If you do know cannoli, you understand that, even when you need to ditch a body, a car, and a gun, you wouldn’t forget the cannoli. They’re a perfect pairing of contrasts: light, crunchy, fried pastry tubes on the outside, rich, tangy, whipped creamy filling on the inside. Anything extra — and there are many possible extras, ranging from nuts and chocolate to citrus and cherries — is just a garnish. But oh, it’s hard to pick just one garnish, when they’re all so good.
Once upon a time, it became a mission to find cannoli in the college town where I live. My then-boyfriend and I, both East Coasters transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, walked and biked all over in pursuit of the dessert. A couple of weeks into our search, we found what we were looking for — at an Italian restaurant and bakery, which charged $4 for a single cannolo, smothered under layers of nuts and chocolate. This wasn’t the simple, inexpensive treat we’d known and loved back home. So instead, after a trip back to Philadelphia, I flew home to Eugene with a box of cannoli, tied with a white string, stowed under my airplane seat.
A few years later, we walked with his parents (who by that time had become my in-laws) through Boston’s molto Italiano North End. Short of a trip to Sicily, where the dessert is said to have originated in the Palermo area, this seemed like the best way to experience cannoli: alongside a cappuccino at Caffé Vittoria, with marble countertops and ice-cream-parlor tables and the smells of so many buttery, sugary delights.
Cannoli — which are thought to have their origins in Carnevale season, the days of decadence leading up to the austerity of Lent — are a bit easier to find here in Oregon these days. Recently, my daughters and I wanted to get some for a “Rocky” party — featuring, of course, a screening of the set-in-Philadelphia Sylvester Stallone classic, accompanied by plenty of Italian food. But at $5 each, store-bought was a bit out of reach. Instead, we decided to tackle cannoli at home.
Traditional Italian cannoli are often said to be made with mascarpone filling, although Roberta Gangi of Best of Sicily magazine steers bakers away from this, suggesting ricotta made from sheep’s milk. At Cook's Pots & Tabletops, where I bought my cannoli tubes, Keith Ellis also suggested “really good ricotta.” And the top-notch cannoli sold at Di Prima Dolci in Portland (pictured here) are filled with a ricotta mixture laced with orange zest.
So, for my first cannoli-making attempt, I bought really good ricotta at a local meat-and-cheese shop, for about $10 per pound. The result: not bad, for an initial try. The second time, I hit the supermarket and bought much cheaper ricotta, made from cow’s milk sourced from a local dairy.
This second ricotta was much smoother than the sheep’s milk version, necessitating the addition of about a pint of whipped cream to hold it together for filling the pastry tubes. But we liked the smooth, light texture of the cow’s milk blend best, and it’s certainly easier on the budget.
In the kitchen, cannoli turned out to be a perfect project for a small group. You need a dedicated shell-fryer, as each shell takes only about 90 seconds to cook; turn away to prep more pastry circles or remove cooling shells, and the sizzling shells could blacken. So give everyone a task, and you won’t burn down your home.
You may, however, want to burn off a few extra calories afterward — they’re that good. And please, leave the gun.
Zanne Miller is a writer, editor, and mom to 10-year-old twin daughters who love to help in the kitchen. She’s grateful to her ex-husband, Mark, for her girls, for a killer spaghetti-sauce recipe, and for ensuring her love of Italian food.
Related recipe: Cannoli
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