This version of Sicilian cassata, a spongecake layered with sweetened ricotta, is crowned with juicy fresh berries. Picture: Evan Sung/The New York Times
The classic Sicilian cassata is a spongecake layered with creamy sweetened ricotta, a heavenly combination. Elaborately decorated with colourful candied fruits, wrapped in marzipan, true cassata is a sight to behold.

My simple summery version is covered with ripe red strawberries, but any fresh summer berries would be welcome, or slices of nectarine, peach or mango.

The unswerving requirements for this cassata are a good spongecake and the best ricotta available.

Look for the absolute freshest, tastiest ricotta; most good cheese stores or Italian delis can supply it. It must be moist, with no sourness. A spoonful should feel creamy on the tongue, not grainy. It’s worth tasting several kinds to see the broad range of ricotta types. Lightly sweetened and whisked to smoothness, this ricotta filling is spread over the cake layers as if it were frosting.

Strawberry Cassata (Serves 8-10)

Ingredients

For the batter:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, for preparing pan
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, for preparing pan
6 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) sifted cake flour

For the syrup:
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, removed in large strips
2 tablespoons grappa or vodka

For the filling:
2 cups (500 grams) fresh ricotta
1/4 cup (55 grams) sugar, or more to taste

For the garnish:
223 grams ripe strawberries, hulled and halved
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

METHOD 

Bake the cake: Heat oven to 180 degrees. Butter and flour an 20cm diameter springform pan and set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat eggs at medium speed. Add sugar, lemon zest, salt and almond extract and continue whisking for 10 to 15 minutes, until mixture is quite thick and nearly holds peaks. Fold in flour quickly.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes or until a skewer emerges dry when inserted in the middle of cake. Cool on a rack. (It’s best to make the cake a day in advance.)

Make the syrup: Simmer sugar, 1/2 cup water and the lemon zest over medium heat for 10 minutes. Cool, stir in grappa and set aside.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Whisk together ricotta and sugar to a spreadable consistency.

Slice cake into 4 thin layers. Put 1 layer on a cake platter. Paint generously with syrup and spread with a quarter of the ricotta filling. Repeat with remaining 3 layers, stacking as you go. Smooth top layer of ricotta cream.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours. Keep refrigerated until an hour before serving.

To serve, toss berries with sugar and lemon juice. Let macerate no more than 10 minutes, then spoon berries over cake.

The New York Times