Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cannoli Day!

Yesterday I spent the better part of my morning making cannoli. It was Fat Tuesday and on Fat Tuesday, if anyone’s ever looking for me, they’ll find me in the kitchen knee-deep in lard and ricotta. Fat Tuesday in my calendar is cannoli day. Cannoli were, after all, a pastry traditionally made for Carnival and although in these days they are made all year round, I take satisfaction in feeling that somehow I’m doing my bit for reviving a tradition lost.

Then again, as far as cannoli are concerned, it’s not something I would attempt to do all year round. There can be no half measures with cannoli. It’s a painstaking endeavour and either you go all out or better you walk down to the bakery and save yourself a morning of pain. I made just shy of 50 cannoli! But I’m jumping ahead of myself. There’s reason in the madness so let me explain.

Cannoli are a Sicilian specialty. They are made from a disc of rolled fried pastry – known as the scòrza – stuffed with sweetened sheep’s ricotta mixed with candied fruit (and sometimes with the addition of pistachio’s, hazelnuts and pieces of chocolate). Some bakeries use cow’s milk ricotta and although an acceptable substitute, if you can find it sheep’s milk is preferable. The pastry is made from a mixture of flour, white wine, sugar and lard. It is thinly rolled around cylindrical metal tubes and deep-fried in lard. Again, some bakeries make a concession and use vegetable oil, but traditionally it was always cooked in hot lard. My personal view is that lard gives a better finish. The resulting pastry is crisper, which is what you are looking for with good cannoli.

The origins of cannoli are swamped with speculation and fanciful thinking. There’s general agreement that they originated in the town of Caltanissetta, a city and commune on the western interior of Sicily and that they have very ancient origins. The name Caltanissetta is said to derive from the Arabic Qalat al Nissa which roughly translates ‘Fort of the Women’. The area was for long occupied by the Saracens. One theory has it that cannoli were first made by the women working in a Saracen harem. At the time the dessert would have been banana shaped, filled with ricotta, almonds and honey - a not so subtle (but tasty no doubt) allusion to the virtuous qualities of the Sultan. Somewhat in contrast, you could say, one food historian has claimed that they were first made by nuns in a local convent. I can’t quite see any common thread in the two stories.

Legends aside, what is certain is that cannoli were traditionally made for Carnival. Also according to tradition, they should be offered as gifts to friends and relatives in multiples of twelve. To offer less would be to risk bad fortune – possibly the kind of fortune that befell the Don in Godfather Part III as he munched through a whole box during a performance at the Palermo opera house. So you see, not wanting to tempt fate, when I cook cannoli, I avoid half measures. Besides, they’re frankly too much effort for a couple of pastries! If that’s what you have in mind, like I said, you might want to consider the local patisserie. My calculations were as follows: a dozen for the old couple who live upstairs; a dozen for anyone [myself included] who cares for a cannolo at my local bar, and; two dozen for the house. I do have three kids so they won’t last very long!  

If you want to give it a go, here’s the recipe. However, bear a couple of things in mind. First, fill your cannoli just before you eat them. Otherwise you risk the filling seeping too much into the pastry and making it soggy. Second, some people do not like to use lard. This recipe will work with a substitute such as vegetable oil but the pastry will not be quite as crispy and therefore should be eaten soon after.On a final note, throughout I have used the plural, cannoli. In my view, cannolo, the singular is possibly one of the most redundant words in the Italian dictionary - who ever just eats one!

For the pastry
110g plain flour
15g lard or butter if preferred
15g caster sugar
40ml marsala or dry white wine
½ teaspoon dark cocoa powder
A pinch of salt

For the filling
400g sheep’s ricotta (or cow’s)
100g candied pumpkin or orange pieces
100g dark chocolate drops
180g caster sugar

Lard or oil for deep frying
Icing sugar for dusting

To make the pastry, place the flour on a large work surface and in the middle place the lard or butter, the sugar, a pinch of salt, the cocoa powder and the marsala or wine.  Bring everything together and knead to obtain and smooth dough.  Wrap the dough in a clean tea towel and leave in a cool place to rest for one hour.

While the pastry is resting you can make the filling.  Pass the ricotta through a sieve into a large bowl (the ricotta needs to be thoroughly drained).  Add the sugar and mix together well.  Stir in the candied peel and chocolate drops.  Place the filling in the fridge until needed.

Roll the pastry out to a thickness of 2mm (I find it easiest to do this with a pasta machine).  With a pastry wheel cut circles of dough 10cm in diameter.  If you find it easier you can also cut 10cm squares although the finished look won’t be quite the same.

Wrap each disc of pastry around a metal cannolo tube (these can be found in the shops or on line).  I’ve heard it said that you can also wrap the dough around the handle of a wooden spoon.  I’ve never managed to get this to work for me as the gap for the filling isn’t large enough.  Although I suppose you could try and make a smaller disc of pastry to make mini cannoli.  Which ever method you choose, make sure that you don’t wrap the pastry up too tight - it needs a little space to rise.

Fry the pastry in abundant oil which is hot but not smoking until they are a dark golden colour.  Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and allow them to drain on kitchen paper.  Once the cannoli have cooled slightly remove the metal tube.  Repeat this process until all the dough is used up.

Allow the cannoli to cool completely before filling. I would suggest that you wait until just ready to serve so that the pastry does not become soggy.  Decorate each end of the cannolo with a piece of candied peel and finally dust with icing sugar.


  1. You have written the last article on Cannoli - nothing more ever needs to be said. Thanks. I have tried to find a decent cannoli in our part of Italy (SP,MS) but no luck - always prefilled! While they may not be perfect, the best I've found are at Maria's in the North End of Boston. Come - I'm buying.

  2. Mike and Martha, thanks for stopping by. The next time I'm in Boston, I just might take you up on the offer!

  3. I loved this post, and so did my ESL students. I have a few Sicilians in my class. They confirmed that it is best to use sheep's ricotta. One of them even said that circles of dough can get a lot larger than 10cms, and if you eat the mini ones, you would probably consume 12 in one sitting!