Okay, okay, that's a bit over the top, a little too Batman circa 1968, but in all honesty it is what came to mind while I was searching for a catchy post title. I have wanted to make these delectable treats for a long time; I even bought the aluminum cannoli tube molds years ago with that in mind. And they really are something to get a little nuts about!
Cannolis are deep-fried dough cylinders filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese cream laced with grated chocolate and studded with any number of candied fruits : orange peel, angelica, or even cherries. Similar to it’s sister Cassata, cannolis are the most famous of Sicilian desserts.
I first discovered the unadulterated joy of Italian food when I moved to New York after college. I worked as assistant in an art gallery on Sullivan Street in Soho, the far northern border of what was once the home of Italian immigrant society. When I arrived, there still remained 2 of the most famous and longest-lasting bastions of Old World Italy in this oh-so-hip part of Manhattan : Joe’s Dairy Italian cheeseshop and Vesuvio Bakery. From where I sat, Joe’s appeared a mere dark hole where the old Italian men who still lived in this rapidly gentrifying, newly-chic neighborhood would gather mornings, to sit on old wooden chairs i n the doorway, spilling out onto the sidewalk when weather permitted, smoking, gossiping, arguing. Once a week, if my memory is correct, they would smoke mozzarella. The front door would be thrown open and smoke would billow down the street, the heady odor of burning wood and smoking cheese would wrap around my head and make me dizzy.
My brother and I would make occasional forays into Little Italy, eating Mussels alla Diavola or coffee Granitas. We elbowed our way through the summertime crowd at the yearly Feast of San Gennaro street festival, eating soft-shelled crab sandwiches, zeppoles and gelato. When I could afford it – those were my underpaid, trying-to-make-it-in New York days – I would push open the door of Vesuvio Bakery, a tiny, almost bare space where the traditional breads would sit lined up on wooden shelves, to choose from among the warm loaves, putting my change into the hands of the youngest generation of the family.
But I did have one truly great pleasure, a rare delight in an otherwise cruel world, which has become one of my warmest New York memories, one that I still savor to this day. Many a morning I would treat myself to a sfogliatella and a cappucino in Bruno’s Bakery. Heaven was the crisp pastry shell flaking off into the cloud of foam atop the hot coffee, falling away to reveal the just-sweet ricotta filling, working my way to the crunchy point, the last mouthful, leaving only the memory. My love affair with Italian pastries had begun.
Chocolate very rarely makes an appearance in Italian desserts, with the exception of Chocolate Salami and Panforte, though I would consider these more confections bordering on candy than cakes, and Zuccotto, though one does come across chopped or grated chocolate folded into ricotta or mascarpone fillings as well as candied fruit or pine nuts and occasionally almonds quite often : Cassata, Torrone, Semi-freddo, Panettone, Panforte and, of course, Cannolis, to name just a few. Ricotta can be considered the Italian version of cream cheese, creating the base of many desserts, pies and pastries like Sfogliatelle, Ricotta Tart, Pastiera (Easter Tart), etc.
Cannolis take the cake! A quite simple dough recipe, put together in 5 minutes, jazzed up here by a bit of cocoa powder and a glass of white wine, are simply rolled around aluminum tubes and deep fried. Blend ricotta with sugar and then fold in what you like, grated or chopped chocolate, any mixture of chopped candied fruit. It had always seemed quite daunting, so I kept putting it off. But strangely enough, I was watching a German cooking show on our French-German tv station ARTE, The Culinary Adventures of Sarah Wiener, the other day and, lo and behold, the lovely Sarah was standing in the Sicilian kitchen of an Italian Mamma, making Cannolis. If that isn’t a sign from the Food Gods, I don’t know what is.
Hanukkah started this week. I knew that I shouldn’t really be baking Italian, but rather something for the Jewish Festival of Lights. But I had already gathered my courage and made up my mind to try my hand at Cannolis. As I shopped for the ingredients and organized my thoughts, something wonderful and exciting came upon me : Cannolis can indeed be a Hanukkah treat. After all, the dough is fried and the filling is dairy, both Hanukkah culinary traditions.
So here I am offering 2 for the price of 1 : an amazing Italian delicacy as well as a Hanukkah dessert.
Prepare the dough (for about 20 shells):
3 cups (300 g) flour
1/8 cup (25 g) sugar
4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter
1 heaping Tbs (10 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
6 Tbs dry white wine or Marsala
3 – 5 Tbs water
In a medium-sized bowl, work or rub the butter into the flour, sugar and cocoa powder until it resembles sand. Pour on the wine and about 3 of the tablespoons of water.
Working quickly with a fork or spoon, blend the liquid into the dry ingredients, adding a further tablespoon or two of water as needed, until all the dry ingredients are moistened and a fairly firm dough is formed.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it sit for 30 minutes.
Prepare the filling (this recipe makes enough to fill 6 shells):
1 ½ cups (300 g) ricotta
2 Tbs sugar
1 tsp Amaretto or vanilla
1 oz (30 g) dark, semi-sweet chocolate, chopped or grated
2 Tbs chopped candied orange peel
Candied cherries for decorating
Powdered sugar for decorating
Blend all of the ingredients, except for anything that will be added later for decorative purposes, together. Add more sugar, Amaretto, chocolate or orange peel to your taste. You can even chop some of the cherries up and fold them in with the rest. Traditionally, candied angelica is sometimes added, depending on the region of Italy.
Make the shells (Cannoli molds are usually sold by 6, so I made 6):
Divide the dough in about 20 balls. On a floured work surface, roll out one ball of dough into a paper-thin rectangle, one side the length of the metal tube (about 5”/12 ½ cm), the width wide enough to roll around the tube and overlap (about 4”/10 cm).
Roll around the tube and brush the end with water and press and pinch closed (make sure it is well-closed or it may pop open in the hot oil). Trim any excess dough overhanging the ends of the tubes or it may make it difficult to pull the molds out after frying.
Heat the oil in a deep-fat fryer or in a pot wide enough to fry about 3 at a time and deep enough that the shells are immersed in the oil. When the dough is hot (about 375°F/190°C) and a piece of extra dough is dropped in it and the dough, well, fries, carefully drop one shell in at a time, working as quickly as possible. Cook for just 2 minutes, then, using a slotted spoon, lift the shells out one at a time, allowing the hot oil to drain out of the tube, and placing on paper towels.
You must work very quickly and not allow the shells to overcook even for one minute as they burn very rapidly. After 2 minutes, they may seem pale, but in the second or so that you lift them and out of the oil and allow the extra oil to drain off, you will see them darken before your very eyes! And don’t forget that this recipe contains cocoa, so they will appear darker than plain shells.
Once the shells have cooled for just a couple of minutes, enough that you can pick them up, you want to remove the metal tubes. The shells may be cooled, but the tube is still burning hot!!! With an oven mitt on the hand that will handle the metal, very carefully twist then pull the tube out of the shell. Cool the shells completely before filling with the Ricotta filling.
You don’t want to fill the shells too far in advance of serving, because the shells risk getting soft or even a bit mushy, and you really want the Cannoli shells crisp.
Fill a pastry bag with a wide opening with filling and fill each of 6 shells – preferably having a helper hold the shell for you.
Place one Cannoli on each plate, press a candied cherry in the Ricotta filling at one end of the Cannoli, then dust with powdered sugar.
For my first attempt at Cannolis, I was amazed and delighted with the results. I will admit that the first set of shells did not come out well : the dough was too thick (it really must be rolled out very thin) and I fried them for too long, not realizing that they continue to darken after lifted out of the oil.
The filling was amazing, though a bit too “cheesy” for JP. All the flavors, the Amaretto, the orange, the chocolate, came out one at a time and danced around on the tongue. Even the wine in the shells came through delicately. Beautiful!
Happy Hanukkah and Buon Natale!