The greatest sweet of all time, cannoli, is rarely made at home, but there’s no reason why you can’t make it. Sure, you need special equipment, but it’s not beyond the talents of a home cook. To enjoy the process as much as the sweet itself, you must understand its cultural context in Sicily.
The convents of Sicily are the great repositories of Arab-influenced desserts, the so-called dolci di badia, or abbey sweets. Other examples are muccunetti, an almond dough stuffed with fruit conserve from Mazara del Vallo and sweets from the Convento di Santa Caterina on Piazza Bellini in Palermo, where they make cannoli as well as pasticcini farciti con conserva di arance e bergamotto (pastries stuffed with orange and bergamot preserves) and marzapane di mandole e pistacchio (marzipan of almond and pistachio).
The great Sicilian gastronome, medical doctor, and Arabist Alberto Denti di Pirajno proposed a theory as to how the convents became home for so many Arab-influenced sweets. During Arab rule in Sicily (827 to 1091), the inland town of Caltanissetta was called Qal’at al-nisa, the castle of women, because of the fame of the harem of the emir of that city. In the hours when they awaited their masters, the women prepared sweets and cakes. After the Normans conquered Caltanissetta, the harems disappeared but the Muslims did not. They were driven into the mountains, and some converted. Perhaps the women found refuge as crypto-Muslim nuns in the convents, bringing their secret recipes along with their secret religion to be handed down through the confines of the convents.
Sugar and ricotta
It was just a matter of time before someone would think to combine sugar and ricotta cheese. Sugar was brought to Sicily by the Arabs, and sugar cane production was initiated early on perhaps as early as the ninth century.
Homemade cannoli taste like nothing you’ve had before. A freshly made cannoli is an extraordinary taste of celestial paradise, a perfect sweet to reward the palate. I recommend purchasing some specialized equipment that will make your task significantly easier.
First, you need cannoli forms around which to wrap the pastry. These tubular metal forms are usually sold in baking supply stores, Italian markets and on the Internet. A pasta-rolling machine is very convenient for rolling the dough into thin sheets and if you have a KitchenAid mixer, a special pasta attachment is available.
A deep fryer for home use has regulated temperature controls and will allow you to fry the cannoli pastry to a perfect golden color. You will also need a pastry bag and nozzle for piping the stuffing into the pastry forms, and pliers to hold the hot metal forms when they come out of the oil. Do not stuff the cannoli too early before serving as the pastry shells will become soggy, not more than two hours before serving.
Traditionally, cannolis have bits of candied citrus peel and chocolate mixed into the ricotta.
Makes 24 cannoli
- On a counter-top surface or in a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the flour, lard, granulated sugar and salt. Make a well and add the Marsala, a little at a time until you can form the dough into a ball, picking up any loose pieces. Now begin to knead the dough into a smooth, pliable ball, pressing down with your palms and kneading for seven to eight minutes. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest at room temperature with the bowl inverted over it. The dough can be refrigerated for later use at this point, although you must let the dough return to room temperature before you can work it.
- Cut the ball of dough in two and roll out one section in a pasta-rolling machine until it is as thin as a sheet of no-boil lasagne, about 1 millimeter thick. Cut out 4-inch circles with a cookie cutter and continue gathering and rolling and cutting the remaining dough until you have 24 circles.
- Preheat the frying oil in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 360 F.
- If you don’t have a fryer basket, have a slotted spoon available. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Line a platter with paper towels and set it next to the fryer. Have a pair of pliers handy to grab the hot metal forms when they come out of the oil. Arrange the dough circles and cannoli forms near you. As you will likely have only four to eight cannoli forms, you will need to keep using them until all 24 disks are cooked. The forms do not need to be greased. Take the bottom portion of dough and fold it over on top of the form. Dab your finger in the beaten egg and smear it on top of a small portion of the dough where the top portion will affix itself, making sure you don’t get any egg on the metal form. Fold the top portion of the circle over the edge of the bottom portion on the form. Gently roll the form with the dough surrounding it between the palms of your hands to seal the two edges. If you don’t do this the seal will be broken when it fries and the pastry will slip off and puff up.
- Place the metal form with the pastry in the fryer basket, no more than three at a time, and fry in the hot oil until golden brown, less than 1 minute. Raise the basket or remove the forms with a slotted spoon to the platter using the pliers to pick up the very hot metal forms. When the pastry is cool enough to handle, the metal won’t be, so hold the metal form with the pliers and pull the pastry off with your hands, making sure you don’t touch the metal. It will either slide off easily or you will have to grasp the pastry and twist firmly but gently. Set the cannoli pastries aside while you finish frying the remainder of the disks. The cannoli pastry shells can be frozen at this point, if desired. Let the frying oil cool, strain, and save for a future use.
- In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar, orange flower water, Cointreau, and candied peel, if using, until well blended. Fill the pastry bag with this mixture and then pipe it into the pastry forms when you are within two hours of wanting to serve the cannoli. The ricotta should just be poking out of the ends of the pastries. Dip each end of the cannoli into a dish filled with the crushed pistachios and place a quartered piece of cherry into one or both ends of the cannoli. Refrigerate until 20 minutes before serving. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.