Cannoli siciliani

“I can do it.   Just not yet.”

These words were uttered this week by a friend, in reference to the progress he is making in his tennis game.  What a fabulous concept!  Cara decided immediately that she is going to borrow that phrase, frequently.  “Of course I can do it…just not yet.”   Think of all the mileage one can get out of this statement!

Cooking and baking is sometimes like that. On occasion, we take on something difficult. We embark upon a new culinary endeavor, without knowing whether we will get it right. We accept failure and learn from our mistakes in order to acquire a new skill. Recently, we were unexpectedly put to the test in the kitchen. With perseverance and a bit of luck, the results were delicious.

It all started when a colleague said jokingly to Cara, “Come on…when are you going to make us some authentic cannoli?”   The discussion that ensued led to the revelation that years ago, it was because of cannoli that this colleague won the love of the woman who is now his wife.  It’s too long a story to tell here, but in short, he validated this woman’s desire to scour New York City in search of the best cannoli, while another man, his competitor for her heart, saw it as a complete hassle.

The challenge was on.  Could we make cannoli that would take him back in time to that day in Manhattan?  The first step was to find good quality ricotta.  Although sadly lamb’s milk ricotta, which would be preferable, is no longer available in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we are able to get some good quality cow’s milk ricotta.  the next challenge was to locate cannoli shells.  We were hoping to find small-sized shells in order to make petite cannoli, since a full-sized cannolo is quite abundant and rich.  However, we could not find any locally.  We did find Alessi brand regular sized cannoli shells, but they are a bit costly and we needed a lot of them.

“I wonder if we could make our own cannoli shells.”  In our collection of Italian cookbooks, there were several recipes.  It didn’t look too hard, and it really was our only option.  We would need cannoli forms, which we found.  On a Saturday evening we worked late into the night, Stefano rolling out the dough and cutting it into squares, and Cara wrapping the dough around the cannoli forms and frying the shells to perfection.  At first, the dough was too thick, and the shells came out thick and gummy.  Stefano rolled the dough thinner and thinner until they were perfect.  Taking only a few seconds to cook in the hot oil, they came out light and crisp.  By midnight, we’d made about 50 shells.

The next challenge we encountered was finding candied orange peel for the filling.
The woman at one of our favorite grocery stores told me that here in the midwest, it is available only during the holiday fruit-cake season.  Not to be discouraged, we decided that if we can make our own cannoli shells, we can certainly make our own candied orange peel!  Stefano took this task on, and it came out perfectly.  It’s a cinch – never again will we buy candied orange peel.

When all was done, we had 4 dozen of the most delicious cannoli, and we were quite proud of our accomplishment!  Stefano posted on Facebook that he must have married a Sicilian.

Ingredients for 2 dozen cannoli
For the Cannoli Shells
You can purchase ready made cannoli shells from Alessi, or make your own:
200 grams (just over 1 and 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
20 grams (about 1 and 1/2 tablespoon) butter
20 grams (about 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons) sugar
1/2 teaspoon bitter cocoa powder
2 shot glasses (1/2 cup) sweet Marsala
Sufficient peanut oil to fill a medium-sized saucepan 10 cem (4 inches) high.
2 eggs, beaten
Powdered sugar for dusting
You will also need a few wire cooling racks, abundant paper-towl, and cannoli forms.

For the Filling
Find the best fresh ricotta you can.  Lamb’s milk ricotta is ideal, but whole cow’s milk ricotta will work just fine.  Avoid the supermarket tubs and seek out a good cheese shop or Italian deli.
500 grams (slightly over one pound) whole milk ricotta
300 grams (approximately 1 and 1/2 cups) sugar
150 grams (approximately 1 cup) dark chocolate, grated or ground to a powder
The candied peel of 2 oranges (approx. 4 tablespoons), finely chopped – see recipe below  to make your own
15 grams (1/2 ounce or 1 tablespoon) pure orange extract

For Decoration
One jar of maraschino cherries, drained well and halved or quartered.
A few more tablespoons grated or ground dark chocolate

Directions
For the Cannoli Shells
Mix together the flour, butter, sugar, cocoa and Marsala until it forms a smooth dough.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  Pour the peanut oil into a medium sized saucepan, ensuring that the oil is about 10 cm or 4 inches deep, and heat the oil until sizzling, but do not let it reach a smoking point.

On a well floured work surface, roll out pieces of dough into long, rectangular strip about 2 mm or 1/16 inch thick.  Cut the dough into squares.  The diagonal of each square should be equal to the length of the cannolo form.  Wrap a square of dough diagonally around the cannolo form, so that two corners of dough meet at the top in the center of the form.  Dip your finger in beaten egg and seal the two corners together.  Using a set of kitchen prongs, carefully set the cannolo shell into the hot oil, turn quickly and remove it to a paper-towel coated drying rack once it achieves a medium brown color.

Once the shells are cool, roll them in a shallow plate full of powdered sugar, and brush the excess off.  Set aside to be filled.

Tips: We prepared four cannolo shells at a time and fried two shells at once, which worked well.  It only took a few seconds for them to cook.  Be careful to drain the hot oil out of the center of the cannolo form as you remove it from the oil.  Use paper towels to quickly slide the fried shells off of the forms.

To Make Your Own Candied Orange Peel
Choose two oranges with relatively thick peel.  Remove the peel and cut into thin slices.  Place the peel in a saucepan and cover with water.  Bring the water to a boil, and let boil for 2 minutes.  Leave the orange peel in the water and allow it all to cool.  Toss out the water, and repeat this process two more times in order to draw the bitter flavors out of the peel.

Remove the orange peel and weight it.  Add the same amount of water and the same amount of sugar to the saucepan.  For example, if your orange peel weighs 100 grams, then add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of sugar.  Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and it becomes a sugar syrup.  Add the orange peel and allow it to cook at a low boil until the syrup cooks away.  Be careful to not allow it to caramelize.

Dust a piece wax paper with an abundant amount of sugar (superfine baking sugar works very nicely) and place the candied orange peel on top to cool.

For the Filling

In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon to mix the ricotta, sugar, dark chocolate, candied orange peel and orange extract.  Use a pastry bag and a tip with a wide opening to fill the shells.  Fill the shell from the middle out one side, and then turn the shell and fill from the middle out the other side.  Dip each end of the cannoli in  shaved or ground dark chocolate and poke in a small piece of maraschino cherry.

Your cannoli shells will absorb moisture from the ricotta, so they are best eaten as soon after filling as possible.  They will keep several days in the refrigerator, but your shells will soften a bit.

La granita di caffè e la granita di ciliegie

Have you ever entirely forgotten about a food, for years even, until suddenly something reminds you of it and you just have to have it?  A recent LA Times food article on granita had us craving that icy treat for a days.

Granita is the most humble Italian frozen dessertUnlike gelato, it is made with no cream.  Different from sorbetto, which is smooth and soft, granita has a rustic, granular texture as a result of larger, coarser ice crystals.  It is an unpretentious dessert that originates in Sicily, where locals have it for breakfast on hot summer days.  Outside of Italy, granita is often called “Italian ice,” although the products bearing that name neither resemble nor do justice to an authentic granita.

The Times did a nice write up on this gem of a dessert, with recipes and photos for a variety of granite, from traditional cherry to more unusual flavors like green tea and cucumber (Yes, cucumber.  People, please. Cucumbers are good in salads, not in your dessert.)  They didn’t mention what may be Italy’s most famous granita, though, granita di caffè.  We couldn’t keep our minds off of it.

A little online research later – honestly, what did we do before the internet? – and we found this expert post on granita di caffé, on a delightful blog called Memorie di Angelina.  Here, we read about making sugar syrup, an essential to a properly prepared granita, and we borrowed the tip about freezing the granita in a bread pan.

We made granita di caffè for the adults, and granita di ciliegie, or cherry granita, for the kids, topping each one with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.  It made for a delightful weekend!

Ingredients for sugar syrup
Sugar and water, in equal parts.

Ingredients for granita di caffè
2 cups strong, dense espresso
Sugar syrup to taste

Ingredients for granita di ciliegie
1 lb. fresh, pitted cherries
Sugar syrup to taste
Optional: 2 tsp. almond extract
Optional: 2 Tbsp. orange-flavored liquor, such as Cointreau

Directions
For the sugar syrup
Mix equal parts sugar and water in a sauce pan.  We made the syrup with 2 cups sugar and 2 cups of water, and had more than we needed for both of the granite.  Cook the liquid over medium high heat until it comes to a boil.  Reduce heat, simmer for 5 minutes, and then remove from heat and allow it to cool completely.

For the granita di caffè
Prepare 2 cups of strong, dense espresso and pour it into a pan that can go into the freezer.  As we mentioned above, we used a bread pan.  Add sugar syrup gradually until your mixture reaches the sweetness you prefer.

For the granita di ciliegie
Wash the cherries, and remove their pits and stems.  Chop the cherries finely in a food processor, and place them into a pan.  Mix sugar syrup into the cherries to taste.  If you’d like, you can add a few teaspoons of almond extract, or a few tablespoons liquor such as Cointreau, or both.

Freezing granita
Place the pans of granita into the freezer uncovered.  Check on your granita every half-hour or hour, depending on the depth of the pan you used.  As it freezes, ice crystals will form around the edges of the pan.  Each time you check on the granita, stir the mixture, breaking up the icy edges.  Gradually, your granita will become thicker and slushier.  When it reaches a soft, solid consistency, it is ready.  This may take a few hours, again depending on the depth of your pan.

As long as you have been stirring periodically, you can allow the mixture to freeze solid.   Before serving, allow it to thaw for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time until the granita reaches the correct consistency.  You may lose some of the icy, crystalline texture, but if you are entertaining this is a more reliable method from a timing standpoint.

Serve with whipped cream and dessert spoons.