Artful Cookies in Italy

Cannoli, the popular cookies of Sicily, began as Carnival pastries (circa 1500’s) shaped as cylinders around wooden canes, dipped in hot oil, allowed to cool then filled with smooth, sweetened ricotta cheese. They have changed very little except now they are often made with stainless steel cylinders instead of canes and their decorations include roasted pistachio pieces and candied fruit. The dough must still be mixed, chilled, rolled, shaped, fried, cooled, then filled – its a commitment, a labor of love.  The filling must still be made fresh from carefully sweetened and strained ricotta cheese which often holds a cherry on top – alive with color, sugar and texture and not just plucked from a jar.  You might also find a candied orange peel instead of a cherry or playful chocolate chips peeking out in paticceries across Italy. These masterpieces of the kitchen call to mind other Italian masterpieces that summon the grace of simple cylinders and dramatic arches.

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Ceiling fresco in Rome with not-quite-candied-cherry red in the arch but certainly ruby red, gold, emerald, sapphire and other jewel tones.

 

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Cannoli, not to be confused with cannoli pasta of the same shape.

Susie Norris, Food Market Gypsy, cookies, Italian cookies, cookie recipes

Arches at The Vatican Museum, Rome.

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Royal Palace of Turino.  This was their dining room.

 

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Make the filling just before serving for maximum contrast of crunch & cream.

 

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Arches everywhere!

Italians know that we visit their complicated country by the millions for a million reasons, but they are especially considerate to those who come primarily in search of cookies:  Cannoli, Ameretti, Biscotti.  We pay homage to the monuments of history, we feast our eyes on ruins, religious imperatives, fashion, Renaissance architecture high and low; we understand the pasta, the proscuitto, the pesto, the tomato sauces as aromatic, uncomplicated, time-tested fare.

Despite Cannoli’s popularity, Biscotti is the most ubiquitous cookie in Italy.   I wondered how I would ever eat all the Biscotti I bought, but they often sell them by the bag – it’s not my fault! Some are designed to dip in espresso, some are designed to dip in wine, some are simply existential.

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Chocolate Chip Biscotti from Vestri in Rome

Before too long, my cookie reporting in Italy devolved into a wordless chronicle of all the cookies I saw and ate and admired.  Only fitting that our visits to ruins and relics reminded us of the importance of food markets, festivals and communnal dining in the Roman Empire.

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Artisan cookies at a market in Turin

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Pagan Roma here and there.

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Cookies large and small in Rome

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Illustrated wrappers for Panforte in Sienna (note the theme of horses and pageant, central to Sienna’s history).

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Horses with attitude from Sinatti (paticcerie = patisserie)

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This book combines the cookies of Sicily with the art and agriculture that surround them.

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Cezanne here insists on no cookies, only peaches.

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Biscotti by the kilo in Rome.

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Jellies in Florence.

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What? Italian gummy bears!

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Tracy & Susie in Sienna

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Gelato.

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Why have cookies without cake?

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Tracy is so Florentine.

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Beware! Some of these are stuffed with lemon curd and white chocolate cream.

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Patriotic pasta from a market in Rome.

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Patriotic peppers from a market in Sienna.

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Beautiful gianduja chocolates, but is that sunflower real?

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Definitely real.

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Sunday market in Turino near the Piedmont region (think hazelnuts, wine and chocolate).

 

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Finally, local wine, cookies, chocolate & limoncello.  Buona Sera.

1.) Cannoli from Sweet Sicily

You’ll need cannoli molds from Sur La Table or a well-stocked kitchen store or Amazon.

For the shell:

18 oz. flour

2 oz butter (preferably European)

1/4 cup sugar

8 Tablespoons vinegar or wine

a pinch of salt

sunflower oil for frying

For the Filling:

8 oz. ricotta

11/4 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean, scraped (OK to sub in a Tablespoon of vanilla extract)

2 oz dark chocolate chips

To Garnish (optional):

candied cherries (look for natural or less-processed versions of maraschino cherries if possible)

candied oranges or lemon (Ever made your own? It’s rewarding & here’s a link & recipe is below.)

ground pistachios

dusting of confectioner’s sugar

For the shells, mix all the ingredients in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Create a smooth dough, chill it for 20 minutes, then roll it into a thin sheet (1/2″ or less).  Use a pastry or cookie cutter to cut out thin rounds, then roll them even thinner with a rolling pin. Heat the oil until scalding.  Place each piece of dough around a stainless steel cannoli mold, the fry them in the scalding oil until light-medium brown (about 6 minutes).  Drain on a paper towel.

For the Filling:

Using a whisk and a medium bowl, stir the ricotta cheese, sugar, and vanilla together.  Use a sifter or sieve to strain the mixture and return it to the bowl.  Stir in the chocolate chips and adjust to taste.  Fill each cannoli shell and decorate with, at least, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

2.) Candied Citrus

3 oranges (2 for zest, 1 for fruit slices)

3 limes (2 for zest, 1 for fruit slices)

1 batch Simple Syrup (equal parts sugar & water – 1 cup each), scalded then cooled

Granulated or coarse sugar for dusting.

Candied citrus zest and slices, which we use in our barks and as decoration, conjure an old-fashioned delight. Before fruit chews were sold at every gas station, grocery store, and movie theatre, people enjoyed this simple confection of sugary fruit zest and slices dried to a crackling, chewy finish. When we zest our citrus (shave off the orange part of the orange peel, or the yellow part of the lemon peel),we avoid the white underside, or pith, because it’s bitter. While we sweeten the zest in this recipe too, we particularly dip the fruit slices—which include pith—first in boiling water, then in simple syrup to sugar away any hint of bitterness.

Line a sheet pan or 8-in/20-cm cake pan with parchment paper.

Bring two medium sauce pans of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Zest 2 lemons, 2 oranges, and 2 limes with a zester or small paring knife, separat- ing the colored skin from the white pith. Cut each piece of zest into thin strips and transfer to a medium strainer or small colander. Dip the strips into the first pot of boiling water for about 20 seconds, then the second pot of boiling water for about 20 seconds, and transfer them to the pan of simple syrup.

Slice the remaining fruits into thin slices. Dip them in the first pot of boiling water for about 20 seconds, then the second pot for 20 seconds, then put them in the pan of syrup. Drain all zest and fruit slices on a paper towel, pat dry, and shower generously with granulated or coarse sugar (also known ascrystal sugar) before placing in the prepared pan. Allow them to dry out in a low oven (100 to 200°F/38 to 95°C) for about 1 hour or, if possible, in an unheated oven overnight.

Store at room temperature in an airtight, snap-top container for 2 weeks. (In humid conditions, candied citrus may lose its vibrant color, so it is best used within a week or two.)

Candied Grapefruit variation: Substitute grapefruit for the other citrus fruits.

 Susie Norris, Food Market Gypsy, Trevi Fountain, Rome, cookies

Resources:

Food Lovers Guide to the World

Sweet Sicily by Alessandra Dammone

Hand-crafted Candy Bars by Susie Norris

The Oxford Companion ot Sugar and Sweets by Darra Goldstein

Larousse Gartronomique

The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook

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