One of the most popular of all Italian pastries in the United States, cannoli are now seen on the mainland of Italy, as well as in their native Sicily. Originally, the wealthy families of Palermo sent cannoli as gifts to friends at carnival time, always at least a dozen, and always in units of twelve. Nowadays there are many variations on this pastry, some replacing the traditional ricotta filling with vanilla or chocolate pastry cream.
My own favorite cannoli memory is of those I bought at the Monastery of
I bought the cannoli through a girandola, a sort of revolving hollow column, open on one side, with shelves inside, situated in the wall that separated the cloister proper from the outer vestibule. It was used to pass merchandise in and out of the cloister without actually opening the cloister to the outside world. After I rang, a nun spoke from behind the girandola, and when I asked for the pastries, she disappeared for what seemed an interminable time. When she returned, she revolved the girandola, and three cannoli appeared on one of the shelves. I removed the cannoli and replaced them with some money, asking if she would tell me a little about the convent pastry shop. She moved to a grilled window covered with shutters from the inside, a few feet from the girandola, and flung open the shutters, revealing herself as a tiny, middle-aged woman dressed in the standard black Benedictine habit, plus a flour-stained blue apron. She then explained that the ricotta came from the convent’s establishment at Piana, where they also run a girls’ school. She also told me to go around to the back of the convent, where there was a salesroom run by a signorina, to find other pastries, including cassata and all sorts of other traditional sweets. The signorina turned out to be rather impatient, but I did buy some magnificent almond-paste shells filled with citron. Although there was no discussion of the recipe, tasting those cannoli was an entire education in Sicilian pastry traditions.
This is my standard version of cannoli, followed by several variations, including the
For the shells, mix the dry ingredients together and rub in the oil. Mix the vinegar and Marsala and stir into the flour mixture. The dough will be very firm and dry. Form the dough into a rough rectangle about
Flour the dough and roll it out, pressing hard, to a
Divide the dough in half and rewrap one half. Flour the other half and pass it through the pasta machine, beginning with the widest setting, then through every other setting, ending with the thinnest. Place the strip of dough on a floured work surface and cover with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying and crusting. Repeat this process with the other piece of dough. Using a floured cutter or a small bowl as a pattern, cut the dough into disks. Each disk should be about
To form the cannoli, place an oval of dough on the work surface and center a metal cannoli tube on it lengthwise. Wrap one edge of the dough around the tube, without stretching it, and moisten the top of the dough with a very small amount of the egg white, without letting the egg white drip onto the metal tube. Wrap the other edge of the dough around the tube to cover the first one and lift from the work surface, pressing the 2 edges of dough together well. Repeat with the other disks of dough. (If you do not have enough tubes for all disks, keep the extra prepared ovals of dough tightly wrapped with plastic until the tubes used to fry the first batch of cannoli have cooled; then form as before.)
Fry the cannoli a few at a time in oil preheated to 350 degrees until they are a deep gold. Place on a pan lined with paper towels and remove from the tubes immediately or they will shrink as they cool and shatter when taken off the tubes. With one hand, grip the fried shell with several thicknesses of paper towel, then pull out the metal tube with tongs or a pot holder held in the other hand. Cool the shells on paper towels.
For the filling, beat the ricotta and sugar until very light, either with a hand mixer set at medium speed or in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whip. Beat in the vanilla and cinnamon and stir in the chocolate and citron.
No more than 1 hour before serving, fill the shells using a pastry bag fitted with a