They're wonderful treats, handheld deep-fried pockets of tender dough filled with sweetened ricotta and dusted with confectioners' sugar. My father made them every year at Christmas, even though they're typically served during spring holidays, particularly the St. Joseph's feast day and Easter.
Alas, when I decided that it was time for a cassatedi comeback, I worried it might be too late: Not only could I not find a recipe, I couldn't find a cookbook that even mentioned them.
Of course, my father, Joe — an excellent and improvisational, recipes-who-needs-'em? cook — had his formula to offer. There are reasons I have demurred. First, he is an impatient man. At some point between 1969 and 1973, he stopped making the dough from scratch and switched to an instant hot roll mix. Then he added chocolate chips. (OK, nobody ever minded the chocolate chips.) Then he decided they would be more healthful if they were baked instead of fried.
And you wonder why I was looking for a recipe.
My plan was to find said recipe, then make the cassatedi with Dad — the way his grandmother made them before the Pillsbury Doughboy, Nestle and the food police got into the act.
Nothing against the authentically minded, Slow Food-endorsed, learn-from-your-elders approach. But it is best mastered in a nurturing environment that often has nothing in common with many an Old World cook. They often are short-tempered, use crummy pans and mistrust interlopers. (My dad qualifies for only two of these, and I'm not saying which.)
Plus, his cheerful belligerence meant that he would try and get me to make cassatedi his way: The tiny confections became, in my father's hurry-it-up manner, larger and more bulbous each year. (If he made them bigger, it wouldn't take him as long and he could get back to the game — any game, any sport — on TV.) Dad's cassatedi were still delicious, but really big in a freakish sort of way.
I finally stumbled upon an out-of-print Italian-American cookbook in a used bookstore that had the recipe, with a notation tracing them to a village near Trapani — which is near my grandparents' Sicilian village of Sambuca.
Mystery solved. Recipe found. But would I survive an afternoon in the kitchen with Joe?
I called him to set a date to do this, and each time our conversation went something like this:
"We need the hot roll mix —"
"Dad, I told you. I'm making the dough from scratch."
(Pause) "Oh." (Pause) "You sure? That hot roll mix is fast."
"I'll make the dough before I come over."
"OK, that's good, there's a game I want to watch. Now, you need ricotta and chocolate chips —"
"I know. I've got a recipe."
"We don't need a recipe. You need ricotta and chocolate chips —"
Recipe firmly in hand, I moved on.
"I want to fry them."
(Long pause) "OK. But I bake them. Your mother used to like them baked."
"They're good baked," I agreed. "But you used to fry them, and they're supposed to be fried."
"Yeah." (Pause) "Frying's messy." (Pause) "You sure you don't want to use the hot roll mix? It's good."
At this point, the writing was on the wall: We would make them his way.
Our cassatedi workshop went well. I brought my good pans and he didn't lose his temper. (Oops.) They were ridiculously easy to make, though credit the hot roll mix for that. (Yes, I caved on that part too.) But at least we wound up with more than 20, not two.
Dad's insistence on baking — though it produced a softer dough — is indeed a more healthful, less messy approach. Plus: There's chocolate.
The experience made me rethink a few things. What is authenticity, anyway? If recipes change all the time, why be beholden to anybody, whether it's the revered ancestors I've never met, or the father/sports addict whose hot-roll-mix/chocolate chip cassatedi — earned after a lifetime with Old World cooks — is his version of authentic?
The answer, as always: Let the food, and your sanity, decide.
Papa Joe's cassatedi
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 12 minutes
Makes: 25-30 turnovers
2 pounds whole-milk ricotta, drained, see note at bottom
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 package (16 ounces) hot roll mix, such as Pillsbury
2 tablespoons softened butter
2 egg whites
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, about
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. For the filling, combine the ricotta, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl; set aside.
2. For the dough, follow these package directions for the sweet dough: Combine the flour package and yeast packet from the mix with remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in a large bowl; stir in 1 cup hot water (120 to 130 degrees or "very hot to the touch"), butter and whole egg until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; with greased or floured hands, shape into a ball. Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes, adding additional flour if necessary; let stand 5 minutes.
3. Take a golf ball-size piece of the dough, about 1 ounce, and roll it out into a small, thin circle about 4 inches in diameter on a lightly floured surface. Add a scant 2 tablespoons ricotta filling to one side of the dough; sprinkle with chocolate chips.
4. Make an egg wash by lightly beating 1 egg white and 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl. Brush edges with the egg wash; fold half of the dough over to form a half moon. Press to seal tightly; use fork tines to crimp edges. Brush top with egg white; use a sharp knife to make a small vent in the pastry. Place on lightly greased baking sheets; continue with remaining dough and filling.
5. Bake until pastry is golden brown and puffy, about 12 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar; serve warm.
Per turnover (for 30 pieces): 158 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 128 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 2 minutes per batch
Makes: 40 turnovers
Note: This recipe for sweet ricotta turnovers — the traditional version — is adapted from "The Little Italy Cookbook: Recipes from North America's Italian Communities" (out of print) by Maria Pace and Louisa Scaini-Jojic. In the preface, the authors credit a woman who says the treats are only made in a village near Trapani. They also note that variations of this theme are popular throughout southern Italy. The authors suggest using a pasta machine to get the dough thin enough; we found the idea worked well.
1 pound ricotta, drained, see note at bottom
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
4 eggs plus 1 egg white
1/4 cup shortening, melted
1/3 cup milk
4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Oil for deep frying (about 2 cups)
1. For the filling, combine the ricotta, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and egg white in a large bowl; set aside.
2. Combine the eggs, melted shortening, remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and milk in a small bowl. Mound 31/2 cups flour on a board; make a well. Pour the egg mixture into the well; sprinkle on the baking powder. Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the flour to form a dough; add a little more milk if needed. Knead briefly until the dough is smooth. (Add flour, if needed.)
3. Divide the dough into four pieces. Take one of the pieces and flatten; dust with flour and roll until it is 1/16th-inch thick and shaped into a 4-inch-wide rectangle. Place 1 rounded teaspoon filling along one side of the dough at 31/2-inch intervals. Fold the top half of the strip over the filling, and press edges together to enclose completely. Cut with pastry cutter or knife into individual squares or half moons. Lay each piece on a lightly floured baking sheet; repeat with remaining pieces and filling.
4. Heat the oil in a deep skillet. Fry several turnovers at a time until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain on a rack placed over paper towels. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar; serve warm.
Per turnover: 131 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 31 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Draining ricotta: Place ricotta in a wire sieve for several hours or overnight to remove excess water. For faster results, cover the ricotta with a small plate that fits in the sieve and weight that with a heavy can. If you can, use fresh whole milk ricotta from a specialty market for the richest flavor.