A few months ago, I came across my mother’s cannoli recipe, which was typed out on two now-yellowed pages and still stapled together. The xeroxed copy dates to the late 1970s, when Mom used to give cooking classes in her New Jersey kitchen. She had given it to me eons ago, along with copies of her recipes for egg pasta dough, Bolognese sauce, stuffed zucchini, tiramisu and more. Over the years, I’ve made and served all of them — all except the cannoli. It’s one of those recipes I always meant to tackle but never got around to.
Cannoli are without a doubt Sicily’s most famous contribution to the world of pastry, and although Gabriella Marchetti was not born in Sicily (she is from Abruzzo), her cannoli were as good as any I’ve had and better than most: crisp-fried tubular shells that crunch and shatter just a little — not completely — when you bite into them, with a filling of rich, vanilla-scented, whipped ricotta cream.
Reading through her recipe, written in English but with some Italian syntax sprinkled in (“Wrap around each tube one square or circle, overlapping the ends”), it occurred to me that the last time I enjoyed her cannoli was on Nov. 15, 1992. The occasion was a brunch she and my father hosted the day after my wedding. I remember filling the cannoli myself with a spoon, taking care to make sure each crispy shell got its fair share.
What happened in the intervening years? Grandkids, health issues, life, I guess. Now at 93, Mom is too frail to do the ambitious cooking and baking that was once her everyday passion. So I decided it was time for me to step up. It took a couple of tries to get to know the dough, but syntax aside, I found that her cannoli recipe holds up beautifully.
Why make your own cannoli? Because with few exceptions they will likely be better than any you can buy in a bakery, unless you are in Sicily. Many bakeries — not all, but many — buy pre-made shells. These are then filled and set in a display case, where they sit around waiting to be bought. Prefilled cannoli means soggy cannoli. (If a shell is sturdy enough to stand up to cannoli cream for hours on end it is probably inedible.) Also, the filling is often unnecessarily sweet and sometimes thickened with cornstarch, at which point you might as well use spackle. All of these are crimes against cannoli in my book.
Speaking of which, the word “cannoli” is already plural. There is no need to say “cannolis,” which is like saying “cakeses” or “cookieses.” If you’re having one, it is a cannolo; if you’re having more, it’s cannoli. (Pet peeve; thank you for the soapbox.)
Like most Italian sweets, cannoli are pastries with a history. The name comes from “canna,” or cane, and refers to lengths of sugar cane stalks that were originally used as forms for frying the shells. Modern cooks use metal tubes, usually sold in packs of four and available at most kitchenware stores. Although the exact origin of cannoli is not known, some accounts date them to the 9th century, when the island of Sicily was ruled by Arabs. According to one version, the cream-filled cylinder of pastry was created in a harem as an homage to the sultan’s physical attributes.
In his book, “The Food of Italy,” historian Waverly Root notes that cannoli were indeed considered a symbol of virility and fertility; a dessert for weddings and Easter, a holiday that celebrates rebirth. They were also popular during Carnival, the period of indulgence leading up to Lent. Like other Sicilian pastries, cannoli were at one time made and sold by convent nuns as a way of supporting their religious life, though the pastries are now an Italian bakery staple.
From a culinary perspective, it makes sense that cannoli were aligned with spring; it’s the season when sheep began producing milk again after a dormant winter, and fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta, the classic filling for cannoli, was plentiful. Nowadays, Italians and everyone else eat cannoli year-round, and there are many variations, some traditional, some less so. Some bakeries coat the inside of the shells with chocolate. It’s a clever twist that also serves to prevent shells from getting soggy once they are filled with cream.
At Casolare Ristorante + Bar in Northwest Washington, pastry chef Jillian Fitch uses lacy pizzelle in place of fried shells. The pretty, delicate embossed shells are filled to order and are best eaten right away.
Most recipes I’ve seen for classic cannoli are similar to my mom’s, with minor differences having to do with preference. Traditional recipes for cannoli shells called for using lard in the dough; contemporary recipes tend to substitute butter, which is easier to find. Some recipes contain eggs; and most include vinegar and/or wine — the liquid is what gives the shells their characteristic blistered texture, which happens during frying.
Some doughs are flavored with cinnamon. Mom’s recipe uses cocoa powder and finely ground espresso, which is less common, but the latter adds a subtle bitterness to counteract the richness of the filling. My friend Paola Bacchia, author of “Italian Street Food: Recipes From Italy’s Bars and Hidden Laneways,” uses all three of those ingredients in her dough.
It’s hard to improve on that simple, classic filling composed of fresh ricotta cheese and sugar. Sheep’s-milk ricotta is traditional in Italy, but here in the States we rely on cow’s-milk ricotta, which is easier to find. It must be well drained to keep the filling from being runny (see the accompanying sidebar). Rosetta Costantino, author of “Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), takes the extra step of forcing the ricotta through a fine-mesh sieve to make a smooth filling.
I use my mom’s trick of adding a splash of heavy cream to the ricotta and whipping them together in a mixer to achieve a rich but lightened texture. Mom always set aside a portion of the cream, adding a bit of cocoa powder to it to make chocolate filling. This was my childhood favorite, but these days I prefer plain ricotta cream flavored with a few drops of pure vanilla extract. Bacchia sometimes adds a few drops of orange blossom water to hers, and I’ve seen recipes that call for a little Grand Marnier or other liqueur. You can stir in mini chocolate chips or chopped candied orange peel, though Bacchia and I prefer to use those as garnishes.
Marchetti is the author of, most recently, “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). She’ll join today’s chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.