Remember The Cassata? Discover Its Layered History
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A cake with three layers of ice cream and topped with nuts, the Cassata was revered as a luxury dessert in India. This was long before India was introduced to cupcakes and macaroons or even gelatos. It was colourful and filling and was considered an occasional treat back in the day. 

Video Credit: Chef Ranveer Brar

The simple-looking dessert has a complex, intriguing history that intertwines with various culinary traditions across different cultures. The cold dessert draws inspiration from both Italian and Indian influences. The original Cassata, from which the ice cream variant derives its name, is a traditional Sicilian dessert. It has no ice cream in it and looks nothing like the Cassata in India does.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

It is believed that the cake-like confection dates back to the Arab rule in Sicily, which was from the 9th to 11th centuries. The story goes that the Arabs introduced sugar, citrus fruits, and almonds to Sicily during their rule. The classic Sicilian Cassata was made with sponge cake that was moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit. It was covered with marzipan, green-coloured icing, and decorative designs. Over centuries, Cassata evolved to incorporate various flavours and ingredients; it saw the diverse cultural influences of Sicily, including Arab, Norman, and Spanish countries.

The Italian Touch 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some argue that Cassata was part of the Italian tradition even before the Arabs came there. Ricotta cheese, which was one of the most important ingredients in this version of the Cassata, was already being used in Italy. Others say that a chef in Italy created the recipe accidentally when he had excess candied nuts left over.

Italy has always been known for its gelato, a type of ice cream which has rich texture and intense flavours. Gelato-making techniques, coupled with the concept of layering and mixing flavours, paved the way for the creation of what is known today as the Cassata ice cream.

The Cassata ice cream, as an Italian dessert, typically includes layers of different flavours of gelato, often with candied fruits and nuts, mimicking the layers and ingredients of the original cake.

Making the dessert took time and effort, and ricotta was an expensive ingredient, which is why it is believed that the dessert was made on celebratory days such as Easter.

The Indian Version

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During the colonial era when India was ruled by the British and with the subsequent global trade and migration, the concept of Cassata made its way to India. Indian ice cream makers adapted the idea to suit local tastes and ingredients.

The Indian version of Cassata ice cream became popular in the mid-20th century, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when refrigeration technology and commercial ice cream production started to flourish in India.

The Indian Cassata ice cream typically features layers of different flavours such as vanilla, strawberry, pistachio, tutti fruity and chocolate, often with a layer of sponge cake at the base. When the Cassata came to India, local ingredients were also used to make it.

The inclusion of nuts like pistachios, cashews, and almonds, along with candied fruits and sometimes even a hint of saffron, gives the Indian Cassata its unique flavour profile. The most attractive thing about this ice cream, especially for children, was its bright colours. Soon, the visual layers became more and more appealing to people, and the Cassata became a popular choice for celebrations and festive occasions.

In India, brands such as  Vadilal, Havmor, and Kwality Walls played a significant role in popularising Cassata ice cream. It became a staple dessert in Indian households, especially during festivals and special events. These days, the Cassata ice cream is often available in pre-sliced blocks, making it convenient to serve at gatherings.

Modern variations of Cassata ice cream continue to emerge, incorporating diverse flavours and presentation styles. Gourmet versions might include exotic fruits, premium nuts, and artisanal gelato layers. Fusion desserts inspired by Cassata, such as Cassata cakes and frozen treats, are also gaining popularity in both traditional and contemporary culinary settings.

Cassata ice cream is a testament to the dynamic nature of culinary traditions and how they evolve across cultures and time. Originating from the rich, layered Sicilian cake, it has transformed into a beloved dessert in India, celebrated for its vibrant colours, diverse flavours, and festive appeal.