‘Cannoli’ is plural because you’ll want more than one

Classic Cannoli Alla Siciliana, dusted with confectioners' sugar and garnished with crushed Sicilian pistachios and candied orange peel.
Classic Cannoli Alla Siciliana, dusted with confectioners' sugar and garnished with crushed Sicilian pistachios and candied orange peel.PHOTO: DEB LINDSEY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

UNITED STATES (Washington Post) –  A few months ago, I came across my mother’s cannoli recipe, which was typed out on two now-yellowed pages and still stapled together. The xeroxed copy dates to the late 1970s, when my mum used to teach cooking classes in her New Jersey kitchen.

She had given it to me eons ago, along with copies of her recipes for egg pasta dough, bolognese sauce, stuffed zucchini, tiramisu and more. Over the years, I’ve made and served all of them – all except the cannoli. It’s one of those recipes I always meant to tackle but never got around to.

Cannoli are without a doubt Sicily’s most famous contribution to the world of pastry, and although Gabriella Marchetti was not born in Sicily (she is from Abruzzo), her cannoli were as good as any I’ve had and better than most: crisp-fried tubular shells that crunch and shatter just a little – not completely – when you bite into them, with a filling of rich, vanilla-scented, whipped ricotta cream.

  • Classic Cannoli Alla Siciliana

  • Ingredients

    1 ½ cups flour, preferably unbleached all-purpose
    2 Tbs granulated sugar
    1 ½ tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
    1 tsp finely ground espresso
     ⅛ tsp fine salt
    2 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
    6 to 8 Tbs dry Marsala
    1 large egg white, lightly beaten
    Vegetable oil, for frying
    Ricotta Cream, for filling (see related recipe)
    Confectioners' sugar, for serving
    Mini chocolate chips, for garnish (optional)
    Cacao nibs, for garnish (optional)
    Crushed pistachios, for garnish (optional)
    Candied Orange Peel, for garnish (optional)

  • Method

    1. Combine the flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, espresso and salt in a food processor; pulse until thoroughly combined. Add the butter and pulse to incorporate. Add 6 Tbs of Marsala and pulse until the mixture begins to come together. If necessary, add 1 to 2 more Tbs of Marsala to make a firm yet tender dough.

    2. Transfer the dough to a clean work surface and knead for a few minutes, until it is mostly smooth and elastic. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 2 days.

    3. The easiest way to roll out the dough is with a pasta machine. Divide the dough in half. Re-wrap one half and flatten the other with your palm. Feed the piece of dough through the widest setting, fold it in half and repeat. Adjust the roller to the next narrower setting and pass the dough through once. Adjust to the next narrower setting and repeat. Continue to roll until the dough is stretched to about 1.6mm thick.

    4. Lay the strip of dough on the work surface — although it will be slightly tacky there is no need to flour the surface. Using a 9.5cm round cookie cutter, cut as many rounds as you can. Gather up the scraps and wrap them in plastic wrap to re-roll later.

    5. Roll out the second piece of dough into a 1.6mm-thick strip and use the cookie cutter to cut out 9.5cm rounds. Gather up the scraps and knead them together with the reserved scraps. Roll this piece of dough through the pasta machine, stretching it as with the other pieces, and cut the strip into rounds. You should end up with a total of 20 to 24 rounds.

    5. Pour the oil to a depth of at least 5cm into a heavy pot (such as a 23cm enameled cast-iron pot). Place over medium-high heat and heat the oil to about 190 deg. C. Set a wire cooling rack on a rimmed baking sheet.

    6. Wrap a round of dough around one of the cannoli molds, overlapping the edges and sealing them with a little egg white. (Don’t roll the dough too tightly around the tube or it will be difficult to slide the shell off once it’s fried.) Press the edges with your fingers to make sure they are well sealed. Carefully slide one or two cannoli tubes into the hot oil and fry 45 to 60 seconds, until nicely browned. Use metal tongs to move the tubes around as they fry to prevent the cannoli from scorching on the bottom. Lift the cannoli tubes out of the oil with the tongs and set them on the cooling rack. Use the tongs to carefully slide the fried shells off the tubes and let the tubes cool briefly before using again. Continue until you have fried all the cannoli shells. Let cool completely before filling.

    7. To fill, fit a pastry bag with a wide tip and fill with Ricotta Cream (see related recipe). Pipe into both ends of the cannoli shells, taking care to fill the interior. Or use a small spoon to spoon the filling into both ends of the shells, pushing the cream inside as you go.

    8. To serve, dust the filled cannoli with confectioners’ sugar. Garnish the ends with an optional sprinkle of mini chocolate chips, cacao nibs, chopped pistachios and/or or chopped candied orange peel.

    Serve right away to keep the cannoli from turning soggy.

    Makes 20 to 24 cannoli.

Reading through her recipe, written in English but with some Italian syntax sprinkled in (“Wrap around each tube one square or circle, overlapping the ends”), it occurred to me that the last time I enjoyed her cannoli was on Nov 15 1992. The occasion was a brunch she and my father hosted the day after my wedding. I remember filling the cannoli myself with a spoon, taking care to make sure each crispy shell got its fair share.

What happened in the intervening years? Grandkids, health issues, life, I guess.

Now at 93, my mum is too frail for the ambitious cooking and baking that was once her everyday passion. So I decided it was time for me to step up. It took a couple of tries to get to know the dough, but syntax aside, I found that her cannoli recipe holds up beautifully.

Why make your own cannoli? Because with few exceptions they will likely be better than any you can buy in a bakery, unless you are in Sicily. Many bakeries – not all, but many – buy pre-made shells. These are then filled and set in a display case, where they sit around waiting to be bought. Prefilled cannoli means soggy cannoli. (If a shell is sturdy enough to stand up to cannoli cream for hours on end it is probably inedible.) Also, the filling is often unnecessarily sweet and sometimes thickened with cornstarch, at which point you might as well use spackle. All of these are crimes against cannoli in my book.

Speaking of which, the word “cannoli” is already plural. There is no need to say “cannolis,” which is like saying “cakeses” or “cookieses.” If you’re having one, it is a cannolo; if you’re having more, it’s cannoli. (Pet peeve; thank you for the soapbox.)

Like most Italian sweets, cannoli are pastries with a history. The name comes from “canna,” or cane, and refers to lengths of sugar cane stalks that were originally used as forms for frying the shells. Modern cooks use metal tubes, usually sold in packs of four and available at most kitchenware stores.

Although the exact origin of cannoli is not known, some accounts date them to the ninth century, when the island of Sicily was ruled by Arabs. According to one version, the cream-filled cylinder of pastry was created in a harem as an homage to the sultan’s physical attributes.

In his book, The Food of Italy, historian Waverly Root notes that cannoli were indeed considered a symbol of virility and fertility; a dessert for weddings and Easter, a holiday that celebrates rebirth. They were also popular during Carnival, the period of indulgence leading up to Lent. Like other Sicilian pastries, cannoli were at one time made and sold by convent nuns as a way of supporting their religious life, though the pastries are now an Italian bakery staple.
From a culinary perspective, it makes sense that cannoli were aligned with spring; it’s the season when sheep began producing milk again after a dormant winter, and fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta, the classic filling for cannoli, was plentiful.

Nowadays, Italians and everyone else eat cannoli year-round, and there are many variations, some traditional, some less so. Some bakeries coat the inside of the shells with chocolate. It’s a clever twist that also serves to prevent shells from getting soggy once they are filled with cream.

At Casolare in the District of Columbia, pastry chef Jillian Fitch uses lacy pizzelle in place of fried shells. The pretty, delicate embossed shells are filled to order and are best eaten right away.

Most recipes I’ve seen for classic cannoli are similar to my mother's, with minor differences having to do with preference. Traditional recipes for cannoli shells called for using lard in the dough; contemporary recipes tend to substitute butter, which is easier to find. Some recipes contain eggs; and most include vinegar and/or wine – the liquid is what gives the shells their characteristic blistered texture, which happens during frying.

Some doughs are flavored with cinnamon. Mum’s recipe uses cocoa powder and finely ground espresso, which is less common, but the latter adds a subtle bitterness to counteract the richness of the filling. My friend Paola Bacchia, author of Italian Street Food: Recipes From Italy’s Bars and Hidden Laneways, uses all three of those ingredients in her dough.

It’s hard to improve on that simple, classic filling composed of fresh ricotta cheese and sugar. Sheep’s-milk ricotta is traditional in Italy, but here in the States we rely on cow’s-milk ricotta, which is easier to find. It must be well drained to keep the filling from being runny. Rosetta Costantino, author of Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily (Ten Speed Press, 2013), takes the extra step of forcing the ricotta through a fine-mesh sieve to make a smooth filling.

I use my mother's trick of adding a splash of heavy cream to the ricotta and whipping them together in a mixer to achieve a rich but lightened texture. Mum always set aside a portion of the cream, adding a bit of cocoa powder to it to make chocolate filling. This was my childhood favorite, but these days I prefer plain ricotta cream flavoured with a few drops of pure vanilla extract. Bacchia sometimes adds a few drops of orange blossom water to hers, and I’ve seen recipes that call for a little Grand Marnier or other liqueur. You can stir in mini chocolate chips or chopped candied orange peel, though Bacchia and I prefer to use those as garnishes.

Marchetti is the author of, most recently, Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

MAKE AHEAD: RICOTTA FILLING

Traditional cannoli filling contains only ricotta and sugar, and sometimes embellishments such as mini chocolate chips and chopped candied orange peel. The ricotta is sometimes forced through a sieve to make it creamier. Domenica Marchetti skips that tedious step and instead uses her mother’s brilliant trick of whipping a little heavy cream into the cheese. This makes the filling creamy and lightens it just enough to keep it from being stodgy.

Rather than mix in the embellishments, Domenica saves them for garnishing the cannoli. To make a chocolate ricotta cream filling, see the variation below.

Make Ahead: For a firm filling, it's best to let a store-bought ricotta drain overnight in the refrigerator (in a fine-mesh strainer suspended over a bowl). You’ll need to put a stainless-steel mixing bowl and beaters or the balloon-whisk attachment to your mixer in the freezer to chill 30 minutes before making the filling. The ricotta cream can be refrigerated up to two days in advance.

Ingredients:
3 cups fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese, drained well
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Method:
1. Combine the drained ricotta, heavy whipping cream, sugar and vanilla extract in the chilled mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a chilled balloon-whisk attachment (or use a handheld electric mixer with chilled beaters); beat on low speed until incorporated, then increase the speed to high. Beat for a few minutes, until the ricotta cream is thickened and smooth.
2. Transfer to a piping bag; seal and refrigerate until well chilled (up to two days).

VARIATION: Gently whisk ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder into the whipped ricotta cream.