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.
Arches at The Vatican Museum, Rome.
Royal Palace of Turino. This was their dining room.
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, amaretti, biscotti, so many more. We pay homage to the monuments of history; we feast our eyes on ruins; we ponder religious imperatives, fashion, Renaissance architecture high and low; we understand the pasta, the prosciutto, the pesto, the tomato sauces, the gelato, the cakes and certainly the cookies as aromatic, time-tested fare.
Despite cannoli’s popularity, biscotti is the most ubiquitous cookie in Italy. It’s name means “twice baked” (which they are today) and early versions accompanied soldiers – the Roman warrior type – because they traveled without spoiling easily. Marching around the country, I wondered how I would ever eat all the biscotti I bought, but now they are sold by the bag – moderation was not an option and it’s not my fault! Some biscotti are designed to dip in espresso, some are designed to dip in wine, some are simply existential.
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 communal dining in the Roman Empire.
Sunday market in Turino near the Piedmont region (think hazelnuts, wine and chocolate).
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.)
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.
Sweet Sicily by Alessandra Dammone
Hand-crafted Candy Bars by Susie Norris