassata and Italians always seem to be very opinionated about what’s “the best.” And, of course, my opinion is that mine is the best 😉 A mixture of my grandmother’s lady finger-stacked “cake” with biancomangiare, a traditional Sicilian cassata soaked in rum, and the flavors of pistachio studded cannoli, I think creates the perfect marriage!