In The Godfather one of the most celebrated lines is “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The line implies that even tough Sicilians who have just committed murder are not about to forget this famous dessert, originating in Sicily over 1,000 years ago. Murder is fortunately not a prerequisite to getting good cannoli, often incorrectly called “cannolis” by people in the US. Italian American bakeries showcase this pastry in all seasons, not just as a Carnivale dessert, which history suggests was the inspiration for it.
A singe cannoli is called a cannolo, meaning “tube,” but many cannot eat just one of these amazing pastries; hence the plural term is heard more often. They are actually a fairly simple dessert, and though called sweet by Sicilians, most Americans find them not overly sweet. It is a tube-shaped pastry, open ended on each side, that is quickly fried, cooled and then filled with lightly sweetened ricotta or mascarpone cheese.
Bakers often add additions to the filling like pieces of citron, tiny chocolate chips, or candied cherries at either end of the pastry. Less commonly pistachios may be chopped and used. In Sicily, cannoli filling might be flavored with Marsala wine, vanilla extract or rosewater. In the US, vanilla extract is used most, but you can find the occasional Marsala wine flavored cannoli in very traditional Italian bakeries or restaurants. Whole ones are often decadently sprinkled with powdered sugar.
You can find cannoli in Italian American bakeries, particularly in major cities. In Sicily, where the dessert is revered, they can come in numerous sizes. A popular version is finger length and width, called cannulicchi. Most often in the US, they are about 1 inch (2.54 cm) wide, and about 2-3 inches (5.08-7.62) long.
Eating cannoli is almost as much art as preparing them. It’s best to eat them almost immediately after the shells are cooled and filled. One of the worst culinary disappointments is soggy cannoli, which has sat too long before someone has a chance to serve or eat them. The fried pastry dough does not remain crisp, especially when filled, for more than a day. Refrigeration, essential because of the cheese filling, can sometimes help retain the crispness of the outer shell.
If you’d like to prepare cannoli, recipes abound on the Internet and in Sicilian cookbooks. A common cheat is to purchase pre-made shells at Italian stores or delis. The end result will not be the blend of crispy and creamy (perhaps the original crispy cream dessert) since the pre-made shells don’t retain as much crispness. You should also inspect packages of pre-made shells since they are delicate and often break. Either ricotta or mascarpone cheese are considered acceptable and traditional bases for filling. Mascarpone is a little creamier and blends easier than ricotta, but may be more difficult to find.
When preparing cannoli filling, be wary of recipes that call for a lot of sugar. Traditional filling is not very sweet, particularly to American taste buds. You should be able to taste the cheese and flavoring more than simply tasting something resembling cream cheese icing.