"When I felt Palermo, I took my clothes, my jewelry and my zuccata." Mimmetta Greene says this with a big smile, but she is serious. Swaddled in wax paper and cradled in her refrigerator is a large chunk of pale green, candied watermelon rind. This is the zuccata. She uses it to decorate her cassata, the traditional Sicilian Easter cake. It's impossible to find here.
A cassata's is a near-perfect embodiment of the principles of high Sicilian cooking: It is elaborate, it reflects a Middle Eastern influence and it is fantastic."It has to be sumptuous and a little tacky," according to Greene. the effect, however, is one of refinement, not kitsch.
Although it takes a long time to make this cassata, the components can be prepared in advance and stored separately. The entire creation should be assembled a day ahead and mellowed in the refrigerator.
A typical Sicilian Easter feast may start with pasta with fresh sardines and wild fennel. Pieces of whole young lamb and chunks of potatoes baked together with rosemary will be a main dish. Other dishes include artichokes with fava beans and peas, and arancine - big balls of risotto filled with meat sauce, currants, and pine nuts, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried. Dessert, of course, of cassata. SICILIAN ROAST LAMB (Agnello alForno) (Serves 8) 1 leg of young lamb, about 5 pounds 2 1/2 tablespoons salt or to taste 1/3 teaspoon black pepper or to taste 2 teaspoons dried rosemary 3 tablespoons olive oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Trim fat off lamb. Rub with 2 tablespoons salt, rinse, and pat dry with paper towels. Put lamb in a roasting pan. Rub again with remaining 1/3 tablespoon salt, pepper, rosemary and oil. Roast in middle of oven for about 1 1/2 hours, or until internal temperatures reaches 150 (for medium). Let stand for at least 10 minutes to allow juices to retreat before carving. SILICIAN ARTICHOKES (Frittella) (Serves 8) 2 medium onions, chopped 1/2 cup olive oil 2 boxes (9 ounces each) frozen artichokes 1 box (10 ounces) baby lima beans 1 box (10 ounces) frozen green peas 1/2 tablespoon salt, or to taste 1/3 teaspoons black pepper, or to taste
In a casserole heat oil. Add onions and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes until soft. Meanwhile put artichokes in boiling water and cook until they can be separated but are still cool in the center, about 5 minutes. Drain. Cut each into two or three wedges. Put lima beans and peas (together) in boiling water and cook until they can be separated, about 1 minute. Drain. Add prepared vegetables to onions. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring ocassionally, until vegetables are soft but not mushy.
Dish may be cooked in advance and rewarmed over low heat. It may also be served over spaghetti. SICILIAN BAKED POTATOES (Patate alla Siciliana) (Serves 8) 8 large, all-purpose or baking potatoes 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary 2 tablespoons drippings from roast lamb
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Peel potatoes and cut into four or six pieces. Immerse in cold water until ready to bake. Drain. Arrange potatoes in a single layer in a shallow, ovenproof dish. Toss with oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, turning ocassionally with a spatula, until brown and crusty. Spoon drippings over potatoes and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more. MIMMETTA'S EASTER CAKE (Serves 12) 4 eggs 1 cup sugar 2 cups flour 1 tablesppon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup corn oil 2/3 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla Ricotta Filling: 4 cups ricotta cheese (two 15-ounce containers) 2 cups sugar 3 tablespoons candied citron 1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate (1 square) Marzipan: 1 can (8 ounces) almond paste 1 cup confectioners' sugar 1 tablespoon corn syrup Several drops green food coloring Moistening Mixture: 2/3 cup fresh orange juice 1/2 cup vodka Suggested Decorations: Canned fig Dried papaya Candied red cherries Canned kumquat Apricot fruit roll or candied orange peel
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 8-inch round pans. Separate eggs. With an electric mixer beat yolks and sugar at low speed for about 1 minute until creamy. In a bowl sift flour, baking powder and salt together. In a measuring cup mix oil, milk and vanilla. Add about a third of liquid ingredients to egg-sugar mixture and beat at low speed for about 30 seconds. Add about a third of dry ingredients and beat at low speed for about 30 seconds. Repeat this procedure until both liquid and dry ingredients are incorporated into batter. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into batter. Spread batter in prepared pans. Bake until cake begins to pull away from sides of pan and top is light brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from pans.
To make the filling, beat ricotta and sugar at low speed in an electric mixer for about 1 minute. If still lumpy, rub through a strainer. Reserve 3/4 cup for topping. Chop citron and chocolate and stir into larger amount of ricotta-sugar mixture. Refrigerate.
To make marzipan, mix almond paste and sugar by hand until crumbly. Add corn syrup and food coloring and knead until smooth. Roll into a cylinder about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap in wax paper. Keep at room temperature.
Stir orange juice and vodka together. Set aside.
To assemble the cassata: With a long, sharp knife trim tops of cakes to make flat surfaces. Split cakes in half to make four layers. Put one layer on a plate and spoon about a quarter of moistening mixture over it. Spread with about a third of flavored ricotta filling. Repeat this procedure three more times using the reserved plain ricotta for topping. Smear ricotta filling that oozes out between layers around sides of cake to make a thin sticky surface to which marzipan can adhere.
With a long, sharp knife cut marzipan lengthwise into thin, 1/4-inch slices. Fit slices around cake to make a siding. This takes six to eight slices, and fitting is done by trial-and-error. Roll individual slices between sheets of wax paper, if necessary, to change shape so they will fit properly. Wipe marzipan with a damp paper towel if it becomes smeared.
Now decorate the cassata.The following pattern is only a suggestion. The design emerges according to decorator's fantasy and types of fruit available. Put a plump canned fig in the center and insert a stem from another piece of fruit. (Greene makes a candied pear for her centerpiece.) Cut dried papaya into about six very thin, almost transparent, long strips and bend them into petal-like shapes. (Dried papaya, available at natural food stores, is an excellent substitute for zuccata.) Place candied red cherries and canned kumquats here and there for color accents. Border the top of the marzipan siding and fill in the cracks on the side with strips of apricot fruit roll or candied orange peel.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.