Think You’ve Tasted The Best Cannoli?
A tray of just made cannoli with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese filling made its way down the long table at the Cucchiara dairy farm I was visiting near the town of Salemi, Sicily. The long and thin as tissue paper, blistered and golden brown crispy shells were works of art. They were filled with the creamiest ricotta cheese with miniature bits of chocolate. Some places in Sicily add cinnamon and pistachio nuts to the filling. These ingredients were brought there in the 9th century AD by the Arabs.
The cannoli were almost too beautiful to eat but eat them we did. The shells shattered into pieces when bit into as they should and the play of flavors between the cheese and shell was exquisite. And then I came back to reality. The reality of cannoli as most of us know them purchased from our local pastry shops or (dare I say) commercially prepared ones sold in grocery stores. Not even close.
Here is what a cannoli is not. The shell is not thick or coated in chocolate or coconut. The filling is not whipped topping or pudding or other synthetic concoction. The shells are never filled until ready to serve.
Naturally, it was a privilege to have real cannoli in Sicily where they are the reigning dessert but short of hopping on a plane to get one, you can create a good cannolo in your own kitchen. Granted it may be difficult to find sheep’s milk ricotta for the filling but a good cow’s milk ricotta will do. And the best part will be that first shattered bite.
1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese, well drained
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1- 1/2 cups coarsely finely chopped dark chocolate
1/4 cup pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter or lard 4 to 5 tablespoons dry white wine or Marsala wine (or more as needed)
4 cups vegetable oil
Whip the cheese in a bowl until light and smooth; stir in the sugar, cinnamon and chocolate. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to fill the cannoli shells.
To make the dough, place the flour in a bowl or food processor. Add the butter or lard and sugar and mix with a fork, or pulse, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly add the 1/4 cup of wine and shape the mixture into a ball; add a little more wine if the dough appears too dry. It should be soft but not sticky. Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth, about 5 minutes. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for 45 minutes.
Place the chilled dough on a floured work surface. Divide the dough in half. Work with 1 piece of dough at a time; keep the remaining dough refrigerated. Roll the dough out to a very thin long rectangle about 14 inches long and 3 inches wide, either by hand or using a pasta machine set to the finest setting. Cut the dough into 3-inch squares. Place a cannoli form diagonally across one square. Roll the dough up around the form so the points meet in the center. Seal the points with a little water. Continue making cylinders until all the dough is used.
Heat the vegetable oil in a deep pot or fryer to 375ºF. Fry the cannoli 3 or 4 at a time, turning them as they brown and blister, until golden brown on all sides. Drain them on brown paper. When they are cool enough to handle, carefully slide the cannoli off the forms.
To serve, use a long iced teaspoon or a pastry bag without a tip to fill the cannoli with the ricotta cheese mixture. Arrange them on a tray, and sprinkle confectioners' sugar over the tops. Serve at once.