How Do I Get A Damn Cannoli?
"Cannoli is love, cannoli is life,
I fry each one, with much rewarding strife"
Poet: Joe Basile
Pending Publishers: Poetry Society Of America; Poets And Writers, Simon And Schuster
I love Cannoli. Outside of 90’s Rap music and video games, it’s the one topic I have such a weird level of knowledge and appreciation for. As I came to find out, there’s a lot of you West Coast Cannoli fiends out there just like me. Always on the ravenous hunt for Cannoli that most likely doesn’t exist. I wanted to fill this void and put my weird knowledge to some good use by starting a Cannoli business.
However, I can’t ship my product everywhere at the moment. So I decided to piece together a Cannoli guide for those of you either on the hunt for Cannoli or have always been dying to try some. Before we continue, let’s get a few common misconceptions straightened out.
(1) Cannoli Terminology
Cannoli is already plural. The word itself, means “little tubes” in Italian. Cannolo is the singular use for Cannoli. It’s a common mistake to use the word “cannolis” but try to refrain as I’ll do my best here to follow suit. (I even still make the mistake at times.) It's just a practice in trying to be respectful of other culture's use of language with their beloved homeland dishes. Ordering "cannolis" at a respected Cannoli shop, is akin to saying "case-a-dilla" at a Mexican restaurant. Just do your best to catch yourself saying it before it's said. That's all.
(2) Sizes ("What? That's it?")
Size isn’t everything. I’ve had some newbie customers disappointed in the size of my Cannoli, that is, until they try a bite. Then they get it. Cannoli isn’t meant to be a huge slice of gluttony you order at the Cheesecake factory. A lot of flavor is packed in a little package. Of course, it’s a free country and you can gorge out on however many you wish, but always give it a try before you judge the size. The hoagie sized Cannoli you may see on TV, most likely won’t be cooked all the way through or have the desired “crispy shell” effect most known in properly made Cannoli.
(3) Pre-Made Shells
Using pre-made shells isn’t the end of the world. I pride myself on my scratch shells, but I totally get why most Cannoli locations don’t bother dealing with the headaches I endure on a weekly basis. They’re a hell of a process. Truth be told, there’s also a few good Cannoli shell brands out there. Don’t feel like you’re disgracing Cannoli by opting out for pre-made shells. Most respected Cannoli shops do exactly that. If you find a brand of shells you like, work on perfecting your cream. Cream is every bit as important as the shells.
Cannoli is a hollow cylinder of fried dough, traditionally, filled with a sweetened ricotta cream. To its very essence, that's what traditionally made Cannoli is. Don't let any naysayers or Pinterest food bloggers convince you otherwise. Originally, Cannoli was known as a festive treat before Lent, then, as its popularity grew and more Italians immigrated to the states, it became a staple Italian dessert.
Authentic Sicilian Cannoli, more-so celebrates the quality of its locally sourced sheep-milk ricotta. Due to the lack of access to many Sicilian-based ingredients, Italian-American Cannoli adapted into more of a sweetened dessert.
The simple and yet robust flavor that exudes with well-made Cannoli, is to me, what makes this Sicilian delicacy so special. With just a few single bites, everything comes together in perfect harmony. A crispy; crunchy, shell, that acts as a vessel for a smooth; creamy, vanilla/cinnamon filling, accentuated with your choice of toppings. Honestly, even sex seems a bit overrated when I crunch down on some great Cannoli.
Today, Cannoli has a much beloved cult-like following. Even if not everybody knows of their existence or has convenient access to them.
Buying Pre-Made Cannoli:
Behind every great Cannolo is a bad Cannolo. Especially in the States.
All-scratch Cannoli is a bit of an expensive and labor intensive endeavor. Plus, they ideally should be filled per order to ensure no soggy shells. Most bakeries struggle to balance the quality/labor required for good quality Cannoli with the rest of their menu items. This is why most bakeries you’ll find don’t offer Cannoli at all, and if they do, chances are they’ve opted out for some naughty shortcuts to deliver the end product. I’ve seen/tasted everything from sweetened whipped cream; baked egg-roll shells, thickened custards, etc. They may very well taste good, but you won’t be experiencing the true authentic taste of Cannoli when eating these shortcuts. You’re much better off buying Cannoli from a place that specializes in them. These places are difficult-nearly impossible to find if you live anywhere on the West Coast of the states.
I live in Bellingham,WA, as the only Cannoli business. The closest Cannoli business’s to my location are a couple hours away from me, in Seattle,WA. That’s it as far as Washington is concerned. I’m surprised I (Take The Cannoli); Kelly Cannoli, Holy Cannoli, and Pioli’s Cannoli even exist in the same region. If you can’t find a Cannoli shop near you, don’t be afraid to ask your local bakeries questions about their Cannoli and steer clear of their previously mentioned shortcuts if that’s what they have to offer.
Alternatively, you could purchase online Cannoli DIY kits and have them shipped. But be prepared to pay a pretty penny. I’m working on shipping my DIY kits across the states, but until then, Mikes Bakery; Piccione Pastry, Dolci Della Dea, are good-great options.
Making Scratch Cannoli:
If you’re dying to try Cannoli, you could also make them yourself, but be prepared for a daunting kitchen task that requires a lot of planning; prep, trial/error. Especially if you’re making scratch shells. They’re not necessarily hard to make, but very difficult to master. Chances are, you’ll be a little disappointed on your first attempt of Cannoli. However, if you master Cannoli in your home kitchen, you’ll actually know and accomplish something that most seasoned/professional bakers haven’t even tried. I won’t give away my recipes but I will offer some guidance and advice.
Making Cannoli cream is easy. However, there are a few crucial steps you must take in order to accomplish the desired results. First things first, ricotta. Sicily and Italy have this special kind of ricotta called impasta. It’s truly great stuff, but it's rather difficult to find anywhere in the United States. There’s also a process to make Impasta, but it’s exactly that, a process. Mascarpone is a great substitute if you want Cannoli cream right now. It won't have that ricotta essence that adds to the flavor, but it still acts as a great alternative. However, here’s how to ensure good quality ricotta based cream, with most grocery store brands.
Whole Milk Ricotta. Say it with me, whole milk Ricotta. Part-skim will have grainy solids that affect the texture, whole milk will not. We’re looking for a thick consistency. The thicker the better. To help the ricotta out a bit, it’s good to also strain it overnight. My favorite method is to place the ricotta in a hand held sieve, fitted with a cheesecloth. Place seran wrap over the top of the ricotta, then, place a heavy object (5lb dumbbell; big tomato sauce can, your mother-in-law, etc.) on top of the saran wrap. This will help draw out the excess liquid from the ricotta, to ensure a dry/thick consistency. Avoiding this step will leave you with a watery mess. And as Alton Brown would put it, not good eats! As far as flavoring, it’s really an open canvas. But I do believe there are some steadfast cardinal rules that should still be applied. Powdered sugar for instance, should be used to sweeten the ricotta just enough to turn it into a dessert. Using too much will mask any other flavors you try to add. What I like to go by, is ½ cup powdered sugar per 8oz. of ricotta. (Also remember to sift your powdered sugar first) If you like it sweeter, you can still add more. But I find this measurement to offer just the right amount of sweetness. Vanilla extract and cinnamon are the most common ingredients you’ll find in online recipes. However, candied fruit; citron, chocolate chips, etc. can also make great additions. Whatever you use, just make sure that it’s good quality. Cheap ingredients will taste cheap when added to Cannoli cream. Get the good stuff.
When mixing your Cannoli cream, be careful. Whipping your cream too hard will loosen it too much and create chunky solids. Mixers are great inventions, but you may want to start out mixing your cream by hand. As you get more experienced, you'll know when your cream looks just good enough to let off on the mixer.
I could honestly write a novel about my experiences with scratch Cannoli shells. The entire book would make you laugh; cry, cringe, wince and burn with rage, with each page you flip. Cannoli shells are notoriously difficult to master. I don’t blame a single Cannoli shop in the world who buy their shells, instead of making them from scratch. I myself, do make scratch shells. I’ve even had several businesses just buy my shells from me. That’s because I was willing to endure the pain it took to make my scratch shells just right. You still won’t get a recipe from me, but I will offer some tips.
An ideal Cannolo shell should be light; crisp, flaky, and riddled with their signature bubbles. Making this exact phenomenon happen, requires just the right ingredients; equipment, and technique.
The dough for Cannoli shells is rather similar to a pasta dough. Only a little dryer, and usually includes some sort of wine. Usually, the success in how your shells will turn out is all about how you treat your dough. Ingredients and recipes may vary but how you work the dough should all be the same. Be...gentle. Cannoli dough is easy to overwork, till the point of flat and dense shells. Remember to always knead gently. Using an electric mixer with a dough hook can work out fine, but I recommend first using your hands so you learn how the dough should feel; look, and come together.
As far as ingredients, recipes out there will vary. Though, there are a few things to watch out for when trying to find the right one.
When using any dark colored ingredients, either omit altogether or use sparingly. Cocoa powder; too much cinnamon, brown sugar, etc. will vastly change the color of your shells. This is a big problem, especially if you’re a novice at Cannoli. A fully fried cannoli shell will look golden brown or tan (depending on the ingredients you use/how long you fry them), dark ingredients will give the impression the shells are already finished, when they really need a few more minutes.
The one saving grace of Cannoli shells is you don’t need to add that much seasoning to acquire the desired taste. The shell is really just a deep fried delicious vessel for the cream to work its magic on your taste buds. The technique and cook of the shell, is really what separates good shells from bad shells. Get the technique right first, then adjust the recipe next time if the seasoning isn’t quite to your liking.
A little tidbit missing from a lot of Cannoli shell recipes, is the importance of sealing your shell before frying. This can be tricky. When you form your dough around your Cannoli molds, the wrap needs to be tight enough to hold on, but loose enough to let the dough aerate its own fat (plus, be able to pull out once fried). This is the trial/error part of the process. Too tight, your shells will come out dense and lifeless. Too loose, your formed dough will actually fall off the molds and bubble up in your fryer. (Making for a great Cannoli tostada!) For my Washington fans, think of rolling a well-made joint that you’re actually proud of. For my suburban housewives, also think of rolling a well-made joint out of the “dirty grass” you found while snooping in your teenage kids sock drawer.
Lastly, let’s talk about temperature and oil. The only prerequisite to your oil is a high smoke point. I like Vegetable oil, but canola works too. There’s no need to break the bank on fancy/expensive high temp. Oils unless you have any dietary restrictions. Traditional Sicilian shells are fried in real lard. But you most likely will be using your personal home fryer for other food as well in the future. Making lard not such an ideal choice. Whatever your oil is, make sure it’s hot. Pre-heated completely to 350-375 degrees will help make the blistering affect more prominent, too cold of oil and you’ll end up with egg roll shells. (Been there, done that.) Frying Cannoli shells to completion, usually takes 4-5 minutes. Just remember to keep an eye on them.
Beware, these little fried tubes will be hot. I like to let the oil drip out from the molds by holding them upside down with a pair of tongs, once they’re done frying. You’ll be surprised how much searing hot oil will drip out. Also, a thick dish rag in each hand as you pull out each tube, will help immensely with handling the heat. You can let them cool off a little before handling, but they need to be hot in order to pull each tube out cleanly. Let them cool for too long, you run the risk of the shells constricting to your molds with a vice-like grip.
I really don’t mean to intimidate anybody out of making Cannoli. I’m just being realistic about the process. I’ve made every mistake imaginable and still run into snags every now and then. Just remember, trial and error.