2010 May: Sweet Tooth

In the Italian restaurant scheme of dessert selection, cannoli is one of the big five (tiramisu, wedding cookies, gelati and sorbetti make up the rest) when it comes to basic choices.

Cannoli (the singular is cannolo) are crisp pastry tubes (or “pipes”) that are fi lled with ricotta that has been sweetened (usually with powdered sugar). That’s the simple, straightforward explanation of what cannoli are all about, but there’s a lot more to it than that, so let’s get into it.

Making cannoli in-house is easy to do, but let me qualify that –– it is easy to do provided you buy the shells and fill them to order. It is not easy to do if you want to make the shells from scratch, which is not something I would recommend. First, there is a lot of labor involved in making those shells, and then there is the vexing problem of consistency. Making the dough for the cannoli, for example, can be a problem waiting to happen. Getting those pastry tubes fried (deep fried, actually) to just the right consistency time after time can be problematic at best. There are any number of distributors and purveyors of first-rate cannoli shells that allow you to go directly to the next step –– putting in the filling –– in no time fl at. In fact, there are some purveyors who sell the whole blooming kit, which includes the shells and the ricotta filling. To keep some control over what I want my cannoli to end up being, however, I like to think that I can take a crisp cannoli shell and fill it to order. In fact, any cannoli that stands out as one of the best should be filled to order (it only takes a minute or two to do that). If the ricotta filling has been sitting in the shell for a period of time, the shell tends to get soggy. To my way of eating, the best cannoli have a crisp shell that cracks and leaves shards of pastry when pierced with the tines of a fork.

And then there are the various ways that cannoli can be “groomed” for taste and presentation. For example, once the ricotta is stuffed into the shell, you can dip both ends of the cannoli into finely ground pistachios. Or you can insert a Maraschino cherry into the ricotta at each end of the cannoli. And those basic ideas lead us into a whole new direction that really adds pleasurable pizzazz to the whole spectrum.

First, let me take you through a few of the basic steps as it pertains to the ricotta filling. The ricotta should not be watery (drain off any excess water, should there be any). This filling is the base from which you’ll work for all of your cannoli recipes.

Basic Ricotta Filling

1½ pounds ricotta cheese

1 cup confectioners’s sugar (a.k.a powdered sugar)

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ (or to taste) vanilla extract

Combine all of the ingredients, whipping vigorously until smooth and creamy.

Now, should you really want to gild this lily to the point of luscious excess, simply replace the half-pound of ricotta cheese with mascarpone. Richness awaits.

The filling is now ready to be spooned into a pastry bag that has been fitted with a pastry tube that has a ½-inch opening (this is the fastest and easiest way to fill cannoli shells). You can fill the pastry bag with the ricotta filling and keep it chilled and ready to fill the shells to order.

And, should you wish to take the flavors to a whole other level, you can add any of the following to the above basic filling: mini chocolate chips, candied fruit, fruit-flavored citron, even colored sprinkles. Create your own mix-in bar for cannoli similar to the way ice cream shops do it.

To serve, lay one or two of the filled cannoli on a plate on which you have placed a paper doily. Now dust the cannoli with powdered sugar and serve.

But wait! There are other possibilities to explore. For example, you can have a lot of fun and add a whole new element to this classic dessert by serving what I like to call “cracked cannoli.” As the name implies, take a couple of those crispy cannoli shells and break them into pieces (small and large are fine). Put the pieces in a dessert serving bowl. Now take the flavored ricotta filling (whatever you choose to use, but I like to do this with the mini-chocolate chips) and drop it in dollops on top of and around the cracked cannoli piece. Using a plastic squirt bottle, drizzle some chocolate sauce over the shells and the ricotta. When I am in a particular go-for-it frame of mind I have been known to scatter finely crushed pistachios over the whole mess. It eats as good as it looks –– take my word for it. And, for a fact, I know kids love the idea of cracked cannoli.

Another interesting way to serve cannoli in a non-traditional way is this: Take an oversized parfait or martini glass. Mound the center of the glass with the sweetened/flavored ricotta. Garnish the ricotta with chocolate chips, ground pistachios, maraschino cherries –– whatever you choose to go with. Now take whole cannoli shells and slip them down the inside of the glass and into the ricotta. The idea here is that each person uses the cannoli shell as a dipper, dipping the end of the cannoli shell in the ricotta mixture, using it as, well, an ice cream cone of sorts.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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