Welcome to Sicily, Italy: distinguished for its crystal clear Mediterranean beaches, home to the largest active volcano in Europe, and birthplace to one of Italy’s most iconic desserts: the cannoli.
History of Cannoli
While it may seem like a simple pastry item, the cannoli is laden with sweet history. Let’s take a little trip back in time to discover the cannoli’s early origins in Southwest Italy, and see what we can learn about the true, authentic cannoli recipe.
827 CE – Emirate of Sicily
About 1,200 years ago, the Islamic Kingdom ruled Sicily. This middle-eastern influence played a key role in the cannoli’s conception.
See, traditionally, chefs in this area used fig or honey as a flavor sweetener. In fact, the Romans considered sugar to be a medicinal resource. However, Middle Easterners inhabiting the then-called Emirate of Sicily brought with them sugar cane and introduced it’s lovely sweetening effects to bakers in the area.
Thus, when the concubines of the Caltanissetta (then known as Kalt El Nissa, or, “women’s castle”) needed to create a tasty delicacy, they found inspiration in a Middle Eastern dessert of deep-fried dough tubes featuring nuts and a creamy center. So, in the creation of the cannoli, of course, they used cane sugar in the filling and the sugar cane stalk as the tube around which to mold the pastry dough.
Fun fact: most historical resources mention how the name “cannoli” comes from the Sicilian word “cannolo,” meaning “little tube” in English. However, the etymology stems from the word “canna,” meaning cane, or tube, reminiscent of not only the iconic cannoli shape but also the form of the sugar cane stalk, too.
Islamic rulership only lasted until about 1090 CE, but the two centuries or so of Middle Eastern influence had taken root in Sicily – and were there to stay.
1090 CE – Sicilian Carnevale
So, in 1091 CE, after the Arabic rule ended, former concubines needed a new place of refuge. Many sought sanctuary in a spot unlikely to turn down anyone needing shelter or a meal: the convent.
In time, these concubines-turned-nuns brought their cannoli making techniques out to play for the yearly Carnevale, a rowdy, parade-filled, masqueraded celebration.
As any good chef should, the nuns utilized the local, fresh ingredients to make the best desserts possible. Sheep produce more milk in the springtime when the ‘grazin’ is good,’ so it was only fitting for the nuns to use earthy sheep’s milk ricotta in the filling of the cannoli.
Plus, to attract the attention of rowdy revelers, they decorated the tasty treat with colorful, sugared fruit rinds. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Sicilian people loved these cannoli so much, that they became a year-round dessert staple.
19th Century & Today
During the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s, tens of thousands of Sicilians immigrated to America. Settling in places as New York, New Jersey, areas of Pennsylvania, New Orleans, and even as far west as LA and San Francisco, each baker brought with them their family-passed traditions for making cannoli.
Though recipe specifics vary, almost all Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans agree on a few important points. For example, almost all cannoli recipes involve a Marsala or sweet wine in the shell dough. Not only does this offer moisture to the pastry, but it provides a unique, distinct flavor, too.
Furthermore, using anything but ricotta as the inside filling may earn you a look of disapproval from traditionalists. However, you may have a difficult time locating the long-established sheep’s milk ricotta. For this reason, it is commonplace to use cow’s milk ricotta, instead. Though, replace with caution. Cow’s milk ricotta tends to taste milder.
To really achieve the flavor depth, tang, and earthiness of a traditional cannoli, some bakers add a bit of regular goat’s milk cheese to the cow’s milk ricotta. It’s not necessarily “traditional” in technique, but if your aim is a classic flavor achieved with the ingredients available to you, I say, “go for it!”
Unfortunately, some things we’ll just never know. For example, historians aren’t sure if eggs were ever used in the shell dough, or if that was a personal flair from a baker in the past few centuries.
Further, there is no hard consensus when it comes to additions like cinnamon or cocoa in the pastry dough. Some say it’s a family secret to add more flavor to the shell. Others argue you don’t need the extra flavor, and it masks the true color of the shell, making the frying process more difficult.
At least these little method discrepancies allow for familial customizations; after all, there would be no “baking secrets from great-grandma” if every recipe was 100% succinct.
To Top It All Off
Just like, “you’re never fully dressed without a smile,” your cannoli are never fully finished until they’re topped.
Of course, you could add any garnish your heart desires. But, if you’re striving for authenticity, there are (up to) three ingredients you need:
Sugared fruit rinds. Remember the nuns? Trying to sell their cannoli? They used sugared fruit. And, not only is eye-catching, but the chewy texture adds such a perfect element to the crisp shell and ultra-soft filling. Don’t skip it! You can buy it premade, or make some using any citrus fruit and my method for the sugared limes, in this recipe!
Chopped, salted pistachios. Nuts were another common addition, as almonds were a popular Arabic import to the Emirate of Sicily. However, sometime between then and the cannoli’s arrival in America, someone, somewhere added pistachio. The salty, subtle sweetness of the bright nuts makes you know exactly why this has been a front-runner cannoli topping ever since.
Chocolate chips. Chocolate. It’s a classic. Almost everyone loves it. So, no one really minds if you add a few to the ends of your cannoli.
Authentic Cannoli Recipe
If you’re just about salivating by now, don’t worry: you’re not alone. Despite deep origins and a detailed past, this tubular treat is not very complicated to create at home!
Gather Your Tools
In addition to common kitchen items, you’ll need some helpful tools:
- Pastry mat.
- Oval cookie cutter. The size is up to you, but the diameter of the cutter needs to be larger than the circumference of your cannoli tubes so that the dough can easily wrap around it.
- Cannoli tubes.
- Deep frying skimmer.
- Candy or high-temp cooking thermometer.
- Cooling racks.
- Piping bag, or a gallon-sized Ziplock bag
You can also invest in a deep fryer, but it’s not necessary. The method below walks you through the steps to fry the cannoli with common kitchen tools, and those listed above.
Cannoli Video Tutorial
I created this quick, less than two-minute video to visually walk you through the cannoli-making and filling process! Check it out to get a feel for the method, and then scroll down for the written recipe and measurements!
Authentic Cannoli Recipe
Authentic Cannoli (Sicily, Italy)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp powdered sugar
- 2 tbsp butter, cold and cubed
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 eggs, beaten separately
- 2 tbsp Marsala or sweet red wine, split by tbsp
- 1 tbsp white vinegar or red wine vinegar
- 1 cup semolina flour
- 2 liters vegetable oil
- 2 cups drained ricotta cheese (from cow's milk)(about 1⅓ pound) (see notes below)
- 2 oz goat's cheese
- ¾-1 cup powdered sugar (to taste) plus extra for dusting
- OPTIONAL: vanilla, orange bitters, or another alcohol-based flavoring
- ½ cup chopped, salted pistachios
- ½ cup chocolate chips
- ½ cup sugared fruit rinds
- First, sift all of your dry ingredients together in a bowl.
- Using two forks, cut in the cold pieces of butter. You can also use the tips of your fingers to rub the mixture together, further, until it resembles a rough texture with pea-sized lumps of flour. Then, make a well in the center of the bowl by pushing the flour out to the edges.
- Add one of the beaten eggs to the center of the well and start mixing with a fork slowly from the inside, pulling flour into the center. When about half of the flour is mixed into the egg, stop and move to the next step.
- Next, add one tbsp of the wine and your vinegar to the center of the bowl. Mix as much as you can, but it will get too thick for the fork.
- At this point, turn the bowl over onto your pastry mat and knead the dough for about five minutes. You may add up to a tbsp more of the wine if the dough isn't coming together.
- Pull off a small, palm-sized ball of dough and flatten it slightly in your hands. Hold it up to a light source, like a window or lamp, and slowly stretch the dough. If you can see light through the dough, before it tears, your gluten is properly developed. If it tears too quickly, knead a minute or two more, testing again.
- Once the dough is properly kneaded, wrap it tightly in some plastic and set it in the refrigerator to chill for a minimum of thirty minutes. This ensures that the flavors of the dough properly come together, and also gives the gluten time to rest before frying. During this time I like to prepare my ricotta filling.
- After your dough has chilled, pour your oil into a large, sturdy pot and set the thermometer inside. Heat the oil to 375°F.
- Set some paper towels on top of a cooling rack over a baking sheet (to catch drips) beside your heating oil.
- While the oil is heating, flour your pastry mat with the semolina, and split your chilled dough into two halves. Roll out each of the halves to about ⅛-inch thick.
- Use the cookie cutter to stamp out as many ovals from the dough as you can, placing them aside. Then, roll the cut-outs just a little bit flatter. The cannoli will puff a lot in the fryer, so the best cannoli are made with dough as thin as you can manage!
- Carefully wrap an oval of dough around the cannoli tube. Wet your finger with the egg mixture and apply the egg to one edge of the cannoli. Bring the other edge over top and press down gently to secure. Complete this step directly before frying the cannoli, and only wrap as many around the tubes as can fit in the pot at once. I found that if I let the wrapped cannoli sit with the egg mixture while others fried, they would separate and not remain on the tubes while frying.
- Carefully place a few cannoli into the frying pot. Be extra cautious, as the oil is extremely hot. Pay attention to the temperature as well; if it falls too low, the shells will become over-saturated with oil. However, if the temperature is too high, they will burn on the outside before being fully cooked. If a cannoli falls off of the tube, don't fret, just let it fry. It won't look like a traditional cannoli, but these "mistakes" taste just as good.
- Once the cannoli have fried for about 3-4 minutes, or have reached a nice golden brown color, carefully, using your skimmer, lift out each one and place it on the drying rack. Be extra careful to drain the oil from each tube, before pulling it out of the pan fully, if yours are hollow.
- Repeat the process of securing a few more cannoli around the tubes and frying them until all are done.
- As soon as you can handle touching the cannoli, gently slide them off of the tubes. Then, let the cannoli shells cool to room temperature. Do not fill them until you are ready to serve, as they may become soggy. However, the shells will last in a covered container at room temperature for up to a week!
- Set your ricotta cheese in a strainer overtop a bowl to catch any drips. Let this sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour. I like to do this before starting on my dough. However, I've purchased wonderful ricotta cheese from a local market that was dry and drained. It came in a block, like parmesan. If you can find some ricotta not stored in water, that will save you the hassle.
- Once your ricotta is thoroughly drained, place it and the goat's cheese in a sieve. Use a spatula to carefully push the cheese through, creating a lovely, light, and smooth texture. Some authentic recipes claim to sieve the ricotta multiple times. I used a very fine sieve, but just once, so it was fine.
- To the sieved cheese, add your powdered sugar and mix, gently, just until combined. I also added about 13 drops of orange bitters to the cheese at this point to echo the flavor of the sugared citrus rind topping. It was subtle but superb! You can use vanilla, another flavor, or keep it super traditional and not add anything at all! Keep in mind, over mixing the cheese can actually make it more watery and cause the filling to break down. So, only mix until everything is just combined.
- Add the ricotta filling to your piping bag, securing it tightly. Let it rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour. This allows the sugar to dissolve fully, creating an ultra-smooth, sweet taste. I like to let it rest while I fry the cannoli shells. This filling can last in the refrigerator for 5 days. You may notice a little water gathered at the tip of the bag, but it's okay. Just squeeze it out and use like normal.
Filling The Cannoli
- Cut off a corner of your piping bag. It doesn't have to be perfect, just make the hole about an inch and a half wide.
- Insert the piping bag into one end of the cannoli shell, and apply pressure to the top of the bag. Press gently, but firmly, pushing the filling into the center of your cannoli. Fill to the outside, and the do the same on the opposite side!
- Sprinkle your toppings on carefully or just dip the ends of each cannoli into your desired garnish. Top with powdered sugar. I like to bring over a platter of the shells and flat bowls filling with the three toppings. Then, I fill each cannoli tableside, immediately before eating, and dip the cannoli in the toppings as I munch! Again, you want to fill your cannoli as close to the time you'll be eating them as possible. However, if you must, you can fill them up to three hours prior to serving, without losing too much crunch.
Thank you for joining me on this culinary journey! I hope you learned a little, laughed a little more, and enjoyed a lot.
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