That’s what my niece said after she took a bite of this cassata alla Siciliana, a cake my mother made every December for years. That thought resonated with me.

My mother died in 2020 at 97, and I cannot remember the last year she made the cake, but I do know it had probably been more than a decade since I had tasted it.

After her death, as we were cleaning out her files, I came across her handwritten recipe for the dessert. At first, I was thrilled to see her careful cursive and filled with warm memories of making these layered cakes with her – she gave them as gifts and served them at Christmas gatherings.

As I looked at the sheet of well-worn loose-leaf, however, I realized it revealed more than the ingredients for a beloved dish. It demonstrated my mother’s frugality and the creativity she tapped into to find small ways of bringing joy into our lives.

I realized that she enabled me, when I was still a child, to see the lush, green forest, and ignore the weathered trees.

Food can evoke powerful memories, and I was awash with sepia-toned images of her teaching me how to mince the candied fruit and chocolate, and watching her carefully spread the sliced pound cakes with creamy ricotta filling and then slather them with a thick, fudgy icing.

But then I saw that in the margin of the recipe were notations of how much each ingredient cost.

For the filling, she noted $1.35 for the pound cake, $1.52 for the ricotta and 30 cents for semisweet chocolate. For the icing, she jotted down another $1.79 for the chocolate. I remembered how some years, she gave whole cakes as gifts; other years she gave half-cakes. I realize now that it probably depended on what she could afford.

Sometimes she would buy inexpensive trays to give with the cakes; other years, she covered cardboard with foil to deliver them.

It made me stop and think about how she would often say: “People have money for what they want to have money for”; and ever-so-slightly shake her head and narrow her eyes when she saw me with a Starbucks cup.

As I tackled the cassata, testing it again and again, and chatting with my sister about the process – Did she make the icing over a double boiler? How did she slice the pound cake into four even layers? – and making small adjustments, I realized the dessert checked a lot of boxes for my mother. She worked as a public school teacher, raised eight children and hosted big, all-comers-welcome Thanksgivings, Christmases and New Year’s Eves, as well as day parties, for decades.

The recipe, one of many variations of this beloved dessert that is said to originate in Palermo, Sicily, pays homage to my mother’s Sicilian roots with its candied fruit, semisweet chocolate and orange liqueur – a heritage of which she was proud.

For a busy mom of eight, it resulted in a pretty, fancy-looking dessert that came together quickly, especially if you used store-bought cake and recruited helpers to chop and mix. The filling could be made days ahead, too.

And it allowed my mom to start her own holiday tradition, to create something we all expected, looked forward to and enjoyed together.

I realized how precious that sheet of loose-leaf was to me because it not only opened the door to re-creating a beloved food memory, but it also allowed me to stop and appreciate the less tangible things my mother passed along: her love of family, her frugality, her willingness to give of herself.

As I sliced it and served it to my niece, I wondered why it took me so long to pick up the mantle. Now, I plan to make it every year to enjoy that nostalgic taste of Christmas, and, once again, feel my mother’s nod of approval.

I realized how precious that sheet of loose-leaf was to me because it did more than open the door to re-creating a beloved food memory, says Washington Post columnist Ann Maloney. Ann Maloney/The Washington Post

Cassata Alla Siciliana

8 to 12 servings

Active time: 45 mins; Total time: 1 hour 30 mins, plus cooling time

There are many variations on cassata Siciliana, a beloved dessert that is said to originate in Palermo. Traditional versions call for round sponge cake and include marzipan and pistachios, but just about all contain ricotta, candied fruit and chocolate. This simplified take comes from recipes editor Ann Maloney’s mother, who made it at Christmastime for family and friends. Make it easy on yourself and buy a pound cake or prepare the one recommended in related recipes.

Make ahead: The filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days in advance; the cake can be filled and refrigerated for up to 1 day in advance.

Storage: Cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days; freeze, well-wrapped, for up to 1 month.


For the cake and filling

1 pound (454 grams) full-fat ricotta cheese (see Notes)

2 ounces (57 grams) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (optional)

1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar

3 tablespoons (43 grams) minced candied fruit

3 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau, plus more as needed (see Notes)

1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional; see Notes)

1 (1-pound/454-gram) loaf pound cake (see Notes)

For the icing

1/2 cup (120 milliliters) hot water

1 tablespoon espresso powder

1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau (see Notes)

8 ounces (227 grams) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (see Notes)

11 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons/155 grams) unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks


Make the filling: In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, chocolate, if using, sugar, candied fruit, liqueur and heavy cream, if using, until well combined. The mixture should be soft and spreadable, and will thicken once chilled. Refrigerate, uncovered, while you slice the cake.

Using a large, sharp serrated knife, carefully slice the cake across into four even layers.

Lay the bottom slice of cake on a serving platter. Remove the filling from the refrigerator and spoon about a generous 3/4 cup of it over the cake layer. Using an offset spatula or butter knife, evenly spread out the filling, going all the way to the edges of the cake. Place the next cake layer on top and very gently press down. Repeat with the remaining cake layers and filling. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered or lightly covered, for at least 20 minutes and up to 24 hours.

Make the icing: In a heatproof measuring cup, stir together the hot water with espresso powder, until combined. Stir in the orange liqueur.

Fill a small saucepan over medium heat with 2 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Place a medium heatproof bowl on top of the pan to make a double-boiler, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the simmering water. Add the chocolate and espresso-orange mixture and stir just until the chocolate is completely melted and combined with the coffee. Remove the bowl from the heat, add the butter and whisk until it has completely melted and well combined with the chocolate mixture. If the frosting is too soft to spread, lightly cover, let it rest on the counter until it firms up, or refrigerate for up to 15 minutes. Re-whisk until creamy.

Frost the cake: Remove the cake from the refrigerator and, with an offset spatula or butter knife, clean up any filling that has escaped its layers by scraping it off or tucking it back in. Using an offset spatula or butter knife, spread the frosting in an even layer all over the cake; then add a second layer with the remaining frosting (see Notes). Refrigerate, uncovered, until the frosting is firm, about 15 minutes; then lightly cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day before serving.

When ready to serve, use a sharp, long knife, such as a chef’s knife, to slice the cake into 1/2-inch slices.

Substitutions: No orange liqueur? >> Use 1/4 teaspoon orange extract each in the filling and in the frosting. For the filling, taste and add more as needed, a drop at a time.

Notes: Many containers of ricotta are now 15 ounces. It is fine to use that amount – however, buy a quality brand, such as BelGioioso Ricotta Con Latte, that is thick enough to stand up on a spoon. If the ricotta is thin and runny, transfer it to a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl and allow it to drain until it thickens, about 30 minutes. If your ricotta is thin, skip the heavy cream, which adds flavor but isn’t essential to success. If buying a pound cake, make sure it is actually a pound and not smaller. Many packaged cakes, such as Sara Lee, sell different sizes. Look for the family-size cake. For the icing, buy a semisweet chocolate bar, such as Ghirardelli, rather than using chocolate chips, which do not melt as smoothly. If you’re concerned about crumbs in your icing, you can first apply a thin coating, called a crumb coat, and chill the cake in the refrigerator before applying the rest of the icing.

Nutrition per serving (one 1/2-inch slice), based on 12: 630 calories, 66g carbohydrates, 136mg cholesterol, 38g fat, 2g fiber, 9g protein, 24g saturated fat, 139mg sodium, 47g sugar

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