The only other cannoli I’ve had that rivals my grandmother Natalie’s was from a now extinct pastry shop in Chicago called La Pasticeria Natalina, which was owned by a talented young pastry chef called Natalie Zazour. Interesting that the two Natalies made the best cannoli I’ve had in this country. Daniel and I are going to Sicily this fall to celebrate his graduation from college so I’ll keep you posted about the cannoli in Sicily. Zazour’s cannoli were different than mine, made with imported sheeps milk Ricotta, dark chocolate chips and a strip of candied orange. They were lovely and I’ve tried them with my family but I always return to Grandma Nat’s, at their insistence.
The first key to good cannoli is to fill them to order, So, if you see pre filled cannoli in the refrigerator case at a bakery, walk away.
The second key to good cannoli is the shell, which must be light and crisp in order to contrast with the creamy filling. That is why you can’t pre fill them. Every minute they sit in the refrigerator they soften from the moisture of the filling and the inherent moisture in the refrigerator case or your refrigerator at home. You can fill them really fast with a pastry bag, so it barely saves time if you pre fill them and stick them in the fridge. And no, don’t fill and freeze them. Just don’t.
The third key to a good cannoli is a filling that is light and creamy and has the unique taste particular to ricotta. Whether you use sheep’s milk ricotta or cows milk, make sure it’s whole milk and it’s creamy. I like Leoni or BeGioioso. If it’s grainy, you’ll never be able to eliminate that grainy texture even if you work it through a fine mesh sieve or tami. If you live in or around New Jersey, I would recommend trying sheep’s milk ricotta. You can order imported sheep’s milk Ricotta from Pastacheese.com. When you shop for ricotta insist on tasting it. It should be smooth and creamy, tasting of fresh milk. My grandmother has a technique for lightening the ricotta that I’ve never seen elsewhere: she makes a biancomangiare, which is cornstarch pudding, with whole milk. It lightens the filling without adding richness or a competing flavor. I love mascarpone and I know those who use it for cannoli but in my opinion, it’s too rich and its flavor overpowers the ricotta. Some use whipped cream. It’s not traditional and not very stable and once again, you want your filling to taste like fresh milk, not cream. It would be worth trying to mix Italian Meringue into the ricotta instead of the biancomangiare. You’d have to reduce or eliminate the powdered sugar but the Italian Meringue might lighten the ricotta without affecting the flavor and would be more stable than the biancomangiare. I don’t know how it would affect the texture. However, for the home cook, the biancomangiare will be easier, and my family has forbidden me from altering the recipe. So, if you try Italian meringue let me know!
This recipe makes about 40 shells. Grandma Nat used to keep them in a shoe box on the top landing of her two flat. The staircase to her apartment wasn’t heated so the shells kept well in the dry chill of that space. Hers lasted about 6 months.
So, I offer you Grandma Nat’s cannoli and I hope you enjoy them as much as we do
INGREDIENTS FOR SHELLS (makes about 35 shells)
- 260 grams (two cups) all purpose flour (bleached will give you a more delicate shell)
- 25 grams (2 tablespoons) granulated sugar
- 23 grams(2 tablespoons) cold vegetable shortening (Crisco)
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pinch of salt
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup white wine (you can use red wine if you prefer a dark shell. However, I think it makes it more difficult to determine when the shells are browned properly)
- Cannoli forms
- 2 gallons of canola oil
- 1 egg white, whisked until loose up enough to brush it on with a pastry brush or your finger.
DIRECTIONS FOR SHELLS
- Place dry ingredients in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a few times to mix ingredients. Cut lard into a few pieces and add to the flour. Pulse until well incorporated. There should be no visible pieces and the flour should look a little crumbly. you can do this by hand in which case I would advise rubbing the lard in between your thumb and forefinger and then going back and rubbing it between the palms of your hands. Now, some suggest melting the lard and mixing it into the flour. I’ve tried that and didn’t like the result. I found that it made the shells too dense.
- Mix yolks and wine in a small bowl. With the machine running, add to flour and pulse just until the dough forms a ball.
- Remove dough from food processor and knead until dough is supple and smooth, about 5 minutes.
- Cover dough with plastic wrap and chill for one hour.
- You can roll the dough by hand with a straight rolling pin. It should be rolled until thin enough so you can just see the pattern of the surface below it, whether it’s granite, marble or wood. However, if you have a lasagna attachment for your stand mixer, it’s so much easier. I use the lasagna attachment for my Kitchenaid and roll the dough to #4. You need to start at 1, then 2, then 3, then 2x at #4. I actually roll it through #4 two times.
- Cut 3.25″ squares of dough. I use a cookie cutter with a wavy edge. You could also cut a template of cardboard and cut the squares with a pie dough cutter/crimper Save your scraps. You must re roll them several times to get the number of shells called for in the recipe. At the end, you should be left with very little dough. ￼￼
- For the first shells, I like to oil the outside of the forms. It helps the first batch slip off easier. Thereafter it’s not necessary because some oil always sticks to the forms when you pull them out of the fryer. Place a square of dough diagonally under a cannoli form with the form parallel to you. So, it will look like a diamond shaped piece of dough with the form going across the center. Place a dab of egg white on the tip of the diamond shape, closet to you. Fold the the edge furthest from you up,over the form, towards you. Hold it in place while you fold the other edge over it. Press down to seal the dough. Set it aside and do the others. Don’t make them too tight or you won’t be able to get the shells off the forms.
- Heat the oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and fry about three or four at a time until golden brown. My son Daniel does the frying and he likes to use a metal skewer to pick up the forms and place them on paper towels. It helps to have two people, one to fry and one to place the dough on the forms. If you are doing this alone, I would suggest rolling and cutting the dough and then covering the dough with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Then, you can wrap the dough around as many cannoli forms as you can fry in a batch. I have a small fryer so I can do three at a time.
- Let shells cool on the towels until you can pick them up and slide them off the forms. The forms will release their grip on the metal form as they cool so if a shell is sticking, give it a few more minutes to see if you can slide it off. there is a technique to taking off these shells. I like to place my whole hand on the shell and apply gentle pressure while twisting and pulling. If you’re having trouble get it getting the shells off the forms, you may be placing the dough on too tight. The shells should be completely cool before you fill them.
INGREDIENTS FOR FILLING
- 566 grams (1.25 lb) whole milk ricotta
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 50 grams (1/2 cup) powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup citron
- 1/2 cup (3oz) hazelnut chocolate, preferably Lindt
- 1 drop cassia oil
DIRECTIONS FOR FILLING
- Wisk together cornstarch and sugar
- Add milk a little at a time, wisking until smooth
- Place milk in a pot and cook over a medium flame until boiling. After it comes to a boil, wisk until,smooth and let it boil another minute.
- Remove from heat and put the pudding through a fine mesh sieve.
- Cover with plastic wrap making sure the plastic touches the top of the pudding so that it doesn’t form a skin. Chill until cold. This can be done 24 hours in advance.
- Blot the ricotta as dry as possible between paper towels. You will have to change them several times. If you prefer a lighter but looser filling just drain the ricotta overnight in paper towels.
- Combine the Biancomangiare and the ricotta by hand until homogeneous. You can use a stand mixer with a paddle attachement on low. You don’t want to over beat the mixture or it will be too loose to pipe. Push the mixture through through a fine mesh sieve with a spoon, spatula or plastic scraper. The wider the surface area you have in the sieve the easier it will be. If you have a tami, use that with a fine mesh screen.
- Finely dice citron and coarsley chop the chocolate. Add both to ricotta. Chill until it’s time to fill the shells. This step can be done the morning of service
Use a round or open star pastry tip with a fairly large opening. The size of the tip depends on the size of your chocolate and citron bits. You need the pieces to get through the tip. Pipe the cannoli filling into a pastry bag and fill one end of the cannoli to the middle and then the other end. Dip both end in chopped pistachios and dust the shells with powdered sugar. Serve within the hour.
Daniel and I did go to Sicily in October 2019. It’s such a lovely country and we had a fabulous time. The Sicilians we met were warm and friendly and very proud of their country and culture. Its history is fascinating. It’s a country that was invaded frequently and each time, the Sicilians blended some of the newcomers culture with their own, creating a civilization that is rich and varied.
However, having eaten cannoli in Palermo, Cefalu, Agrigento, Noto, Siracusa and Taormina we only found two places that rivaled my grandmothers: Cafe de Sicilia in Noto and Roberto’s in Taormina. The cannoli at Cafe de Sicilia used sheep’s milk ricotta with no embellishments. We found them a bit plain and wished for a bit of candied orange peel to make them more interesting. The cannoli at Roberto’s also used sheep’s milk ricotta but dipped the ends in candied hazelnuts. I would recommend both places.
Sicily is equally famous for its granita. If you go to Cafe Sicilia, be sure to try their almond or lemon granita, both of which are amazing. If you are in Taormina, go to Roberto’s cannoli but don’t miss Bam Bar for fabulous granita. Daniel and I fell in love with the combination of strawberry granita with almond granita topped with whipped cream.