There are many interesting things one should know about the Sicilian cannoli. From the unquestionable fact that it is one of the most famous pastries of Sicilian tradition to its diverse origin legends that attribute the invention of this dessert to the Arabs, the nuns or even the Romans.
However we, at Original Sicily, have gathered for you the 10 most fascinating facts about Cannoli, this well-known Italian dessert:
1. You can't eat one cannoli...even if you want
It’s true that they are too good to eat just one but we say that because the word "cannoli" is plural. From an Italian grammar point of view, one piece of cannoli is called a “cannolo”.
2. Even the shape is sugary – hence its name
The term cannolo comes to us from a diminutive form of canna (a cane-like reed), such as a sugar cane stalk. In medieval times the tubular shell shape was formed by rolling the paste into a flat, circular shape, then wrapping it around a sugar cane stalk.
3. Sweet indulgence coming to life in a harem
According to a legend, cannoli were first made in “Kalt el Nissa” (in Arabic, “Castle of the women”), the modern city of Caltanissetta that hosted the harems of the Saracen emirs under Arab rule in Sicily.
4. The richest flavours coming from the humblest places
According to another story, cannoli were made for the first time in a convent near the same Caltanissetta. To celebrate Carnival, the nuns invented a tubular pastry filled with ricotta cream, chocolate chips and chopped hazelnuts. With an ingredient list that includes lard, cheese, sugar, chocolate, and wine, it's basically the perfect thing to treat yourself with before the fasting season begins.
5. The Carnival and its fertility symbol to be devoured
The cannoli were specifically made for Carnevale. They became a springtime item, because the sheep produce more milk for ricotta in the spring when their grazing pastures are green. This festive season occurs right before lent (six weeks before Easter) and consists of parades and masquerades similar to Mardi Gras. At the time, the cannoli were made to be a fertility symbol of the festivities. Nowadays, the cannoli are enjoyed throughout the year.
6. There is only one true main ingredient for filling
Cannoli are made from simple, yet flavourful, ingredients. The outer shell is simply pastry dough that is made into a tube-like shape and deep fried in oil. The filling is where the cannoli gets most of its flavour. Traditionally cannoli are made with fresh ricotta cheese from sheep's milk. Ricotta from cows' milk has a different - milder - flavour. Mascarpone, a poor substitute which is less tasty but higher in fat, is not recommended.
7. Extras are a whole world of tastes and textures
The cheese is sweetened with sugar or honey and served as is or with other ingredients. Small pieces of candied fruits, particularly lemon, orange, citron and cherry, are sometimes mixed into the cream. Some chefs prefer pistachios or chocolate chips. Marsala wine and even rose water are commonly found in traditional cannoli.
8. The secret ingredient is a splash of wine
We noticed that most cannoli recipes call for a splash of wine (typically marsala) in the dough. Most sources seem to suggest that this is for flavour but might be because cannoli bakers like wine for the same reason many pie bakers like to use vodka or vinegar in their crust. Specifically, it makes the dough pliable enough to roll easily, thereby preventing gluten formation. It also evaporates when cooking, yielding a crispy, flaky shell.
9. Deliciousness is in the details
In theory, the crust should be very thin, and the best pastry makers prepare it that way. Thicker tubes are easier to make and fry. Yes, the crusty shells are deep fried to achieve a crispy result, though nowadays some bakers prefer to bake them in an oven. Some commercial bakers coat the inside of the shells with chocolate. That's because they are filling them with cream hours or even days before serving. Ideally, the tubes should be filled immediately (a few minutes) before serving, and the cream should be cold straight from the fridge.
10. Even quoted in a famous movie!
The most popular Sicilian cannoli can be found at Piana degli Albanesi, in Palermo. They are regarded as the best and true Sicilian cannoli. They are so famous that they were even celebrated in the equally famous movie The Godfather with the unforgettable words: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”.
We bet your mouth is watering right now because mine does since I started writing this piece of article about one of the most exciting Italian desserts. If you want to taste, eat or feast on some amazing Sicilian cannoli I warmly invite you to come to the La Cigale Market (Saturdays) or Howick Market (Sundays) and visit the Original Sicily stall, or buy online now some great cannoli shells.