Cassata: A dessert that’s travelled all over India, Italy and the Arab world

Cassata: A dessert that’s travelled all over India, Italy and the Arab world

A celebratory cake, an ice cream and a 1000-year-old history

Cassata: A nostalgic Indian dessert from Italy Image Credit: Shutterstock

In Cassata, we trust.

Weddings in India call for celebration, music and good food. However, there used to be a time when we all gobbled up the food served quickly rather than relish it. All because we wanted to indulge in Cassata – a crescent-shaped, three-layered ice cream placed on a soft sponge cake, with pistachios atop and tutti frutti (or candied fruit) spread across the slice.

You see, one bite of it changes your life for the better. It’s no exaggeration.

It was a wedding staple. A dessert that never failed to charm the guests, even the most recalcitrant of aunts and uncles smiled after a few bites of this Italian export. Cassata could be trusted to deliver joy and satisfaction.

Sadly, gone are the days where you can find such a slice again. Wedding desserts have transitioned from Cassata to jalebi and rabri, puddings, or gulab jamun with ice cream, or even worse… just ice cream.

If you were to go on a quest for Cassata, chances are you’ll never find anything that serves it the way it was in the past. For starters, it comes in a disposable semi-circled/half-moon plastic box, shaped to fit the ice cream slice itself. Most of them don’t have tutti frutti, which is the life of the dessert itself. Not to mention, fewer nuts – such cruelty!

All of this encouraged the Food team at Gulf News to go on a quest to discover the history behind this humble dessert, its popularity, and why the world (especially India) loves it so dearly. Much to our surprise, we found that Cassata is a dish that originated in Italy with Arabic influence, and it was only until much later that India popularised it.

Is it an Arabic or Italian dessert?

Cassata, in Italy, is layered cake layered with sweetened ricotta cheese, fruit preserves and jellies surrounded by marzipan Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you ever take a trip to Sicily in Italy, you would be sure to find that Cassata has a whole other meaning. For one, it is layered cake layered with sweetened ricotta cheese, fruit preserves and jellies surrounded by marzipan. However, it is claimed that the first cake may have just originated as a ricotta cheesecake, and was simply made with egg and sugar.

However, Cassata takes its name from the Arab word quas’at, or qas’at, which refers to a wide bowl used to bake the cake. According to American food historian Clifford A. Wright, the origins of this cake can be traced to the Arab reign during 10th century of Italy, or shortly afterwards to the Arab-influenced kitchens of Norman-Sicilian monasteries, which used a simple blend of eggs and flour to bake the cake.

As time progressed, the cake was baked during the spring as a traditional Easter speciality by the monastery nuns, and was called cassati. It grew so popular by the 16th century that the diocese of Mazara del Vallo (a town in Sicily) had to declare a ban in its making, for the nuns preferred to spend their time baking the cassata rather than pray.

The addition of candied fruit, on the other hand, was by a pastry chef from the 1870s. He apparently made an excessive amount of candied fruit to decorate a ricotta cake, and ended up naming it cassata Siciliana cake.

However, it was only after several years of trying and testing that the cassata cake took a more richly decorated form as you see today. It isn’t called cassata cake, just cassata. In Italy, of course.

Today, there are several variations to the dessert dish, with 10 different types in Sicily alone. However, how did it reach India?

Enter Neapolitan ice cream

Neapolitan ice cream is moulded with three different flavours and symbolises the Italian flag Image Credit: Shutterstock

In the 19th century, immigrants from Naples arrived in America with a vast knowledge of frozen desserts. Spumone or spumoni was among these treats. The dessert was given the title Neapolitan ice cream, as it was moulded with three different flavours and symbolised the Italian flag.

Flavours of chocolate, vanilla and pistachio were combined, each with a layer of fruit and nuts in them. As it grew in popularity, several other ice cream vendors started experimenting with this concept and later made variations that included strawberry, mango and other flavours. It is also known as harlequin ice cream.

When the Neopolitan ice cream finally made its way to India, it was brought under a brand called Kwality in the 1970s. It was a roaring success. Moreover, the first one, as most of us remember, came in the shape of a loaf, which was then sliced and served.

Today, its popularity has waned but the memories continue to stay etched within all of us who never missed an opportunity to eat cassata.

Here's a recipe to making cassata

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