Cannoli siciliani

Frankdessert, Sicilia34 Comments

Cannoli

Cannoli are perhaps the most beloved of Italian pastries, a true icon of Italian cookery across the world. So why, you might ask, have I not written about cannoli in over 13 years of blogging? It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But I do love cannoli, so perhaps it’s because they’re so readily available in pastry shops, whether you’re in Italy or many places abroad. I can even find cannoli (of a sort) at my local supermarket.

Still, not all of us have access to an Italian pastry shop and not all supermarkets carry them. And, in any event, there’s nothing like homemade. If you’ve never had a proper homemade cannolo, with its delicate, crispy shell and creamy, perfumed filling, tasting one for the first time will be a true revelation. Home cooking also allows you to craft your cannoli to your personal taste. As explained in the Notes below, there are lots of subtle and not so subtle variations you can try out.

Plus, cannoli surprisingly easy to make. After all, they’re essentially just fried dough filled with ricotta cream. Yes, it’s a multi-step process, and there’s a bit of learning curve for making the shells, but that’s all easily mastered, especially if you heed the tips I’ve included in the Notes below. All you’ll need is a set of cannoli tubes. And for round cannoli—the best kind in my opinion—you’ll need a pastry ring to cut the dough. Both are easy to source at a cookware store or online at very modest cost.

Anyway, better late than never. Without further ado, here’s the recipe…

Ingredients

Makes about 20 cannoli

For the shells:

  • 150g (5 oz or 1 cup) all purpose or “OO” flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 Tb granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp powdered cocao or coffee or cinnamon (optional)
  • 15g (0.5 oz or 1 Tb) lard (or softened butter)
  • 1 egg, separated
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • Dry Marsala or white wine , q.b.
  • Vegetable oil for frying

For the filling:

  • 500g (1/2 lb) ricotta, preferably made from sheep’s milk, well drained
  • 100-150g (3-1/2 to 5 oz) confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 tsp rose or orange flower water (or milk)
  • Mini chocolate chips or candied fruit (optional)

For decorating the shells:

  • Pistachios or hazelnuts, shelled and roughly ground
  • Bittersweet mini-chocolate chips
  • Candied cherries (or other candied fruits)
  • Confectioner’s sugar

Directions

Making the shells:

Mix well the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar and, if using, cocoa) in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Incorporate the lard, then an egg yolk and the vinegar if using, then add the wine bit by bit until you get a soft and pliable, but not sticky, ball of dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Roll out the dough (a pasta maker comes in handy here) into thin sheets (see Notes for details). Cut out circles with a pastry ring about 8cm/4 inches wide. (If you don’t have a ring, you can also cut the dough into similarly sized squares.)

Wrap the circles around the cannoli tubes, making sure their ends overlap. Brush the inside of one end with a bit of egg white (or water), then press them together to ensure the two ends adhere to each other.

Deep fry in moderately hot (180C/350F) oil until golden on all sides. If done right, bubbles should form on the surface of the dough as it fries. Drain and let cool completely, then gingerly slip the shells off their tubes. Let the tubes cool completely before proceeding with the next batch.

Repeat as necessary until you use up all the dough.

Making the filling:

Press the ricotta through a sieve into a mixing bowl. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and mix thoroughly. Mix in the rosewater and mix to perfume and soften the mixture every so slightly. Whisk vigorously until the mixture is creamy and perfectly smooth. (A standing mix makes short work of the whisking.)

If you like, you can mix some chocolate chips and/or candied fruit into the filling, to taste.

Chill for at least an hour.

Assembling and decorating the cannoli:

Just before serving, using a pastry bag with an extra wide tip or without a tip (if you don’t have a pastry bag, a sandwich bag with one corner snipped off will do fine), fill each cannoli shell with the ricotta filling.

Decorate each end as you prefer: with ground pistachios or hazelnuts, chocolate chips and/or candied cherries or candied fruit. Dust the shells if you like with confectioner’s sugar.

Serve as soon as possible after preparation.

Cannoli

Notes

As mentioned at the top, the only really tricky bit about making cannoli are the shells. To get the right result, here are a few tips you should follow:

  • Proper thinness. The dough should be rolled out quite thin, but not too thin. Too thick, and the shell will come out doughy or hard, and you’re less likely to get those characteristic bubbles on the surface of the shell. Too thin, and the dough will be very difficult to wrap around the tubes and, once fried, the shell will be so fragile it will tend to fall apart when handled. Recipes that specify tend to say 2mm or so, but who can actually measure that? Personally, I found that rolling the dough out to notch 5 on KitchenAid pasta attachment (used for ribbon pastas) was the sweet spot.
  • Grease the cannoli tubes before making your first batch, and perhaps the second too. Otherwise, the cannoli will tend to stick. After a batch or two, the tubes be well greased from being immersed in oil and the shells should slip off easily after frying.
  • Seal the ends of the shells well with egg white when wrapping them around the tubes. Don’t rely simply on pressing the ends together, no matter how soft your dough might be. Otherwise, they’ll open when you fry them.
  • Oil temperature for frying: In my experience, the sweet spot is between 180-200C/350-400F degrees. Any cooler and the shells won’t form bubbles and will tend to absorb too much oil. Any higher and they’ll tend to burn on you. The usual good practices for frying apply. In particular, make sure to space your cannoli out so they have room to brown properly. You will almost certainly need to proceed in batches.
The filling

Most Italian recipes call for sheep’s milk ricotta but for many of us, the milder cow’s milk variety will have to do. One could write a whole blog post about ricotta—and I plan to do just that one day—but suffice it to say for purposes of this post that the better the quality of the ricotta, the finer your cannoli will be. If you’re lucky enough to find hand dipped ricotta, which some of the fancier stores in my area carry, then go for it, assuming your pocketbook allows. Otherwise, for US readers, I agree with Serious Eats that Calabro is the best widely available commercial ricotta you can buy.

The ricotta needs to be well drained. Too much liquid and the filling won’t be firm enough and tend to ooze out of the shells. It’s a good precaution, even if your ricotta doesn’t look terribly runny, to let sit it in a colander for about an hour before proceeding with the recipe. Sieving the ricotta isn’t absolutely necessary but will ensure a silky smooth consistency, which is what you want. And a 60 minute or so chill in the fridge is useful for firm up the filling. You can skip it if your filling is firm without chilling.

Assembly and making ahead

You should assemble your cannoli shortly beore serving or the shell will be get soggy. However, both shells and filing can be prepared ahead of time. The shells can be stored overnight in an airtight container lined with paper towels to absorb and moisture. The filling can be stored overnight in the fridge.

Variations

One of the joys of making cannoli at home is that you get to explore the many subtle and not so subtle variations in the shell, filling and decorations for this classic dessert. Many of these variations are regional, but they also vary by family or even individual cook.

The shell

The shell can be light or dark, depending on whether you care to add cacao, coffee or cinnamon to the dough and if so, how much. Ditto for adding Marsala, which tends to darken the dough, rather than white wine. Not all recipes call for egg (or call for a whole egg rather than just the yolk). Others omit the vinegar, which is said to make the shell crispier and encourage the characteristic “bubbling” effect on its surface. (You should, of course, only use a tiny bit in any event.) Lard is traditional but many modern recipes substitute softened butter or oil, while others omit any sort of fat.

Then there’s the size and shape of the shells. You’ll notice that these classically sized cannoli are—as they should be in my humble opinion—a kind of finger food you can consume in just a few bites. Much smaller than ones you’re likely to buy in shops. You can, of course, make them a bit bigger if you like, so long as they don’t outgrow the tubes you’re using.

You can make your shells round or, if you lack a pastry ring or simply prefer, you can cut the dough into squares. If so, when you wrap them around their tubes, make sure two of the corners line up with tube, creating a triangular rather than square cylinder if you will.

The filling

The fillings, too, vary by taste and locality. Most traditional recipes call for sheep’s milk ricotta, but in Ragusa they prefer cow’s milk—which as noted above is probably the only choice for most of us living outside Italy.

In Catania they like to add bits of chocolate to the filing, while in Palermo and Messina they add candied fruit. Some recipes call for confectioner’s sugar, others granulated sugar. (And the amount of sugar can vary according to your taste, of course.) Some call for a pinch of cinnamon. The rose or orange blossom water, so reminiscent of Moorish cookery, isn’t a must but lends a lovely perfume to your filling.

The decorations

The decorations also vary. They say that ground pistachios (or hazelnuts) are popular in eastern Sicily, while in Palermo they prefer candied cherries or orange peel. Chocolate bits are also, of course, a popular choice, though not to my knowledge associated with a particular locality.

Origin stories

Cannoli were traditionally a Carnival treat, but these days they’re enjoyed year round.

As usual with traditional recipes like this one, there are all sorts of legends surrounding the origins of cannoli. Perhaps most popular attributes their invention to the nuns at a convent near the town of Caltanisetta, with one related story having it that the nuns were having a bit of naughty fun with their phallic shape.

Yet another story has it that they were invented in the harem in residence at the Castello di Pietrarossa in Caltanisetta during the Saracen rule over the island (827-1091 AD/ACE). Only later, according to this story, when the Normans took over, did the recipe make it to the nuns at the convent, thanks to a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity.

The true origins of cannoli are likely lost to the mists of time. The first written mentions of cannoli appear only in the 18th century, although by then it was already an ancient recipe. The very first mention occurs in a 1750 Italian-Sicilian dictionary, which places their origin at Caltanisetta. In a book entitled Siciliani a tavola (Sicilians at Table) by Alberto Denti di Pirajno claims ancient Roman origins for the pastry, and quotes a description of cannoli he attributes to the Roman statesman and orator Cicero. Other sources describe cannoli as a kind of fusion dish, with the filling inspired by a Saracen sweet made with ricotta, almonds and honey, and the shells based on a Roman fried dough dessert. (The latter almost certainly was the origin of modern day chiacchiere.)

Cannoli siciliani

The classic Sicilian pastry
Course: Dessert, Snack
Cuisine: Sicilia
Keyword: fried, sweet

Ingredients

For the shells:

  • 150g 1 cup all purpose or "OO" flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 Tb granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp powdered cocao or coffee or cinnamon optional
  • 15g 1 Tb lard or softened butter
  • 1 egg separated
  • 1 tsp 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • Dry Marsala or white wine q.b.
  • Vegetable oil for frying  

For the filling:

  • 500g 1 lb ricotta, preferably made from sheep's milk well drained
  • 100-150g 3-1/2 to 5 oz confectioner's sugar to taste
  • 1 tsp rose or orange flower water or milk
  • Mini-chocolate chips or candied fruit optional

For decoration:

  • Pistachios or hazelnuts, shelled and roughly ground
  • Bittersweet mini-chocolate chips
  • Candied cherries or other candied fruits
  • Confectioner's sugar

Instructions

Making the Shells:

  • Mix well the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar and, if using, cocoa) in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Incorporate the lard, then an egg yolk and the vinegar if using, then add the wine bit by bit until you get a soft and pliable, but not sticky, ball of dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for at least an hour. 
  • Roll out the dough into thin sheets. Cut out circles with a pastry ring about 8cm/4 inches wide. (You can also cut the dough into similarly sized squares.)
  • Wrap the circles around the cannoli tubes, making sure their ends overlap. Brush the inside of one end with a bit of egg white (or water), then press them together to ensure the two ends adhere to each other. 
  • Deep fry in moderately hot (180C/350F) oil until golden on all sides. If done right, bubbles should form on the surface of the dough as it fries. Drain and let cool completely, then gingerly slip the shells off their tubes. Let the tubes cool completely before proceeding with the next batch. 
  • Repeat as necessary until you use up all the dough. 

Making the filling:

  • Press the ricotta through a sieve into a mixing bowl. Add in the confectioner's sugar and mix thoroughly. Mix in the rosewater and mix to perfume and soften the mixture every so slightly. Whisk vigorously until the mixture is creamy and perfectly smooth. (A standing mix makes short work of the whisking.)
  • If you like, you can mix some chocolate chips and/or candied fruit into the filling, to taste.
  • Chill for at least an hour. 

Assembling and decorating the cannoli

  • Just before serving, using a pastry bag with an extra wide tip or without a tip (if you don't have a pastry bag, a sandwich bag with one corner snipped off will do fine), fill each cannoli shell with the ricotta filling. 
  • Decorate each end as you prefer: with ground pistachios or hazelnuts, chocolate chips and/or candied cherries or candied fruit. Dust the shells with confectioner's sugar. 
  • Serve as soon as possible after preparation. 

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34 Comments on “Cannoli siciliani”

  1. Yeah we love cannoli! I first learned about them in one of the Jamie Oliver’s Christmas videos almost 15 years ago, and since then they associate the holiday season. I’ve made cannoli for a couple of times and only for the Christmas celebration. Indeed, that was our main dessert this Christmas. You cannot beat homemade cannoli, can you?! Yours look perfect. And as a huge fan of botanical flavours, I love the hint of rose water. It never occurred to me to infuse the filling this way, but I’ll definitely need to give it a try next time! 🙂

    1. Small world! Congrats on making your own. I think you’d really like that hint of perfume that rose water lends. Do give it go!

  2. OMG they look really good, same as you I dont have a sweet tooth but once in a while I would love to indulge in something as beautiful and delicious as those

  3. Your cannolis look so professional and delicious. I’ve never attempted to make them at home, but we sure do love getting them at the Italian bakery.

    1. Thanks so much Judee! I’d really encourage you to try your hand at making them at home, at least once. I suspect you’d be amazed at the difference.

  4. ruite My closest shop for canolli is fhttps://milanofruiterie.ca/fr/ Fruiterie Milano (the street next to mine. Obviously they sell fruit and veg, but they are a medium-sized supermarket.Many other places nearby for canolli.

    Little to do with Milano; more with Sicily, but most with Abruzzo-Molise, the south-central Adriatic region much of our founding Italian communty hailed from.

    I don’t have a sweet tooth either. Espresso black, 90% chocolate, and ricotta with just a touch of sweetness.

  5. Cicero invented cannoli? Well that man just keeps growing in stature! 🙂 I do love cannoli, and I agree with you that homemade are FAR superior to store-bought. Believe it or not, I worked at a bakery for a very short time that filled all of their cannoli and left them in the case for days. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the filling turned the shells to mush. I didn’t work there for long! And as far as rolling them out to 2mm? Hmmm…that sounds like a challenge I’m not willing to measure!

    1. Hehe! Cicero was multi-talented… 😉 Interesting to hear about your gig at a bakery. Must have been quite the experience. I heard from one reader who said she was turned off cannoli forever after a stint at a pastry shop! And yes, I couldn’t even imagine how you’d go about measuring 2mm!

  6. well done. In my experience, good cannoli are elusive, even in Sicily, where are generally far too sweet. Outside Sicily, in mainland Italy, even more difficult.
    Here in London, impossible. As a rule of thumb, when I come across a place selling cannoli already filled, I know they will not be really good – cannoli must be filled on the spot.
    I cut down too the sugar, the way you did – that’s the only way to let the ricotta shine, Here in London, good ricotta is very rare, hence I always make my almost ricotta when I have made cannoli (btw, this last summer I saw for the first time a fresh cheese called fior di latte, basically a ricotta made with milk and identical to my almost ricotta)(good, but not as good and light as real ricotta made with whey)

    1. Here, too, real ricotta is basically non-existent, but there are some versions that sound much like fior di latte. Actually quite nice but much richer. Works rather well in cannoli I think.

  7. I don’t like the frying aspect so have never made these at home. We have had super sized ones in Palermo but smaller ones to me are nicer. If I ever hurl out the oil I will remember the notes to roll the dough out to notch 5.

    1. You know, it’s not traditional but there is modern recipe where you bake the shells, brushed with oil, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. I can’t endorse it since I haven’t tried it, but if you don’t like frying it’s worth a try.

  8. Have not made ! Have but rarely eaten – let’s call it ‘no sweet tooth’ 🙂 ! But I do love your filling which is unlike any I have read before . . . I may not rush into the kitchen myself but shall share the recipe . . .

  9. Perfect timing, Frank, as I bought some cannoli moulds recently and they’ve been sitting looking reproachful in a kitchen drawer ever since. This could be the push I need! And as ever, a delicious-looking recipe. Thank you. All the best, Linda

  10. Thank you Frank, not only for the cannoli recipe but especially for the history of the cannolo! I thoroughly enjoyed reading how the delicious cannolo came about! Grazie mille!

  11. Like Valentina, I have quite the sweet tooth. I’ve always wanted to tackle these, but never had the nerve. I once bought very nicely made shells from Italian bakery, and then made the ricotta cream myself. I think it’s an accepted form of cheating, right? But I want to make the tubes, as well. So maybe I will buckle down and get the cannoli tubes soon.

    1. Well, I guess it depends on just how good those shells were. In my own experience, store bought shells tend to be too thick and hence too hard. But if your were nicely made, why not? Anyway, I’d encourage you to give this a go. I’m sure it’d be a piece of cake for an accomplished cook like yourself.

  12. These are beautiful — I love the variations of them in your photo. Unlike you, I definitely have a sweet tooth, so I’m always ready for a new delicious sweet. Lucky you to have them at your local market. I’ll have to make them. Fun! 🙂 ~Valentina

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