I’m slowly making my way through The Food of Italy by Waverly Root and when I got to the Sicily chapter it was a revelation. I had no idea that Sicily is so well known for its sweets. In fact, I realized I know very little about Sicily in general. I figured it was time to get acquainted with the Mediterranean’s largest island and my maternal great-grandfather Salvatore’s homeland by exploring its food. So last month I bought Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries by Victoria Granof and it’s wonderful! I especially like that Granof provides historical and cultural context for Sicilian cuisine.
The first thing I learned is that Sicily has a long history of conquest by various peoples including the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, etc., all of which is reflected in the unique and varied flavors of Sicilian culinary traditions. Sicily, a land which entranced its many rulers, was not united with Italy until 1861 and thus it is both Italian and yet something separate, different.
Figs, almonds, squash, chocolate, marzipan, honey, pistachios, jasmine water, ricotta, and citrus fruits are just a few of the delectable ingredients found in Sicilian desserts. Not only do Sicily’s sweets incorporate a wide variety of flavors and textures, but they are also deeply tied to tradition and ritual. Waverly Root describes Sicily as a place where, “….mystical currents run deep, the past lives in the present, the sweets embody most clearly the ritual role of food, forgotten elsewhere, which through the ages has bound it to magic, superstition and religion,” (Root 1971: 617). There are desserts called “virgin’s breasts” in honor of Saint Agatha, patron saint of Catania, and “Saint Lucy’s eyes” for Santa Lucia of Siracusa, pastries for Christmas and Easter, and all kinds of superstitions and rituals which mix the secular and the divine and whose roots go back as far as Roman times.
For my first attempt at a Sicilian dessert, I decided to start with a classic: cannoli. The earliest cannoli were likely filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and honey; later on the Arabs added sugar, candied fruit, and cinnamon, while the Spanish contributed chocolate from the Americas. Around the 16th century, convents started making cannoli for Carnival time at the beginning of Lent. The best cannoli come from Palermo due to the superb ricotta from Piana degli Albanesi, just south of the city (Granof 2001: 125).
Making cannoli was a fairly easy process and I was very pleased with the results, though there is definitely room for improvement. Store-bought ricotta makes for an imperfect filling; I should have followed the book’s directions to drain it over night but I was impatient. Perhaps I will make my own ricotta next time as it’s not hard to do. Additionally, I’m not so great with frying; I always get a little nervous about hot, sputtering oil and I also don’t own a candy thermometer so a precise temperature reading was impossible. However, the true measure of success was that my husband very much enjoyed the cannoli. He has always said he doesn’t like cannoli or any dessert with a sweet cheese filling and yet he ate cannoli with me for the week after I made them. So, I must’ve done something right to win him over! 🙂
The dough takes the longest to prepare, knead, refrigerate, roll, cut, and fry. The filling is a mere 5-minute task. I also made candied orange peel (recipe forthcoming) the day before to include in the filling and it was a great addition. The cannoli were delicious and I can’t wait to make more Sicilian goodies! I love all things almond flavored, so I have a feeling almond cookies are in my near future.
adapted from Victoria Granof’s Cannoli recipe in Sweet Sicily
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons Marsala or other sweet wine*
vegetable oil for frying
steel cannoli molds
11/2 cups ricotta cheese
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup candied orange peel (optional)
2 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional)
Yield: 8-9 small cannoli shells & filling
For the shells:
Sift the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center, add the butter, and cut it into the flour using a pastry blender or knife. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse cornmeal.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolk and wine. Add to the flour a little at a time until the dough starts to cling together. It will be lumpy.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and without many bumps or lines. Granof’s recipe says the dough should develop tiny blisters on the surface which indicate the wine’s fermentation in the dough. I did not notice this and my finished cannoli came out fine, so don’t worry if blisters don’t appear. Kneading is paramount though; inadequate kneading will cause irregular air pockets which will not do well in the hot oil. I kneaded for probably close to 15 minutes. The dough was quite tough at first but was very supple and easy to roll out in the end. Cover the dough and refrigerate for 1 hour.
On a floured surface roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/16 inch and cut it into 3-inch circles with a cookie cutter or trace around a glass with a knife. With a rolling pin, roll the circle into 3×5-inch ovals. A ruler comes in handy here or a baking mat with measurements.
Wrap each oval around a cannoli tube and seal the edges with water. This step is crucial so that the dough stays together when frying. Heat vegetable oil in a deep, heavy-bottom pan to a depth of about 3 inches; it should read 350 degrees on a candy thermometer. Fry 2 or 3 cannoli shells at a time until golden brown and crispy, about 11/2 minutes or less. Remove from the oil with tongs and drain on a baking rack over paper towel. When cool, remove from their molds.
For the filling:
Combine the powdered sugar, ricotta, and vanilla extract in a blender or food processor until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in chopped candied orange peel and chocolate chips. Alternatively, do not mix in candied orange peel or chocolate chips if you do not have a large enough pastry tip; instead place on the ends of the cannoli for garnish.
Use a pastry bag, freezer bag with small hole cut in the corner, or a teaspoon to fill cannoli shells. Keep the filling and shells refrigerated separately until ready to eat, then fill each cannolo as needed. If you fill them ahead of time, the shells will become soggy.
*I used Pinot Grigio in place of Marsala and it worked well.