Cassata, a Sicilian cake made for festive occasions, is filled with layered mixtures of ricotta, vanilla, candied fruit, sugar, and liqueur--we used juicy brandied cherries. Now there's a reason to celebrate!
Put ricotta, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and zest in a food processor; scrape in the vanilla seeds. Process until smooth. Transfer mixture to a bowl, and then stir in drained cherries. Refrigerate.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Let cool completely. Stir in cherry liquid. Refrigerate. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment; coat lining with spray. Dust with flour; tap out excess.
Bring milk and butter to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Put eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment; beat on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 6 minutes. Beat in remaining cup granulated sugar and the vanilla. On low speed, gradually add flour. Drizzle in hot-milk mixture. Beat in baking powder and salt (do not overmix).
Pour into prepared pan. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack 30 minutes. Unmold; remove parchment. Let cool completely.
Split cake horizontally into thirds. Brush a cut side of each layer with syrup. Spread half of filling on bottom layer. Top with middle layer, and spread with remaining filling. Top with third layer. Refrigerate until firm, 2 hours. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Cut into 9 squares.