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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.

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Thin Mint Julep

Thin mint julep

This beyond-awesome illustration courtesy of graphic designer and cocktail blogger Dr. Bamboo.

Do I really need to break down where the inspiration for this cocktail came from? Fine, okay, I was eating Thin Mint cookies while drinking bourbon. Oh, like you haven’t.

Anyway, this is a drink recipe that practically writes itself. After all, if my cocktail math is right:

  • Mint + bourbon = mint julep = yum
  • Mint + chocolate = Thin Mint cookie = yum
  • Chocolate + bourbon = just plain old yum

So, applying the law of conservation or whatever, that’s, like, yum cubed. I may be wrong on that, since they didn’t teach cocktail math in my high school, which is just one more reason why I don’t need to relive those years.

My first attempt at building this recipe involved making my own chocolate liqueur, made with a mint-infused simple syrup, and muddling mint leaves in the glass. The end result was fine, if rather … subtle. But sometimes subtle is highly overrated. I mean, this is a cocktail modeled after a Girl Scout cookie, fercryinoutloud. Do you think they sell hundreds of thousands of boxes of cookies with subliminal advertising and gentle hints? No, they cast their doe eyes on you and beat you over the head with their cuteness. Subtle ain’t exactly the name of the game.

I knew this much; I wanted the drink to have a rich chocolate base and a clean peppermint high note. Casting artisanal ingredients and techniques out the window, I went straight for the peppermint schnapps — which our local booze store doesn’t even stock, it’s so lowbrow. I also invested in some crème de cacao, but opted for the good stuff since that’s something that might actually have an application in a future drink. (For the record, as far as I can tell, there is no “good stuff” when it comes to peppermint hooch.) Et voilà — one of America’s favorite cookies in cocktail form. Bottoms up!

So promise me this: When this gets picked up and becomes the hottest girl drink of 2009 and is sold prefab in bottles and poured directly from spigots and is converted into one of those frozen slushie cocktails served from a churning machine, remember that you read it here first. Scout’s honor?

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City Bakery

When one trusted source refers you to a place when you’re visiting New York, you put it on the list. When two do it, you make it an imperative. When it happens to be two blocks from your office, you go twice. Such was the case for City Bakery.

I was made aware of City Bakery by newfound friend (by way of David, with whom I just dined at Tía Pol) Thomas Locke Hobbes. A Bay Area native but longtime New York resident (and now transplant back to his hometown), Thomas advised that City Bakery produced the best chocolate chip cookies. Ever. And then the always engaging and informative Shuna commented that I simply must go there for the pretzel croissant. As far as I know they are not in cahoots with each other, or the bakery.

So. Pretzel croissant, eh?

Pretzelcroissant

Ho yeah. Explosively flaky on the surface and fluffy soft on the inside. Big time buttery yet never greasy or dense. And just salty enough to highlight the sweetness of the dough. This is a very dangerous thing indeed.

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Rosette (Anginetti)

EastercookiesBesides the obligatory pizzelle and cannoli, no Easter is complete without rosette, shown here with the pizzelle and the traditional Peeps, a little-known Italian delicacy. These knot-shaped cookies are lightly sweet, somewhat bready in texture and iced with a simple glaze. A drop of food coloring makes for pretty pastel colors to enhance the Easter flavor.

This year, my aunt found an alternative recipe in, of all places, Entertaining with the Sopranos. Previously, she was using a recipe that called for ricotta, which makes for a moister cookie, with occasional clumps of ricotta in the cookie itself. The new recipe, called anginetti in the cookbook, is dried and breadier, which is evidently closer to the original cookie that my great-grandmother used to make. I’ll include both recipes (after the jump).

Which one is better? The jury’s still out. I think I’ll have to make a few batches of each before I decide.

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Pizzelle and cannoli abruzzesi

Cannoli2Everyone loves cannoli, don’t they? The traditional cannolo siciliano is comprised of a crispy, fried tube filled with a sweetened ricotta filling, often with chocolate chips or candied citrus rind. In my family, we make the tubes from pizzelle — crisp, wafer-thin cookies that you make on a waffle-like iron. (These are becoming increasingly available, and you can order one from Sur La Table.) In fact, while pizzelle (pron. peet-ZEHL in our dialectic) are popular all over Italy, they are believed to have originated in Salle, the town in Abruzzo where one branch of my family originated.

Pizzelle are normally flat, sometimes eaten with a dusting of powdered sugar; you can even find them in most grocery stores these days. However, they are pliable fresh off the iron, and can be molded into tubes, cones or cups before cooling and setting. They set within seconds, and it’s a short window between skin-blistering volcanic heat and crumbling cookie. You will burn your fingertips a little, but you will live, and it’s worth it. Recipe and, yes, pics after the jump.

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