The classic Sicilian cassata is a spongecake layered with creamy sweetened ricotta, a heavenly combination. Though usually topped with colorful candied fruits, this summery version is covered with ripe red berries.
Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Prepare an 8-inch cake pan by lining the bottom with parchment paper (do not spray with non-stick spray).
For the Chiffon Cake: Sift the first dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add the water, oil, and stir until they form a lump-free paste. Add the egg yolks, vanilla extract, and stir until fully blended.
In another clean, grease-free bowl, whip the egg whites until they have tripled in volume and are light and foamy. With the machine running, add the 3 tablespoons of sugar, salt and continue to whip until the egg whites are stiff, but still shiny. Fold the egg whites into the batter and pour it into the prepared cake pan. Immediately place the cake in the center of the oven, and bake for approximately 20-30 minutes, or until the center springs back when gently pressed.
Remove the cake for the oven and allow to cool on a screen for 5 minutes. Press down gently on the sides of the cake to release it from the pan. Invert the cake onto the cooling screen, remove the cake pan and allow the cake to cool completely. Then place in the refrigerator to chill.
For the Pastry Cream (custard) - Place the milk, 1/4 cup sugar, salt and vanilla in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat.
Place the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cornstarch in a stainless steel bowl and mix together with a wire whisk. Stir in the eggs one at a time to form a smooth, lump free paste.
Add 1 or 2 ladles of hot milk to the egg mixture while stirring with a whisk to temper it. This will prevent the eggs from scrambling when they are added to the hot milk.
With the milk on moderate heat, add the egg mixture to the hot milk all at once, constantly stirring vigorously with the whisk. Continue to stir until the cream thickens and comes to a second boil.
Remove pot from heat and fold in pieces of sweet butter. Strain pastry cream into a stainless steel container and place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Place in an ice bath to cool as quickly as possible.
To make the Simple Syrup place the sugar and water in a pot, stir once, and bring to a boil. Remove pot from heat and allow to cool. Once cool add liqueur.
To make the Sweetened Whipped Cream, place the cream into a bowl with a whip attachment and whip on high speed. When the cream starts to thicken, add the sugar and continue to whip it until stiff peaks form. (Be sure to use cold cream and a cold bowl when whipping)..
Wash, hull and quarter the strawberries and place them into a bowl. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup sugar and 1 Tbsp. Rum or Grand
Marnier (or more if desired) on top and toss together. Allow the strawberries to macerate (soak up the liqueur) for approximately 15 minutes.
Assemble the Cake: Slice the cold chiffon cake into 3 equal layers. This is best done using a serrated knife. Brush a good amount of the simple syrup mixture onto the first layer of the cake. Spread about half of the pastry cream evenly over the layer and top with half of the macerated strawberries Top the berries with just enough sweetened whipped cream to cover them.
Place the middle cake layer on top and push down gently. Repeat the procedure with the remaining pastry cream and strawberries and place the third layer of cake on top. Push down gently.
With remaining whipped cream, ice the cake. Ice the top or top and sides if desired. More whipped cream may need to be made if you want to heavily ice the cake.