Authentic Sicilian Cannoli

From the moment I discovered cannoli, I have been determined to make them. Deep-fried pastry tubes, filled with sweetened ricotta, and punctuated with candied fruits, chocolate, and nuts – they truly are delicious. I’ve had a couple of failed attempts at making the shells already, but with a new-found determination, I’m ready to take them on again.

As with any new recipe, I always like to make a traditional version before I start playing with the ingredients. But the cannoli recipes I found were so varied and contradictory, and many suspiciously ‘Americanised’ – I decided that I needed to seek out some expert help. Chatting with a Sicilian friend, I discovered that there may in fact be no ‘true’ recipe, as every Sicilian grandmother will have her own version. That being said, there do seem to be a couple of aspects that are non-negotiable; The filling must be ricotta, and the pastry must be made with sweet marsala wine.

I have always been dubious about the legitimacy of chocolate chips in cannoli, having assumed them to be an American invention, but the jury is still out on that one. Talking to a couple of other Italian friends, there seems to be no consensus as to whether these are traditional or not – I’ll leave them out for now.

So here it is – my attempt at some authentic Sicilian cannoli:

Firstly, you’ll need to drain your ricotta cheese of any excess moisture. This can be easily done by setting the ricotta in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl in the fridge. Some people would leave this overnight, but I think after an hour you will have removed enough of the moisture. If you were in a real hurry, you could squeeze this in a cheesecloth, but given how long it takes to make and cool the cannoli shells, you should have plenty of time.

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The dough for the shells could hardly be simpler; rub cold butter into flour, and then add enough marsala to make a firm dough. I indicate 100mls of marsala for this recipe, but that should be more than enough – be cautious, because you can always add more, but you cannot take it away if you add too much!

Many recipes call for the addition of cinnamon or cocoa to the dough, but I prefer the simple marsala flavour; I think it is sufficiently distinct, and was probably all the flavouring that the original recipe included.

Give the dough a light knead to bring it together, then then wrap it up in cling film and leave it at room temperature for 30 minutes. This will help the dough relax, and it will be much easier to roll out. This would be a perfect opportunity to cut up your candied peel and pistachios. Or have a cup of tea.

You can roll out the cannoli pastry by hand, but it’s a lot tricker to roll the pastry evenly, as well as get it to the get the correct thickness. I think it’s safe to assume that most Italians own a pasta roller, so it’s certainly not cheating! I mean, it’s basically fried pasta, isn’t it?

It’s even quicker and easier to to use an electric pasta roller if you have one – gotta love that KitchenAid. You need to start on the widest setting, and pass the dough through several times, allowing it to fall back on itself, before rolling it through again. Slowly move the rollers closer together until you have a nice thin dough. On my KitchenAid, I got the best results with dough rolled out at the number 4 setting.

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When your dough is suitably thin, you should transfer it onto a lightly floured surface, and cut 10cm discs. These will then need to be wrapped around your cannoli moulds, and secured with a little egg white. This is a lot tricker then you might think. I found it easiest to flop the circles over the top the tube, and then hold it gently again my body as I painted on the egg white.

Make sure that you don’t get any egg white on the mould, or the pastry will stick to it. But don’t worry about egg white spilling out of the join, it won’t be a problem. You really need to ensure that the join is as secure as possible, otherwise the shells will unfurl as they’re frying. Press carefully but firmly, and smooth over the join with your finger.

Cannoli moulds can be easily bought online, but I have head stories that some Sicilian grandmothers will make theirs by wrapping then around sections of an old broomstick. I’m not recommending that you try this necessarily, but if you have an old one kicking around, it could be a fun experiment… let me know how that goes…

When you are ready to cook your cannoli, you’ll need to drop them carefully into hot vegetable oil. I cannot stress enough how careful you need to be about this. I found it easiest to lower one end of the tube into the oil, and then drop the other from as low as I dared. There is a very real chance that you could get a splash of hot oil on you, so for the love of God, make sure you do this near a tap, or even prepare a bowl of cold water just in case.

You should be able to tell by the colour of your shells when they are cooked, but also bear in mind that the colour will continue to darken after you remove them from the oil. My fryer churned them out perfectly at 190c for 1 minute exactly. You may have to do a little experimenting with your set up to get good results.

It’s probably worth mentioning that it’s traditional to fry the cannoli shells in lard. Perhaps this would add to the flavour profile, but I don’t think they’ll suffer too much from being fried in sunflower oil.

Use metal tongs to pick up your cannoli tubes, and transfer them to a wire cooling race. Try to pick them up by the mould, as you don’t want to crack all those lovely bubbles that have appeared on the surface of your shells. This is another place when you can injure yourself with the hot metal tubes, so be careful; and if you drop one, please be smarter than me and don’t try to catch it…

After about 15 minutes, you’ll find that the moulds are cool enough that you can gently slide the shells off, and leave them to cool completely. If you don’t have many moulds, this part can take a while!

And that’s all the hard work done; simply whip up your drained ricotta, and add your sugar, vanilla, and lemons bits. You can place this into a piping bag to make filling your cannoli shells easier, or you could just use a spoon if you’re feeling brave. Once filled, simply dip the ends of your cannoli into some chopped pistachios, to add a nice splash of colour, a bit of texture and flavour, and most importantly to stop the ends being all sticky and leaking out everywhere!

Make sure that you only fill as many shells as you need – they will soften after a few hours and become unappetising. Both the shells and the ricotta filling will keep well if stored correctly, and it’s very quick to prepare a few more if required.

I took some filled shells with me when I picked my daughter up from school, and asked a couple of the Italian mums for their opinion. They were not only very complementary, but also assured me that my recipe was right on the money. Hurrah!

So there you are – my ‘authentic’ Sicilian cannoli. I can’t wait to start messing with the formula! 😛

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Sicilian Cannoli

170g plain flour
A pinch of caster sugar
A pinch of salt
20g unsalted butter
100ml sweet masala
Egg white to seal
Vegetable oil for frying

500g ricotta cheese
150g icing sugar
a splash of vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon, and half of it’s juice
50g candied lemon peel
50g pistachios, finely chopped

Place the ricotta in a fine mesh sieve and leave to drain for at least an hour.

Rub together the flour, sugar, salt, and unsalted butter.
Slowly add marsala until a stiff dough forms, and knead briefly.
Wrap the dough in cling film, and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough through a pasta roller, to a medium thickness.
Cut out 10cm circles of the dough and wrap them around cannoli moulds, securing with a little egg white.

Fry at 190c until golden brown.

Leave the tubes to cool for 15 minutes, then carefully slide off the shells.

Whisk the drained ricotta, then add the icing sugar and whisk until combined.
Add the vanilla, lemon juice, zest, and candied peel.
If the filling is loose, add a little more icing sugar to thicken it.

Pipe the ricotta filling into the shells, then dip each end of the cannoli into the chopped pistachios.

Serve immediately

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