Holy cannoli! Decadent dessert fitting for celebration

January 6, 2017

We haven’t taken down any of the wreaths or removed the lights from the porch railing. Although the Christmas tree has started dropping its needles at an alarming rate, we’re just not ready to pack up all the decorations. So, instead of writing a column about this year’s food trends, we’ll continue the holiday celebrations with a decadent dessert shared by our friend, Bob LaMorte: cannoli.

For those of you who would like an introduction to this treat, cannoli (plural of cannolo) are fried, tube-shaped pastry shells packed with a creamy, slightly sweet filling. The name refers to the reed-like appearance of the pastry from the Italian word cannolu or “little tube.”

Cannoli are considered a Sicilian invention, originating near Palermo during the Middle Ages when invaders from the Arabian peninsula brought sugar cane to the region, introducing a new sweetener to replace honey in confectionaries.

Traditionally, cannoli were made by wrapping a thin, flat disk of pastry around a sugar cane stalk. The pastry tube was deep-fried to a golden crispness. A signature bubbling in the surface of the cooked pastry comes from a surprising ingredient: wine.

The original cannoli filling was made with sheep’s milk ricotta cheese, which was most plentiful in the spring when the pastures were lush. As a result, cannoli became associated with the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnevale (Mardi Gras) and from that connection, various legends and fertility symbolism are attached to cannoli.

All sorts of additional ingredients can be mixed into the ricotta cheese base, from chocolate to pistachio to small bits of candied fruit. In addition to the variety of flavorings, cannoli can be found in a wide range of sizes, from the diminutive, pinkie-shaped cannulicchi to extravagantly large examples.

Through the years, much has changed in the recipe for cannoli. Today, many bakers prefer to roll the shells more thickly, making them easier to handle. Wooden dowels and stainless steel tubes have replaced the sugar cane stalks, and some shells are now baked instead of fried.

To prolong the shelf life and sturdiness of the shells, bakers often line them with chocolate, which allows the shells to be filled further in advance. If you’d prefer to purchase shells, rather than making them, you can sometimes find them in boxes at the supermarket or sold individually at Italian specialty stores like Frank & Louie’s in Rehoboth Beach.

Since sheep’s milk ricotta is difficult to source in this country, cow’s milk ricotta (which has a slightly blander flavor) has replaced it. The use of mascarpone is sometimes seen, but not encouraged. We’ve also encountered completely substitute fillings, like sugar, milk, and cornstarch custard without any ricotta cheese at all.

In Bob LaMorte’s recipe, he’s lightened the texture with delicate whipped cream mixed into the ricotta. He’s added rich chocolate notes with cocoa powder and a generous scattering of chocolate chips (see photo of the dessert he served us).

If you plan to serve cannoli, remember that it is best to have the filling very cold, and the shells should be filled immediately before serving. Once assembled, the dessert should be eaten at once (not a problem for us), otherwise, the filled shells will absorb moisture and become soggy.

And, as we learned in “The Godfather,” “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Bob LaMorte’s Chocolate Cannoli

2 C ricotta cheese
4 T sugar
1 1/2 t vanilla
3 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 C whipped cream*
semi-sweet chocolate chips
12 cannoli shells

Combine ricotta cheese, sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl; whisk until combined. Sift the cocoa powder over the cheese and stir to completely blend. Gently fold in the whipped cream, taking care not to deflate. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, use a butter knife to fill each end of the shell, pushing in the filling to ensure the middle is not left empty.

Garnish each end with chocolate chips. Yield: filling for 12 or more large shells. *Note: measure cream after it has been whipped.

Traditional Cannoli Filling

2 1/4 C ricotta cheese
1/2 C sugar
1 1/2 t vanilla
2 T minced candied orange peel

Combine cheese, sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl and stir until smooth. Fold in orange peel. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. When ready to fill shells, use a pastry bag or small knife to completely fill the shell. Yield: filling for 10 to 12 shells.

Cannoli Shells

2 1/2 C flour
1/4 C sugar
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t salt
1/4 C butter
2 eggs
1/4 C water
2 T Marsala wine
1 beaten egg white

Preheat cooking oil in deep-fat fryer to 375 F. Sift together flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in butter using two knives or a pastry blender.

In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, water and wine. Pour into flour mixture and stir until the dough comes together in a ball. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out to barely 1/8-inch thick. Cut dough into ovals about 4 inches wide and 6 inches long. Wrap dough around cannoli tubes and moisten overlapping edges with egg white to seal. Fry each shell until golden, about 2 minutes. Place cooked shells on paper towel to drain until cool enough to handle. Remove tubes and cool shells to room temperature before filling.