Carnival, otherwise known as Martedì Grasso (Mardigras), means different things in different parts of the Peninsula. In Naples, for example, it's the occasion for a lavish banquet that invariably includes le grande lasagne di Carnevale, an extraordinarily rich lasagna with ricotta, meatballs, and a host of other ingredients. Every family had a special ingredient or trick to make theirs unique, and many would go into hock to buy the necessary ingredients. In Venice, instead, they have recently revived the custom of donning masks, and going to fabulous parties. For the past century or so they've been holding Carnival parades with satirical floats in the town of Viareggio, on the Tuscan coast. And almost everywhere there are cenci, frittelle, and other sweets of one kind or another to liven the merrymaking. Among the most glorious are Cannoli, Palermo's fried wafers filled with an airy mixture of ricotta, candied fruit, chocolate, and other ingredients, which are so tasty that they have spread not just throughout the island, but to wherever Sicilians have settled, and are now greeted with joy year round.
In the past, when they were "Carnival's Crown," according to Giuseppe Pitrè (the doctor and ethnographer who founded Palermo's museum of folk culture in 1909), people gave cannoli to all their friends -- by the dozen. One can only imagine the people in the pastry shops churning them out and the sweet sugary smell of the ricotta filling wafting over the city! They are older, however: Pitrè also quotes an anonymous 17th century poet, who said:
Cannola di Carnalivari
the Cannoli of Carnevale,
Pino Correnti, from whom I have drawn Pitrè's remarks, goes on to give the following recipe for cannoli in his Il Grande Libro d'Oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia (Mursi Editore). It will make 12, and he has one begin with the scorze, or cannolo shells.
- 1 1/4 cups (150 g) flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon rendered lard (you will likely be able to use other fats here, for example Crisco)
- 1 egg white
- 1/2 tablespoon bitter cocoa powder
- 1/2 tablespoon ground espresso coffee
- 1 tablespoon Marsala Superiore (other recipes call for white wine, or even well-aged red wine)
- 1 tablespoon brandy
- A pinch of salt
- Abundant oil for frying the scorze (you'll want them to float in it)
Mr. Correnti doesn't mention, but you will need, cannolo forms, which are hollow metal tubes about 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 5 inches long, around which one wraps the scorza. CEILW1, who very kindly contributed one of the recipes listed below, says her grandmother used pieces of a broom handle cut to the proper length. Here is a source of cannolo forms.
Cut the lard into the flour with a pinch of salt, then work the remaining dry ingredients in, followed by the liquids (except the egg white), and knead until you obtain a firm dough. Cover it with a cloth and let it rest for about two hours. Then roll the dough out into a sheet about an eighth of an inch (3 mm) thick, and cut it into either 4-inch (10 cm) diameter disks, or squares that are about 3 1/2 inches a side. Lightly grease your cannolo forms, wrap a piece of dough around each, pressing down on the joint so it holds (if need be, moisten the join very slightly with the egg white before pressing the pieces together).
While you are doing this the oil should be heating; when it reaches about 390 F (185 C), begin frying the shells, 2-3 at a time so as not to chill the oil; the frying will take 4-5 minutes, by which time the cannoli shells will turn a pretty mahogany color both inside and out. Remove the shells from the oil and drain them on absorbent paper. Once they have cooled carefully slide the cannolo forms out of the shells, which will be quite delicate. CeilW1 says, "to remeove the cannolo shells from the form, hold the cannolo in the center, gently, and push it off the form with a butter knife or the back of a spoon."
You are now ready to prepare the filling. You'll need:
- 10 ounces (250 g) of the freshest ricotta, put through a wire mesh sieve
- 1 1/4 cups (125 g) powdered sugar (the kind without starch; if need be whisk sugar in a blender)
- An ounce (25 g) minced candied fruit
- An ounce (25 g) of bitter chocolate, crumbled
- 12 strips candied orange peel (optional)
- 12 maraschino cherries (if you like them), halved
- A half cup, or perhaps more, minced pistachios
- A pastry bag, with an open end rather than a nozzle
Gently combine the ricotta and the sugar on your work surface, mixing until you obtain a light, airy mixture (you may find this easier to do if you first lightly beat the ricotta, then fold the sugar in, taking care lest the ricotta deflate) and then fold in the minced candied fruit and the chocolate. Spoon the filling into the pastry bag, twist the top (or tie it) to keep the filling from emerging, and fill the shells, squirting some of the filling in from either end. Dip the ends of the cannoli in the pistachios, then decorate one end with half a cherry and the other with a strip of candied orange peel. Arrange them on a platter, sprinkle with a little powdered sugar, and they're ready!
Don't have ricotta?
Mr. Correnti suggests you use either vanilla or chocolate flavored pastry cream, or combine the two. He also notes that some pastry chefs in New York, city with the highest Sicilian population of all, prepare half the filling as above, adding a little vanilla as well, and the other half with powdered cocoa, and then make half-vanilla, and half-chocolate flavored cannoli.
A couple of notes from other sources:
First, though you should let the dough rest, don't let it rest too long, or the shells may split as they fry. Second, In Calabria they also make cannolo shells and serve them sprinkled with honey or sapa, cooked down grape must. A pleasant variation, especially if fresh ricotta is not available to you.
SOME OTHER CANNOLI RECIPES
A shorter, somewhat simpler recipe for cannoli.
CEILW1's recipe for cannoli has a little powdered cinnamon in it.
This a pork-based savory Neapolitan recipe, which will be very nice with mixed fried meats, or by itself.
Other Carnival Recipes
From Lasagna to Frappe, there are many things to enjoy come Carnival.
SOME IDEAS OFF THE NET
Fante's Cannolo Forms
A company that offers cannoli forms in a couple of different sizes, and also thoughtfully gives a shell recipe on the page.
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