Cassata is a striking dessert believed to have been invented in Sicily. It is now connected uniquely with Sicilian cuisine, though Arab countries that traded with Sicily may have first developed it. The Arab words quasat andqashatah translates as "round bowl," which slightly resembles the end form of cassata. Two alternate words in Latin or Italian may be connected to the name of the dish. Caseata references any dessert or dish made with cheese and is Latin. Cassa which is Italian for box, may have some relevance too since the dessert is sometimes made in a rectangular shape.
It’s likely that cassata or cassata siciliana as we know it today was created during the early Middle Ages, when Arabs did have governmental control of Sicily. In the later middle ages, nuns in Sicily were usually the makers of the dessert, and they would sell this delicious dish to locals in the community. It is a somewhat complicated dessert to make, particularly if you’re not used to working with marzipan.
The dessert itself is fairly easy to explain. Two layers of a yellow cake or white sponge cake are soaked in liqueur. Orange juice may be used instead if you want to avoid the alcohol. A mixture containing ricotta cheese, citron or peel, and either vanilla or chocolate is placed between the layers. Sometimes pine nuts are included in the filling, which is similar to cannoli. The cake may have a smaller top layer than bottom layer, or it is occasionally made in a bowl with strips of sponge cake and then inverted to create a bowl-like look.
The whole cake is then covered with marzipan, though some recipes use fondant, which may be colored with pink and green colors. Once the cake is covered, fresh or candied fruit is added to the top. Some recipes call for frosting the cake with pink and green buttercream over the marzipan, which does add extra sweetness to the cake.
The resultant cake is very rich. In fact its richness and complicated assembly resulted in a short ban on convents making the dessert during Holy Week. Since it also takes some times to assemble, authorities in the 1500s believed the nuns would be too distracted by making the dish to pray, perform other work, and maintain proper Lenten observances.
Some cooks make variations of cassata and use an ice cream or gelato filling instead, and there are even some gelato flavors named cassata, which have a creamy, citron flavored taste, and may be blended with chocolate chips. It may be difficult to find cassata in the US, though if you have a good Italian-American bakery, particularly one that prepares Sicilian desserts, you may just get lucky and be able to order one