Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sicilian-American Rum Cake and The Migration of a Recipe

Francesca Vultaggio
Bilello and Michele Bilello
The subject of migration is inescapably tied to the foods and recipes each culture brings with it. Those recipes often change when they reach a new shore, yet there appears to be a kind of collective understanding that leads us to evolve our recipes in similar ways. This phenomenon never fails to amaze me.  I was recently asked by a reader about a cake she remembered from her childhood.  I  recognized it as something I had known in my family too. In fact, many Sicilian-Americans have a similar recipe in their repertoire.
This particular cake recipe comes to me from my great aunt Francesca Vultaggio Bilello of Marsala, whom we called Zia Ciccina.  She immigrated to the United States in1910, through Ellis Island at the age of 15.  Some 60 years later, Zia Ciccina welcomed me and my family to California.
A charming story exists about the 4ft. 9in.Ciccina .  She met her husband, Michele Bilello in Sicily.  A tall handsome man, Michele had immigrated years earlier, and he returned to Sicily to meet, for the first time, his future bride--Ciccina's sister!  The story goes that when he first laid eyes on Ciccina, he was hopelessly smitten. She followed him to America at the age of 15, and lived with relatives in South Bend Indiana, until they married two years later! Ciccina ran the family's Italian grocer store which was located in San Diego's Little Italy district for many years. They were married 64 years!

It is my belief that this recipe developed as an attempt to duplicate the cassata of Sicily.  The ricotta filling of the cassata, which may have been difficult to buy commercially at turn of the century America, would have been replaced with pastry cream, and the bits of chocolate in the ricotta, melted down to form a double layer of vanilla and chocolate filling.  In this version, the layers of chiffon cake are moistened with a rum wash, similar to cassata.  Crushed  pineapple and pitted cherries are added. (Both can be omitted or substituted with fresh berries, however I suggest you try the recipe as described because it is delicious).

Zia Ciccina's  4 Layer Rum Cake  (Francesca Vultaggio Bilello 1893-1972)

The Cake
Step 1:To make the chiffon cake layers, sift together the following dry ingredients in a large bowl:
2 ¼ cup cake flour;   1 ½ cup sugar;  3 tsp. baking powder;  1 tsp. salt

Step 2 :Make a well and add:  ½ cup light vegetable oil;  7 egg yolks unbeaten (reserve the whites); ¾ cup cold water; 2 tsp vanilla extract; zest from 1 lemon.

 Step 3: Beat the ingredients with an electric mixer until the batter is smooth.

 Step 4: In a separate mixing bowl beat until stiff, the egg whites with ½ tsp. cream of tartar and gently fold the batter into them until homogeneous.

Step 5: Pour the mixture into a greased 10 inch tube pan. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 for about 50 minutes. Use the toothpick test to determine if it is ready.  Slice the cake into 4 equal layers or discs after it is cooled.

(You can also make this cake square. I suggest you double the recipe and use four  9x13 inch jelly roll pans lined with parchment paper. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 for about 20 minutes. Check with toothpick .)

 The Pastry Cream Filling

Step 1: In a medium saucepan bring to a simmer  4 cups milk and  ½ cup sugar. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together 4 egg yolks with ½ cup sugar;  2 tsp vanilla extract; and a pinch of salt.  Add ¾ cup cornstarch, in small quantities to avoid lumps and whisk well as you add . Place this mixture on top of a double broiler. Continue whisking as you slowly add the heated milk in a steady stream to the egg yolk mixture .  Continue cooking on the double boiler until it thickens, about 10 minutes.

 Step 2: While still hot, set aside half of the pastry cream and add  about a half cup or more of semi-sweet chocolate bits to it , enough to turn it a rich chocolate color. Stir until the chocolate melts and is incorporated into the cream. Let both the vanilla and chocolate pastry cream cool completely.

 Step 3:  When the vanilla cream has cooled, add to it about a cup of chopped pitted cherries packed in light syrup and a cup of crushed canned pineapple.  Reserve the pineapple liquid to make the rum wash.


Step 1: Begin with the first layer of your cake and brush or sprinkle it with the rum wash, made of half a cup of rum and half a cup of the reserved pineapple  juice.  Spread the vanilla pastry cream evenly on the cake layer.  Place the second layer of cake on top of the first and again brush it with rum mixture and spread the chocolate pastry cream on it. Do the same with the third layer and stop at the fourth layer. 
Whip one pint of heavy cream with powered sugar to taste until thick. Spread the whipped cream over the entire cake.  Add toasted slivered almonds to the sides of the cake. With regard to decorating the cake, I have followed my mother's lead in this and always decorate this cake simply with fresh flowers or berries. Keep this cake well refrigerated until serving

Buon appetito and ciao a' presto!


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