The symbolic sweet of Sicily is without doubt the Cannolo. Traditionally a Carnival speciality, these crisp, ricotta-filled pastry shells are now eaten all year round all over Italy, and – happily - much loved here in Sardinia too. Many of my Sardinian friends have Sicilian heritage and the Cannolo, like so many edible things, has followed on the heels of Sicilian emigrants and found worldwide fame. It seems fitting that they are loved and made here too, as one of the key ingredients in a good cannolo is high-quality sheep’s milk ricotta, which is also one of Sardinia’s signature products.
Deriving their name from the canes, or lengths of bamboo, which were originally used to shape them (there are still those that use these canes) cannoli are a classic demonstration of good, simple ingredients put to ingenious use. Creamy, delicate ricotta is essential, as is a good, bitter, dark chocolate. The crumbly crust, or scorza, is extra friabile due to the addition of lard, and sometimes the shells are still deep-fried in lard too. Of course, if you prefer, you can substitute the lard for butter. Either way, the contrast in textures is an essential part of the enjoyment, the teeth cracking through the crust and then sinking gently into pillowy-soft ricotta cream.
Perhaps due to their infamous reputation, I feared Cannoli would be hard to make, but in reality they are very straightforward. True aficionados will tell you they must be filled at the last minute, to maintain the essential textural contrast, otherwise the shells will become soggy with the absorbed liquid from the ricotta. This is definitely preferable, and many bars in Sicily (and many households too) will fill the cannoli to order, or shortly before serving.
It has been said that the Cannolo was traditionally a fertility symbol, and much gleeful literature has been written about phallic imagery and cream-filled tubes, but a more interesting idea is that it symbolises Sicily’s textured history; the North African tradition of frying pastry, the Roman habit of using honey as a sweetener, the Spanish addition of chocolate. Whatever their symbolism, they are undeniably delicious, and satisfyingly straightforward to make. The only downside is that you will need to buy some cannoli tubes (stainless steel ones should be easy enough to find).
Makes 20 medium sized cannoli (about 4-5 inch long)
The dough can be made well ahead and frozen or kept in the fridge. The shells too can be fried and stored in an airtight container for a couple of days. The filling can also be made a day or two in advance and kept in the fridge.
For the Dough:
250g 00 flour
30g lard (or butter) at room temperature
½ tsp salt
1 heaped tbsp honey
1 tsp white wine vinegar/lemon juice
For the Filling:
1kg ricotta (sheep’s milk if you can find it)
120g dark chocolate (at least 70%), cut into small shards
4 tsp mild honey
1 litre of sunflower (or other flavourless) oil, for frying
To decorate : crushed pistachios, candied orange, candied pumpkin, glace cherries
To make the dough, place all of the dry ingredients in a bowl and rub the lard (or butter) into them using your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Now add the honey, vinegar and marsala and mix together to form a shaggy dough.
Knead the dough well for a minute or two until smooth. Wrap in clingfilm and set aside to rest for around 20 minutes.
Roll the dough (this is easiest using a pasta machine but you can also use a rolling pin and board) to 2mm thickness, and then using a large pint glass or the largest round cutter that you have, cut circles. Roll the circles with a rolling pin to extend them into long ovals rather than circles, and then roll them over the cannoli tubes, sealing them with your finger dipped in a little water. Place them on a tray lined with baking paper.
Heat the oil to 180. Fry the cannoli a few at a time for a minute or so, turning occasionally, until sandy brown all over. (Remove the metal tubes while they fry, with tongs, if you can, as this will ensure they fry more evenly in the middle too.)
Fish them out once they are brown and drain on absorbent paper. Allow to cool completely before filling.
For the filling: drain the ricotta well (see notes on ricotta p. ) and beat it well with the sugar and honey until smooth and creamy (don’t worry the sugar will dissolve as you beat). Cut the chocolate into small shards with a knife and then fold them through the cream. Using a knife spread the cream into the scorza, smoothing off each end.
Decorate with crushed pistachios, a glace cherry or a slither of candied peel.
Note: the cane/bamboo is made from the bamboo that grows wild all over Sardinia too, lengths of which are used for picking the wild Fichi d’India.
Variations: traditionally the cannoli are filled with sweetened ricotta and dark chocolate chips, occasionally with pieces of candied pumpkin stirred through too. I always add a little honey to the filling, as I like the slight woody perfume it gives in contrast to the bitter dark chocolate, and I always chop up fresh, good-quality dark chocolate too, as the chips you buy in packets often taste quite stale. Some choose to add chopped candied peel, some vanilla, some decorate with chopped pistachios or glace cherries. I like to do a selection of different decorations, though candied pumpkin is frustratingly elusive.
From La Vita è Dolce, photo by Charlotte Bland.