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December 05, 1985|BETSEY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor and

Eating your way through Italy is like eating your way through a series of small countries. Each region has its specialties and guards them jealously. Rarely will you find a Sicilian cassata, one of this island region's best-known desserts, served in other parts of the country. If you want cassata, go to Sicily. But if it's Panforte, a wonderfully rich holiday fruitcake, you're after, that will mean a visit to Siena, where the Tuscan sweet has been a Christmas specialty for centuries. Except for Italy's larger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Rome or Milan, it's unlikely these distinctive foods will be found outside their regional borders.

Since the holiday period is one in which sweets play an important role, this is a good time to share a collection of recipes for Italian desserts that will fit nicely into seasonal menus. The recipes are based on desserts that were served to a group of food editors traveling throughout Italy earlier this year under the able tutelage of Giuliano Bugialli, a Florentine cooking teacher and award-winning cookbook author who is well known in this country.

Our tour began in Sicily, where, in Marsala, we sampled our first cassata. It was a memorable experience. Made of spongecake sprinkled with sweet wine and filled with a creamy ricotta cheese mixture, cassatas are topped with colorful candied fruits arranged in stylistic designs. There are as many recipes for cassata as there are Sicilians, probably, but we adapted several recipes from a Sicilian cookbook, "Sicilia e le Isole in Bocca," and Maria Lo Pinto's "The Art of Regional Italian Cooking" with great success. The chocolate cassata recipe was shared by fellow traveler and Boston caterer, June Gosule.

The Torta di Ricotta recipe came from Luciano Parolari, the creative chef at the beautiful resort hotel Villa d'Este on Lake Como in the Lombardy region. Jean Govoni Salvadore, longtime public relations director for the hotel, hopes to have an updated version of her original cookbook, "Cooking Ideas from Villa d'Este," off the presses soon. If it's anything like her first effort, it will be a worthwhile addition to any cookbook collection.

The Panforte and Panettone recipes are from Giuliano Bugialli's "Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking" (Simon & Schuster: $19.95). The confectioner's wafer paper called for in the Panforte recipe is a tissue thin sheet of edible paper that is available in some specialty bakery supply shops. It may be difficult to find, but the Panforte, while a little less authentic, will taste just as good without it. SICILIAN CASSATA


3 tablespoons Marsala

1 pound ricotta cheese, sieved

1/2 cup sugar

Dash vanilla

1 1/2 ounces finely chopped semisweet chocolate

Assorted candied fruit (cherries, pineapple, citron, lemon and orange peel)

Almond Icing

Slice Spongecake horizontally into 3 layers. Sprinkle cut side of each layer with 1 tablespoon Marsala. Set aside.

Blend ricotta, sugar, vanilla, chocolate and 1/8 pound finely chopped candied fruit until well mixed. Place bottom cake layer, cut side up, on platter. Spread half of filling over cake layer, smoothing top evenly. Cover with second cake layer, pressing firmly. Spread remaining filling over second layer, smoothing top evenly. Add top cake layer, cut side down, pressing lightly but firmly. Cover and refrigerate several hours or until thoroughly chilled.

When cake is thoroughly chilled, spread top and sides with Almond Icing, smoothing icing evenly. Arrange large pieces candied fruit over top in attractive design. Chill until ready to serve. Makes 12 to 14 servings.


2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1/2 cup hot milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup flour

Beat eggs. Beat in sugar, salt, vanilla and almond extract. Combine melted butter with hot milk and beat into egg mixture. Sift baking powder and flour together and beat into milk and egg mixture.

Pour quickly into 9-inch round baking pan and bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes or until cake shrinks from sides of pan. Invert pan on wire rack to cool. Remove cake from pan.

Almond Icing

4 cups sifted powdered sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon amaretto

3 tablespoons water, about

Blend powdered sugar, amaretto and enough water to make smooth, spreadable consistency.


1 pound ricotta cheese

2 tablespoons milk

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons orange-blossom honey or mild honey

1 (1-ounce) square bitter chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons diced candied citron

1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract


Almond Icing

Assorted candied fruit (cherries, pineapple, citron, lemon and orange peel)

Combine ricotta, milk, sugar and honey and rub through sieve. Beat until smooth. Add chocolate, citron and almond extract and blend well.

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