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A recent trip to Sicily's southeast corner confirmed a suspicion I've had for a while: Sicily does desserts better than anywhere else. They really do.
The pastry shops and bars, bustling with people zipping in for breakfast or a snack, were full of incredible, sweet, colorful delights. There were pastries and cookies of all sorts. Granita served with a huge, fluffy brioche bun. Miniature cassata wrapped in green marzipan.
And those cannoli: empty, crisp, bubbly, deep-brown tubes of flaky, fried pastry waiting to be filled with ricotta, pastry cream, or chocolate. Dipped in chopped pistachios (or sometimes chocolate or candied fruit) and showered in confectioners' sugar, by the time they arrived to the table, they seemed to have doubled in size and I wasn't sure how to even eat them.
I decided to try cannoli everywhere I went—you know, in the name of “research." One was filled with a silky smooth, sage-green pistachio-flavored pastry cream. Another was studded with dark chocolate.
But I loved the simplicity of the crisp, ricotta filled cannolo, dipped on both sides in chopped pistachios, at Caffe dell'Arte in the beautiful baroque town of Modica. It was possibly the best thing we ate all week.
I knew that leaving Sicily meant leaving behind those delicious cannoli, but I figured homemade ones could be nearly as good as those we ate in sunny piazzas next to tables of old men in their black fedora hats, or at bar counters, confectioners' sugar spilling onto our clothes.
Inspired by the Caffe dell'Arte cannoli, I adapted a recipe I found in a Sicilan cookbook by Eleonora Consoli called La Cucina del Sole. It's one of these books that has no pictures and assumes you already know your way around a Sicilian kitchen and have grown up frying cannoli. For those who haven't, frying these pastries can be intimidating, but it's doable and not too tricky if you follow some important tips:
- Investing in a candy thermometer is so handy for good frying results, but if you don't have one, throw a cube of bread into the hot oil to test if it's ready. It should immediately bubble and will brown in about 15 seconds.
- Roll out small portions of dough at a time—so thin that it's nearly transparent—and keep the rest of the dough chilled in the meantime.
- A touch of beaten egg white will help hold the pastry ends together while frying. It's not traditional and expert Sicilian nonnas manage to make these without, but if you find the cannoli are opening during frying, then this will greatly help you.
- You can make both the dough and the filling ahead of time.
- Always fill the cannoli just before you want to serve them.
Note: You will need cannoli tubes—small metallic tubes for rolling the dough around (something like these)—to make this recipe.
Homemade Sicilian Cannoli
Makes about 20 cannoli
For the pastry:
2 1/3 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons (30 grams) granulated sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) melted butter (or, more traditional, lard)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup (70 milliliters) water (or white wine or marsala), or as needed
3 cups (roughly) vegetable oil, for frying
1 egg white (optional)
For the filling:
2 pounds (1 kilogram) fresh ricotta
1 teaspoon (240 grams) sugar
Splash of milk, if needed
Chopped pistachios, dark chocolate, or candied fruit, for decoration (optional)
Confectioners' sugar, for decoration (optional)
Photos by Emiko Davies