Ah, cannoli. How your deep-fried pastry flecked with crispy bubbles and stuffed with fluffy ricotta has stolen my heart forever. Oh, I had seen you from a distance, in pictures, of course, and admired your soft dusting of snowy icing sugar, and imagined the crunch of your pastry crumbling into the smooth creamy filling, but never did I realize just what I was missing out on. Silly of me really, considering that all things deep-fried and stuffed with cheese are delicious. That’s a given.
As you may have noticed recently, my blog posts have had a decidedly Italian twist to them which may or may not have something to do with an Italian man in my life. While I have yet to school him in South African malva poeding, koeksisters and melktert, mostly because I don’t have time, he has not-so-subtly been teaching me the art of Sicilian cooking. Probably so I can cook for him. Sneaky I tell you! Italian’s are fiercely proud of their regional specialities and Siciliy is known for, among other things, their cannoli where the pastry was invented. The first thing I learnt about this delicacy is: two cannoli, one cannolo. Get it right. The name means ‘little tube’ which not surprisingly refers to it’s shape. But, wait, it gets more complicated because different sizes have different names. Some are small and no bigger than a finger while others (like the cannoli from Palermo) are as big as a hand.
Proper Sicilian cannoli, I’m told, is always made with homemade ricotta cheese made from sheep’s milk. But because you won’t catch me milking a sheep in a million years, cow’s milk will do (and no I didn’t milk that myself either). The trick to a deliciously creamy filling (one that doesn’t make the cannoli shells go soggy too quickly), is to make the ricotta a few days beforehand and hang it in muslin cloth to get rid of as much moisture as possible. (I know, I know, I hear you, ‘a few days’ is a pain, but we’re talking traditional here. If you want to cut the corner, then do so, just don’t tell an Italian you did.)
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
1 litre full cream milk
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Slowly bring milk and salt to a rolling boil in a large saucepan. Add lemon juice and stir constantly over low heat until the mixture curdles. Carefully scoop out the curds using a sieve or fine slotted spoon. Pour the remaining mixture into a sieve lined with muslin cloth and let it drain for 2-3 days in the refrigerator. Discard the liquid.
Now for the best part, the cannoli! I would suggest making these on a weekend, and definitely invite a group of friends over because you’ll want the “oooh’s and aaah’s” as a reward for your hard work. Unless, of course, the heavenly taste of the cannoli is enough, then by all means curl up on the couch with the whole batch and devour them. Just be sure to have a glass of red wine afterwards, because as Italian tells me, that’s the secret to staying slim (and I’m not about to argue with that logic!)
300g cake flour
30g butter, softened
15g cocoa powder
1 tsp ground coffee
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 glass white wine or marsala
1 egg white, for brushing
oil, for deep-frying
500g ricotta cheese
1 bay leaf
1 stick cinnamon
125g castor sugar
3/4 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Candied orange rind, to decorate
Icing sugar, to dust
Combine the flour, butter, cocoa, coffee sugar and salt then gradually add the white wine or marsala until a stiff pliable dough forms (the dough should be a similar consistency to pasta dough). Knead the dough until smooth and elastic then cover and rest for 10 minutes. Slice off pieces of dough and roll through a floured pasta machine starting at the largest setting and working your way through the notches until your each size 4 thickness. Cut out circles of dough using a cookie cutter or cup then wrap around a cannoli mould or wooden stick. Overlap the edges and stick them together with a little egg white. Continue until all the dough has been used up. Heat the oil to 180 degrees celcius and deep-fry the cannoli, in batches, until deep-golden brown. Drain on paper towel and allow to cool.
Now for the filling: Heat the milk gently with the bay leaf, cloves and cinnamon until just simmering. Add a little water to the cornstarch to make a thin paste then gradually whisk the paste into the warm milk, whisking continuously until thick. Add the sugar. Simmer for a few minutes until cooked before spreading on a baking tray to cool. Pass the ricotta cheese through a fine sieve to get a smooth mixture. Mix in the cooled white sauce (remove the spices) and stir well. Add the chocolate chips and cinnamon powder. Place the filling into a piping bag and pipe into each cannoli. Dust with icing sugar and decorate with candied orange rind, if desired. Serve immediately.
TIP The cannoli shells can be stored for up to a month in an airtight container. To get them super crispy again, pop the shells into the oven for a few minutes. The ricotta filling can be frozen – simply freeze the mixture in a ziplock bag.