Baking with Zoë

Why is it that I’m always intrigued by the most complicated recipes when perusing the cooking magazines that land in my mailbox? This time it was a classic Sicilian Cassata or Ricotta Cake in the April 2011 issue of Saveur magazine that caught my whimsy. I thought that if it was a success, I’d make it again for Easter Dinner.  But why tackle this recipe test alone when your friend is Zoë François of Baking with Zoë and she has invited you to spend the day baking whatever you want in her beautiful kitchen?

On a recent Monday morning I arrived with ingredients in hand, except of course the ricotta that was still sitting in my fridge. After a quick trip to the co-op, we got down to the opportunity at hand. Zoë hung the sheer curtains around her sunny breakfast room to defuse the copious amounts of sunlight streaming in the windows. (Of course, I’m still using blue painters tape to hang mine when I set up my “studio” for blog photos.)

After reading the recipe through several times, we divided it up so that our limited time would have the greatest success. We had barely started when we stopped to admire the farm fresh eggs that my friends, Curt and Paul, had brought from their farm, The Gentleman Farmers, Inc. in Richmond, Minnesota.  They provide Bret’s Table with dozens of these gorgeous and delicious organic, free-range eggs on a regular basis. With eggs admired, we forged ahead only to halt moments later to pay equal homage to the wonderful citrus whose rinds we were about to candy for the decoration on the finished cake.

The Cake:
With the photographs of the eggs and citrus taken, we got down to the business of baking. The cake batter came together quite easily, but the 9-inch cake pan was definitely too small. As it baked, it rose a good 1/2-inch above the rim, only to fall from its own weight as it cooled. Note to self—using a 10-inch cake pan would have worked much better. Zoë’s idea, though, of baking it in a half-sheet pan was brilliant, and the amount of batter called for in the recipe was perfect.

The Marzipan:
We tackled the marzipan, learning from the experience of making it twice. When the recipe calls for using “only enough egg white to form a smooth dough,” don’t let that last bit of egg white dribble into the food processor, as it will become too wet. How does one remedy this mishap? Remove the dough from the processor, process another ½ cup of pistachios and add the “wet” dough in pieces back into the processor, buzzing the whole mixture again. Also there is no need to roll the dough much wider than the rim of the pie pan (or in the case of Zoë’s recipe, a bread pan).

The Candied Fruit and Simple Syrup:
Instead of using the simple syrup called for in the recipe, we used the syrup from the candied kumquats.  Here’s a link to Zoë’s blog to make your own candied fruit.

The Ricotta Filling:
Finding a one-pound container of whole milk ricotta was impossible, and I didn’t find it prudent to purchase a second container for one ounce. Therefore I made an executive decision and decided on fifteen ounces per recipe. After squeezing out as much whey from the ricotta as was humanly possible, we opted for mixing the filling in the food processor, again following the pictures instead of the recipe. The results were very soupy and it was doubtful that it would ever set. Luckily, Zoë had about four pounds of full-fat cream cheese in her fridge. We measured off ½ pound for each recipe, whipped it in the stand mixer and then incorporated it into the filling. At that point it was a perfect consistency.

The Assembly:
I lined a 10-inch pie plate with plastic wrap as I couldn’t find a 12-inch plate called for in the recipe.  Based upon the pictures included with the recipe, we determined that we needed to line the rims of our respective pans with the marzipan before adding the cake strips (again you’ll see when Zoë’s posts her recipe, she’s using  a bread loaf pan). This step was not noted in the recipe itself. We added the first layer of cake slices to the bottom of the pan and brushed them with the simple syrup. We then poured the “altered” filling into the mold and topped it with the second layer of cake slices, brushing them with more simple syrup. Finally we covered it with the overhanging plastic wrap and laid it to rest in the fridge overnight.

Finishing the cake:
The next day we unmolded our respective cakes and poured the glaze (the one component we didn’t change) over the top of the cake. Back in the fridge it went to allow the glaze to set before it was decorated with the candied fruit, sliced and enjoyed.

In the end the cake was as delicious as it was beautiful decorated with the jewels of candied fruit. Since I have enough leftover ingredients, I’ll be making it again for our Easter dinner. If I do say so myself, it will be the centerpiece of the buffet table! And, not to worry blog fans Zoë will be posting her rendition of the cake as well in time for Easter.

Recipe as published in Saveur:

Butter, for greasing pan
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for dusting pan
2/3 cup plus 3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest (organic if possible)
6 large eggs
1 cup shelled pistachios
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
White of 1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier liqueur
1 pound whole-milk ricotta, drained overnight in a cheesecloth-lined strainer, or ricotta impastata
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Whole candied fruits, such as oranges, apricots, and cherries, halved

Candied citron, cut in strips

Heat oven to 350°
Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan; set aside. Combine 2/3 cup granulated sugar, zest, and eggs in a large bowl and beat on high speed of a stand mixer until pale and light, about 5 minutes. Add flour and fold to combine. Pour into cake pan and smooth top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack, let cake cool completely, and remove cake from pan.

Using a serrated knife, cut cake crosswise into 1/2″-thick strips; set aside. Line bottom and sides of a 12″ metal pie plate with plastic wrap; set aside.

Process the pistachios in a food processor until finely chopped. Add 1 cup confectioners’ sugar and process until finely ground. With processor running, slowly add enough egg white to form smooth dough.

Transfer dough to a work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead until smooth. Using a rolling pin, roll marzipan until 1/4″ thick. Cut into 2″-wide strips and line side of pie plate with strips, flattening where they overlap to form one continuous ring; set aside.

Heat 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until sugar dissolves, then stir in Grand Marnier; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together remaining sugar, ricotta, vanilla, and cinnamon until smooth, 2–3 minutes; set aside.

To assemble, line bottom of prepared pie plate with cake strips, cutting to fit, and then sprinkle with 5 tablespoons Grand Marnier syrup; place ricotta mixture on top of cake and spread evenly to fill pie plate, smoothing top. Cover top of ricotta mixture with remaining cake slices, cutting to fit evenly, and drizzle with remaining syrup; trim excess pistachio marzipan and then wrap pie plate in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 2 hours.

Meanwhile, combine remaining confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice in a medium bowl to make a thick glaze. Invert pie plate onto a serving dish and peel off plastic wrap. Pour glaze over cake to cover evenly. Decorate with candied fruits. Refrigerate cake until set, 2 hours or overnight.

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