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 Mom 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.
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.
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 9th 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.
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 2 days in advance. This recipe makes 4 1/2 cups, enough for about two dozen cannoli.
3 cups fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese, drained well
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
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. Transfer to a piping bag; seal and refrigerate until well chilled (up to 2 days).
Classic Cannoli Alla Siciliana
The dough is quite elastic and is best rolled out using a pasta machine. You’ll need a thermometer for monitoring the frying oil, cannoli shell molds and a 3 3/4-inch round cookie cutter. You can find stainless-steel cannoli shell molds online at Fantes.com. The dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. The fried shells can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
1 1/2 cups flour, preferably unbleached all-purpose
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon finely ground espresso
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 to 8 tablespoons dry Marsala
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
Ricotta cream, for filling (see recipe)
Confectioners’ sugar, for serving
Mini chocolate chips, cacao nibs, crushed pistachios, candied orange peel, for garnish (optional)
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 tablespoons of Marsala and pulse until the mixture begins to come together. If necessary, add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of Marsala to make a firm yet tender dough.
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.
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 1/16-inch thick.
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 3 3/4-inch round cookie cutter, cut as many rounds as you can. Gather up the scraps and wrap them in plastic wrap to re-roll later.
Roll out the second piece of dough into a 1/16-inch-thick strip and use the cookie cutter to cut out 3 3/4-inch 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.
Pour the oil to a depth of at least 2 inches into a heavy pot (such as a 9-inch enameled cast-iron pot). Place over medium-high heat and heat the oil to about 375 degrees. Set a wire cooling rack on a rimmed baking sheet.
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.
To fill, fit a pastry bag with a wide tip and fill with Ricotta Cream (see related recipe). Pipe the cream 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.
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 chopped candied orange peel. Serve right away to keep the cannoli from turning soggy.
— From Gabriella Marchetti, mother of cookbook author Domenica Marchetti