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The classic Sicilian pastry with a crisp fried shell and creamy, sweet ricotta filling has Arabic origins. According to food historians, cannoli were first invented in the Harem of Qalc’at al-Nissa (Caltanissetta). Here the concubines of the Saracen emir purportedly created a vaguely phallic homage to their husband. Later, with the end of the Arab rule in Sicily, harems disappeared and ex-favorites converted to the Christian faith, withdrew into nearby monasteries and brought with them their recipes.
Originally prepared only around Carnevale season, over time the pastry grew in popularity throughout the rest of Italy, and quickly became a renowned example of the Italian pastry art worldwide. So much so that cannoli are now officially included in the list of traditional Italian food products (P.A.T) of the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies.
Cannoli get their name from the Italian term canna for ‘river canes’, segments of which were used in the past to roll the dough for the tubular shaped shells. Now we use metal cannoli tubes sold in every homeware shop on the island.
In Sicily, you’ll find cannoli in many coffee bars and pastry shops sitting in the display case already filled and ready to eat. The secret to great cannoli is filling them at the last minute with sweet ricotta cream, just before you eat them.
To make cannoli––in addition to the ingredients listed below––you’ll need pastry ring molds or round cookie cutters for the shells, and a set of metal cannoli tubes for frying.
Cannoli recipe by Linda Sarris
for the shells:
250 g all-purpose flour (in the hands-on lesson she used organic whole wheat stone-milled russello flour from Molini del Ponte in Castelvetrano)
25 g lard/strutto
10 g sugar
5 g cocoa powder
A pinch of salt
5 g red wine vinegar
120 g water, add little by little as needed
for the ricotta cream filling:
400 g fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, strained if there is any liquid
150 g sugar
prep and garnish:
oil for deep frying
candied orange peel, powdered sugar, chocolate chips, pistachio
METHOD (serves 12)
As if you are making a pasta dough, combine the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, cocoa and salt. Make a well in the middle and add the melted lard, vinegar and some water to combine until the dough starts to come together. Add more water until it comes together into a ball but not too much to get sticky. Knead by hand for a few minutes until everything is incorporated. This dough works best when rolled out with a pasta machine but you could do it with a rolling pin and some good old fashioned elbow grease. Chef’s secret: the vinegar helps the dough form the beautiful crisp bubbles during frying.
When you get to the right thickness (no thicker than a strand of spaghetti) cut the dough into rounds with a ring mold that is about 4 in/10cm in diameter. Lightly flour the countertop so the rounds don’t stick together as you make more.
Wrap one round piece of dough around a metal cannoli tube. Overlap a little bit and seal with a drop of water. Press down firmly with the back of a fork to secure the pastry dough to the tube.
Fry in batches in hot vegetable/seed oil so the shells crisp up to golden brown but do not burn, about 4 minutes. Carefully pull them out of the frying oil and blot on a paper towel until cool. The shells should come off of the cannoli tubes with a very soft twist. Repeat with remaining dough.
With a fork, lightly mix the ricotta and sugar together until smooth and creamy. Add additional sugar to taste. When you serve the cannoli, garnish with candied fruit on the ends and dust with a little bit of powdered sugar.
Eat with your hands, you can’t cut cannoli with a fork and knife, silly.
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Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.