If Mario liked it, who was I to argue?
I was there for the custard puffs and such Italian cookies as Anise Biscotti, Almond Frollini, Chocolate Hazelnut Spumenti, Buccalati and chocolate dipped macaroons. But after loading up on those treats, I saw the sign quoting a story in USAToday where Mario Batali proclaimed "Corbo's Bakery has the best cassata [cake] I have tried in the USA."
It seems that Mario, the famed chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and Food Network star had visited the fourth generation bakery in Cleveland’s Little Italy on the sly buying a piece (or maybe more – who knows – Mario’s not exactly a skinny guy) and loving it.
Valerie Corbo, whose family first opened the bakery in 1948, didn’t even know famed chef Mario Batali had stopped by.
"We have no idea how Mario Batali found out about us, but we really saw an impact," she said, noting that they learned about Mario’s benediction from customers who saw the article. “But it's not a surprise. Our cassata cake is what we are known for.”
Indeed, the Corbos describe the Italian sponge cake with homemade custard, fresh strawberries and whipped cream icing as their signature dessert. The recipe, like most of what they make, has been family tried and true through generations.
As for cake, I would learn later that Corbo’s Cassata as well as other Cassatas made in Cleveland are unique unto themselves not containing the candied citrus fruits, citrus liqueurs and glazing of chocolate or almond marzipan typical of other Cassatas.
Since I’d had the chance to interview Mario for Shore magazine, I certainly didn’t want to miss the chance to try something he thought was the best. It was towards the end of the day and most of the Cassata cakes were gone but I managed to buy a piece.
As soon as I got to my car, I flipped open the plastic clamshell container and took a bite of cake, custard, strawberries and whipped cream. Oh, that Mario knows what he’s talking about.
For those visiting Cleveland, be sure to stop at Corbo's Bakery, 12210 Mayfield Road, Cleveland, 216-421-8181.
Cleveland Cassata Cake
2 1/4 cup cake flour
1 1/4 and 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
For the custard:
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups half and half
3 tablespoons cornstarch
For the strawberries:
3 pounds strawberries
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
For the whipped cream:
2 cups chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
Whisk together all of the custard ingredients in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Turn down the heat so that the mixture just simmers, and whisk until thick, 1-2 minutes. Transfer the custard to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a round of wax paper, and cool. Then, chill custard, covered, for at least 3 hours, or up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with lightly oiled parchment paper. Sift together the flour, 1 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt two time into a large mxing bowl.
In a separate bowl, beat together the yolks, water, oil, zest and vanilla until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture. In another large bowl beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and beat on high until the peaks are stiff but not dry.
Using a rubber spatula, fold about a quarter of the fluffy egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then very gently fold in the remaining whites. As soon as the egg whites are no longer visible, stop folding. Scrape the batter into the two prepared round cake pans and spread evenly. Bake for approximately 35 minutes or until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a cooling rack for at least an hour. When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release the cakes, cover each pan with a wax paper-lined plate, and flip. Gently lift the pans off of the cakes.
Slice the strawberries thinly and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with the sugar and stir. Allow the strawberries to soak up the sugar for 1 hour, giving them a stir every so often. Strain the berries, reserving the released juices.
When the cakes are thoroughly chilled slice them in half so you have four layers. Place each layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet or plate. Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff.
Place one cake layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Brush with 1/3 of the reserved strawberry juice. Cover with a layer of strawberries, and then a layer of custard. Repeat for the following layers. Then, ice the top and sides of the cake with whipped cream. Top with fresh strawberries.
Chill the cake for at least 8 hours before serving, so that the cake has time to absorb the strawberry juices. Bring to cool room temperature before serving.