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Cannoli, an unexpected family secret

Cannoli ©DPaul Brown

Every holiday has its food. Easter of course means ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheap chocolate and Peeps, but for me it also means cannoli.

The other day, we were cocktailing with our friend Michael, a fellow paisano albeit of Sicilian extraction. I mentioned I wanted to revisit my post on cannoli from a few years back. Michael said in his family they called them Aunt Mary Cookies, for fairly self-evident reasons, and lamented how much of a pain the shells were to make — getting the dough thin enough, frying them off, and so on. I mentioned that in my family, we didn’t do the fried shells, but used pizzelle and rolled them while still hot and pliable. “Yes, well, that’s cheating,” he said, to which I rebuffed, half-feigning indignity: “It’s not cheating, Michael, it’s regional.” But as soon as the words spilled from my mouth, I was suddenly filled with doubt.

So, yes, the cannoli I grew up with are made with pizzelle, the delicate, rose-window-patterned cookies, rolled into tubes. I blindly assumed that this was derived from some old-world tradition carried over from one of my forebears from the motherland. But I was also aware that I have never known anyone else to make their cannoli in this fashion.

When I mentioned to my mother that I was making a batch, she remarked that her grandmother didn’t use pizzelle; she had a curling iron-like device with which she wrapped dough around and dipped into frying oil. Somehow, this detail had eluded me for four decades. When I asked her how our family came by the tradition of using the pizzelle, she said she didn’t know. After Great-Grandma Battaglia passed in the 1960s, the cookies seem to have dropped out of our culinary tradition for a bit, then magically reappeared with this new technique. 

I then went on to ask my Aunt Barb, my mother’s younger sister, who has long taken an interest in the family recipes, desserts in particular. She was also unsure where the pizzelle came in, though she in fact didn’t even remember her grandmother making the fried shells; she was rather young when Grandma Battaglia passed away. But she noted that Aunt Chris may have been the source of the recipe.

Aunt Chris is my mother’s sister-in-law. Of French and Irish descent, she married my Uncle Joe in the late ’60s, and right away took to adopting the family recipes to please him. I called her and asked who provided the cannoli recipe. She flipped through her recipe folio, and found the original recipe for the filling … which in fact came from her neighbor Ida Iovanella. As for the shells, she surmised that at the time she was not versed in frying, and came up with the idea to use pizzelle instead. In other words, it sort of was cheating.

But if it is a cheat, it’s a damn good one. For me and the other kids of my generation, this was the only cannoli we ever knew. My cousin Nicolle and I both prefer this version to the traditional fried shells. Plus it’s easier and a lot less messy to boot. It’s a tradition, no matter how recent, I think is worth carrying on.


candied orange peel ©DPaul Brown;

You know how I feel about oranges, right? Yeah, well, we had some navels and Mineolas courtesy of our CSA, so I took it upon myself to peel them and candy the rinds using this recipe. They made a nice addition to the filling, and I found them surprisingly addictive — so much so that when I took the extras in to work, several of us (myself included) gave ourselves sugar headaches from nomming on them. And now, we have about 500 ml of orange-infused syrup for whatever purpose comes to mind.

Cannoli

You’ll need a pizzelle iron for this. Sure, it’s a unitasker, but it’s not so expensive, and just think of all the cannoli you’ll make for years to come.

For the shells:

3 eggs
1-3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. butter (1/4 lb.), melted and cooled
2 tsp
baking powder
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp anise extract (alternatives: almond
or lemon extract)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat eggs and sugar together until smooth. Add cooled melted butter
and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder together and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by spoon. Batter can be refrigerated to be
used at a later time. Makes 30 pizzelle.

To make the pizzelle, drop one tablespoon of batter just behind the center of each side of the iron. Slowly lower the lid, allowing the batter to spread. Cook approximately 30 seconds to a minute, until the batter is just beginning to color; it will continue to brown as it sets. Some of your pizzelle will not be perfectly centered on the pattern, and you may end up with excess around the edges. That’s OK — you can break off those bits later (and eat them).

As soon as they come off the iron, select the larger, more perfect ones and immediately begin to roll them gently with your fingertips. Don’t use too much pressure — you just want to make the opposite edges overlap by a half inch or so. Hold in place just until they’ve set enough not to open themselves up. You can set them seam-side down with a fork resting on top as well.

Cannoli shells ©DPaul Brown

The pizzelle and cannoli shells can be made at least a day ahead; they hold up pretty well in a sealed but not quite airtight container.

For the filling:

2 lb ricotta cheese
1-1/2 c. of unsifted powdered sugar
4 tsp vanilla

Optional additions:

1/4 c. candied citron or orange peel
1/4 c. chopped walnuts or pistachios
1/4 c. chopped dark chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger 70%)

Drain ricotta in a fine sieve if watery. Blend ricotta cheese in blender until smooth. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, and fold in additions if desired. Chill at least overnight; two days is better, and you may still want to set the filling in the freezer a bit before using.

Spoon filling into shells. Alternatively, pipe in with piping back or a zip-top bag with the corner clipped off. Serve immediately.

Related:

Farrah of My KitchenAid Mixer & Me also rolls pizzelle for cannoli shells, so we’re not alone in this practice.

The King Arthur Flour blog serves up some two-tone pizzelle with panache!

Susan at Food Blogga has some interesting history on the pizzelle.

Cannoli on FoodistaCannoli

  • Having tasted your version, I like them just as much as the traditional fried ones. And I love not having to mess up the entire kitchen. 🙂

  • Mom

    Hey Sean, nice post. I wanted to remind you that you and I once tried to make the two-tone pizzelle but weren’t as successful as the ones in the King Arthur Flour Blog. I think we were trying to make them come out with a swirl pattern. Not an easy task.

  • I totally forgot about that! I think the trick must be to swirl the batters together before dropping them on the iron. I'll have to give that a try.

  • I am so delighted you decided to blog about this and will be whipping out my own pizelle iron and give it a go,
    I would like to point out that only my paternal grandmother’s family is Sicilian. My grandfather’s family was from Calabria. In fact, his grandmother was the daughter of a duke, albeit one who was all title and no money (please refer to the not-much-cared-about Bizet mini-opera Don Procopio), so unfortunately I have no ducal bric-a-brac to point to or even to use in my own, damned kitchen. Such is the sad life of a five-times removed aristocrat.
    Loving the candied orange and pistachios. Again, we are totally on the same page.

  • Michael, I had no idea you were also Calabrese. I don't think we have any aristocratic roots, though — my mother's father's parents were the Calabrese, with the surname Pecora — which translates to "sheep." I suspect they were shepherds. Hm, perhaps I should make some sheep's milk ricotta to fill the cannoli with as an homage to our mutual roots.

  • Wonderful post Sean! If I ever attempt to make cannoli (my post will probably revolve around a Sophia story though), this is the recipe I’ll come back to.

  • I’ve eaten pizzelles as cookies, but never used as a vehicle for cannoli- excellent idea!

  • How did you know that I NEED candied oranges in my life right now when I didn’t even know. I once took a weekend trip to Boston entirely to eat cannoli. I did other things to cover up that fact, perhaps even to myself, but it’s true. It was worth it.

  • For some reason (not health-related, I swear), I think I would love these even more than regular cannoli. But I need cinnamon in my filling 🙂

  • You don't want to know the lengths I'd go to for cannoli …

  • I'd bet that cinnamon appears in the traditional Sicilian version, since their cuisine is so inflected with other cultures. I think the Iovanellos were Abruzzesi like us.

  • Mona

    Yes cinnamon is used, at least in all the recipes and cannoli I have ate, its so good for you,lol so as you eat them, well you have infused them with properties that are good for you, not to mention, just a blessed feeling from eating a piece of heaven. At least is how I view my pleasures!!

  • “…ducal bric-brac…” is my new favorite phrase. Not sure how exactly I will implement it, though.
    These are so pretty! I almost prefer them to the “real” shell. The candied orange is a nice touch.