Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ultimate Cannoli Recipe

Cannoli. The crunch of fried dough. The creamy indulgence of sweetened, whipped ricotta cheese. The occasional bite of chocolate... It's one of my favorite desserts, yet I rarely get to enjoy it. It might seem slightly neurotic, but I simply love it too much to risk having bad cannoli. I guess that's what happens when you grew up spoiled by Nanna always making them for you from scratch.

Out of all of Nanna's dishes, cannoli is perhaps the one that is the most nostalgic for me. She would make them for just about every occasion: Christmas, Easter, graduation parties, summer visits, when company came to town, when my cousin David was home from school sick...

Living four hours away from Nanna, we didn't have as many opportunities to cook together as I would have liked. In spite of this, we did make cannoli together once. I remember the first thing she did that day was take down a large plastic bowl from the top shelf of her pantry. I was struck by the novelty of it -- despite her house feeling like my second home, I had never seen it before. The plastic bowl held dozens of metal tubes; these were the cannoli forms that her older brother, my great Uncle Francis, had made for her years earlier. These forms are what give the cannoli their classic cylindrical shape when deep fried. I've inherited a half-dozen of them. Now, every time I use them, I feel close to her.

In trying to recreate Nanna's recipe for cannoli, I wish I could remember more about the methods I'd witnessed her use that day, but I can't. Instead I remember odd details. For instance, as we made the dough for the shells, I remember finding it strange that white wine was used to help bind it together. I can now appreciate the delicate flavor that it lends to the lightly fried dough, but at the time it just baffled me. I also remember feeling a sense of accomplishment mixed with exuberance as we dropped the dough covered forms into her Fry Daddy and saw cannoli shells emerge from it.

In my attempts to recreate Nanna's cannoli recipe, I have discovered the key to perfecting her cannoli cream, and that's good ricotta cheese. The creamier, the better. Nanna preferred Sorrento brand cheese to others, but homemade is the best.

The shells are a different story. The flavor is there; however, my execution is still... let's just say spotty. It took me a few tries just to figure out the sizing. I'm not sure if all cannoli forms are the same dimension, but for the ones I use, cutting out a 3-inch round worked best. Then, I rolled the circle into an oval a little over 4-inches long. Nanna's recipe doesn't specify how to do any of this. In fact, her recipe lists the ingredients and then has two sentences briefly describing how to assemble the dough. That's it. I guess the rest was just plain ol' know how for her. It's more like trial and error for me.

One of the tricks that I've figured out along the way is using an egg wash to help hold the dough together while the cannoli cook in the hot oil. If you don't, the shells will most likely unravel and turn into tasty puffs of dough, like pictured above. They're still delicious, they're just not cannoli anymore.

On the opposite spectrum of having your cannoli fall part is the problem of stickage. The dough has a tendency to cement itself to the forms post-frying. This can lead to fissures or even full-on breakage when removing the shells from their forms. Thankfully, I've now realized the key to preventing the shells from sticking or cracking -- remove the cannoli shells from their forms while the metal is still too hot to touch. Use a clean tea towel, a pot holder, tongs, or some combination of those three to do this.

Even though my execution is not up to Nanna's level yet, I think I'm on my way to getting there. Maybe I will enjoy cannoli on a more regular basis now that I can make it for myself. Yes, it takes a bit of work, but it's a fabulous recipe. One that is well worth all the effort.

Nanna's Cannoli

A note on equipment: I know the vast majority of you didn't inherit cannoli forms that were made by a kind great uncle. So, you have a few options:
(1) You can purchase metal cannoli forms from a specialty kitchen store or order them online.
(2) If you are hesitant to make this investment, buy cannelloni shells from your local supermarket and use the uncooked pasta shells as temporary forms.
(3) Or, if you feel like you don't have the time to make the shells, you can also purchase cannoli shells from a local grocery store or bakery and then fill them with homemade cream.

For the shells (makes about 25)

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 stick of cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 egg
white wine or extra dry vermouth as needed
a neutral oil for frying, such as peanut or vegetable
egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water)

1. Mix together flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Using your finger tips, quickly rub the butter into the flour mixture until you get the consistency of coarse, wet sand. Thoroughly mix in the egg. Slowly add splashes of wine until the dough comes together. [Note: I ended up using nearly 1/2 cup, but depending on the humidity of your kitchen, you might need much less; just go slowly.]

2. Once the dough has enough moisture, knead it together for about 2 minutes to give it a smooth and elastic finish. Roll the dough into a ball and cover tightly with plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

3. After the dough has rested in the refrigerator, fill a large, heavy-bottomed pot with about 2-3 inches of oil. Attach a fry thermometer and bring the oil up to 370° F.

4. In the mean time, while the oil is heating, divide the chilled dough in half. Keep the remaining dough covered while you work. Flatten the dough into a disc, and then roll it out until very thin, about 1/2 a centimeter. [Note: Some people use a pasta roller for this; feel free to experiment with that method, but I find that this cannoli dough is very easy to work with by hand.]

5. Cut out 3-inch circles from the dough. [I use a juice glass.] Then, roll the circles into ovals about 4-inches in length. Do this is by rolling it two different times. Start by placing your pin in the middle of the circle. Roll the pin towards yourself in a quick but firm motion. Then replace the pin back in the center. This time roll it away from yourself in the same quick yet firm manner. This should produce an even oval. Repeat this process with the remaining dough.

6. Once you have made all your ovals, wrap them around the cannoli forms. Where the edges over lap, press down firmly, and then carefully brush some of the egg wash over the seam. Be sure not to get the egg wash on the form itself -- you don't want to "glue" the shell to the form!

7. Drop the cannoli into the 370° oil in batches of 3 or 4 at a time. Do not overcrowd the pan -- you don't want the oil to drop below 350°. Turn the cannoli every so often so that they brown evenly. After roughly 3 minutes, the cannoli should be golden brown, which means they are done. Using a wire-mesh spider or slotted spoon, carefully remove the cannoli to a cookie sheet that is lined with paper towels.

8. While still hot, grasp the metal cannoli form with a clean, dry tea towel. Using your other hand, carefully slide the cannoli shell off the form; a slight twisting motion might assist in this process. You can also protect the hand touching the cannoli shell itself with another clean tea towel. Once freed from their forms, place the cannoli shells back on the paper towels to drain. [Note: If the cannoli shell is white on the inside, that most likely means your oil is a bit too hot and your cannoli shells are frying too fast.]

9. Repeat this process for the remaining dough. Allow the hot forms to cool completely before re-wrapping them in dough.

Note: Finished shells can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week. Or freeze them for a month.

For the filling

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup of cornstarch, sifted
1 cup whole milk
1 pound whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup semisweet miniature chocolate chips
2 tablespoons chopped pistachio nuts, optional
powered sugar, optional

1. In a saucepan, mix together sugar and cornstarch. Over medium heat, blend in the milk and cook until thickened, whisking the mixture often. Cook one minute more, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and cover with wax paper. Cool without stirring, about 30 minutes.

2. With a mixer, beat the cornstarch pudding until creamy. Then beat in the ricotta and vanilla. When the mixture is smooth, stir in the chocolate. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.

3. When ready to serve, fill the cannoli shells with the cream using a spoon or a piping bag. Dip ends into chopped pistachio nuts if desired. Dust with powered sugar and serve immediately.

Note: Cannoli is best when filled immediately prior to consumption. The longer the filling stays in the shell, the less crispy the shell will be. I've filled the cannoli shells up to a few hours ahead of time with no adverse affects.

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