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Italian Cannoli Dessert for Everyone

2023-01-05   ◆   5 minutes read
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The Italian Cannoli (Cannolo in Italian or Cannolu in Sicilian) is a phallic tube-like dough that is filled with a sweet, creamy filling, and there’s one thing that we can all agree on: it’s delicious. Today’s blog will touch on the different kinds available, the history of this Italian dessert, and the various fillings you can enjoy. And if you stick long enough, you’ll understand the connection between Cannolis and fertility. Keep on reading!

Sicilian Cannoli with traditional fillings topped with candied fruit, chocolate chips and pistachio
Sicilian Cannoli with traditional fillings topped with candied fruit, chocolate chips and pistachio

What is a Cannoli?

The Italian Cannoli dessert is made of three traditional components:

 

  • Rolled-up dough called scorza (“crust” or “peel”) that looks like a bow tie wrap.
  • Fracitura, the creamy filling that has various interpretations nowadays.
  • Toppings (called “guarnizione”) dusted on top with a thin layer of powdered sugar. Some will add on each edge of the Cannoli a slice of candied fruit (like maraschino cherry), chocolate drops, or chopped pistachio/hazelnuts.

Cannoli Shell Dough

The Sicilian dough is made of five key ingredients (some of them are hard to guess). The shell dough is prepared with sugar, eggs, Marsala wine, vinegar and… lard. Yes, lard, as in pig fat! This is actually an essential ingredient. Once the dough is worked and moulded into the iconic tube shell (using special moulds), it is deep-fried into lard. Yes, authentic Cannolis require loads of lard to get the savoury flavour and crunchy texture. Other bakers can opt for vegetable oil, but you’ll miss out on the traditional taste.

 

As the quality of this pastry is judged by the crispiness of the shell and the soft creaminess of the filling, Sicilian bakers will fill up the filling only a few minutes before serving it. Some bakers will cover the inner walls of the shell with a thin chocolate coating, thus shielding the dough from the moisture of the filling.

Stainless Steel Cannoli moulds
Stainless Steel Cannoli moulds (Ateco @ Webstaurant Store)

Cannolo Filling

When it comes to fillings, the classic Sicilian filling requires sheep ricotta cheese (apart from Ragusa). As sheep can find fresh green grass between the month of October to May, most of the sheep Ricotta cheese production is done between autumn and spring. That’s why local Sicilians will prefer eating other Sicilian desserts, like cassata cake (layered sponge cake infused with cream and alcohol), torrone and marzipan during the summertime. 

 

As sheep Ricotta is very hard to find in North America, the filling is generally made of cow ricotta cheese. To make the filling creamy, it is recommended to use 100% whole milk Ricotta cheese. If you use skim milk Ricotta cheese, the filling may separate and become watery, making the pastry shell very soggy. It is important to strain the Ricotta cheese overnight and remove any excess liquid. Some even suggest substituting 50% of the Ricotta cheese portion with Mascarpone cheese or with heavy whipping cream if sheep Ricotta is not available. Adding powdered sugar and mixing it well thickens the filling. The creaminess and the acidic flavour of Ricotta blend perfectly with the sweet sugar. That combination creates an irresistible dessert that will leave you longing for another bite. Sicilians often have one or two Cannoli for lunch—it’s something they just can’t live without.

Venetian Cannoli with vanilla bean custard fillings
Venetian Cannoli with vanilla bean custard fillings (Con Gusto Bakery)

Sicilian vs. Venetian Cannoli Dessert

Another version of this delicious treat comes from Venetia, the area of Venice. The Venetian dessert is slightly different than the Sicilian version. Here are a few distinctions:

 

  • The Venetian shell is in a cylinder shape while the Sicilian shell looks like a bow tie wrap.
  • While the Sicilian dough is deep-fried, the Venetian dough is baked. 
  • The traditional Venetian filling is made of heavy cream cheese mixed with vanilla bean.

Other filling alternatives include chocolate custard, strawberry, caramel, and pistachio fillings. 

Cannoli with pistachio cream and nut filling
Cannoli with pistachio cream and nut filling (Cannoli Queens)

Does Size Matter?

Most Sicilians will accept a minimum size of 14 cm (5.5 inches) as the proper Sicilian Cannoli size. Outside of Sicily, the small version is called Cannolicchio. The Cannolicchio usually is 9 cm long (3.5 inches), but it is not really counted as the actual dessert. For example, the bakers in Piana Degli Albanesi, a town on the hills surrounding Sicily’s capital, Palermo, are proud to offer an 18 cm long dessert. In contrast, in Dattilo (Euro Bar), they offer the longer Italian pastry, in which only the shell is 23 cm, and it does not fit on a regular plate size.

Dattilo Euro bar Cannoli, 23 cm long
Dattilo Euro bar Cannoli, 23 cm long (Trip Advisor)

The Tales Behind The Famous Italian Cannoli

 

According to Italian historians, something very similar to a Cannolo already existed in the Roman period. In 70 BC, in one of Domenicus Caveosanus‘ literary works, the great orator and merchant Marcus Tullius Cicero mentioned a “tubus farinarius, dulcissimo, edulio ex lacte factus” (“A tube prepared with flour and stuffed with a very sweet filling made of milk”).

 

The Italian Cannolis evolved during the Arabs, Bergers and Spanish Muslims (Saracen) times. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Sicily was ruled mainly by Arabs who introduced sugar into the city of Caltanissetta, or “Kalt El Nissa.” This Arabic name translates to “Castle of the women,” rightfully representing the birthplace of Saracen’s harem. Harem was a separate area of a Muslim household in which wives, concubines, and female servants lived. The women, at that time, devoted their entire time to their husbands and cooked up beautiful desserts to please them. And you guessed it, one of the desserts they made was Cannoli! This dessert is believed to be influenced by other Middle Eastern traditional foods such as Zaynab’s/Zainab’s fingers that are filled with nuts or Bourak/Burek/Börek, a phyllo-based egg roll that can be filled with cheese, meat or spinach. 

Asabe Zainab (Zainab's fingers) is traditionally made with cream cheese in Oman
Asabe Zainab (Zainab’s fingers) is traditionally made with cream cheese in Oman (Middle East Eye)

With the Arab’s sovereignty coming to an end, most of the harem left along with them. The remaining women converted to Christianity and brought their infamous Cannoli recipe along with them. Through this conversion of religion, Christian women inherited the recipe from Muslim women. Though the creation of this dessert was limited to the Carnavale period, the Caltanissetta nuns began making the Sicilian pastry all year round.

Sicilian Cannolis with ricotta and dark chocolate chips
Sicilian Cannolis with ricotta and dark chocolate chips (Café les Cousins)

A Symbol of Fertility 

When Cannolis were introduced to nuns, they saw this as the perfect opportunity to serve the dessert during Carnival. So, what is Carnival? It is a pre-Lenten celebration that goes way back to Roman times. It is a festival honours Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek mythology), the god of wine and ecstasy. During this celebration, Christian moral laws were in a grey area, and chaos was everywhere. It was the only time of the year when self-expression and sexual desires let themselves be freely known. Due to the phallic shape, this divine pastry became the visual representation of fertility and life. 

Cannoli filled with Nutella custard, garnished with roasted hazelnuts and icing sugar
Cannoli filled with Nutella custard, garnished with roasted hazelnuts and icing sugar (Italia Bakery)

Ensure High Fertility

With a general fertility rate decline, more people are having difficulties getting pregnant. Of course, age will always come to play in someone’s fertility rate (men & women). Still, there are lifestyle choices that we can make a difference in and improve our chances of having a baby:

  • Eat a healthy diet and maintain a good weight
  • The word “healthy” can implicate so many things since health can look different for everyone. There isn’t a one-for-all answer, but generally, it is advised to implement a balanced diet and regular daily physical activity. This means opting for various vegetables and fruits to get the right amount of antioxidants in your body. Make sure you intake enough carbs and protein to maintain a stable diet. And based on the World Health Organization (WHO), build a workout routine of at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. The best way to incorporate more activity into your lifestyle is by playing sports you enjoy, whether it be walking, biking, swimming, dancing, soccer and so on.

  • Manage your stress
  • Stress and anxiety affect us every day. We encounter these feelings in our work life, academic career, and interpersonal relationships. The key is to manage it correctly, so it doesn’t consume us. There are plenty of ways to keep your stress level under control; it all comes down to what works for you. For example, calming activities like meditation and yoga can be very helpful. Listening to your favourite music may cool you down, and incorporating regular nature walking can be a healing experience. Also, try out activities such as baking, painting, and reading! It’s all about what will help you the most.

  • Reduce your alcohol intake and smoking habits
  • Heavy drinking and smoking lead to damaging health disorders that will decrease the fertility rate. Of course, we’re not here to tell you to stop it completely. Habits aren’t easy to let go of, and it has to be done gradually. If you need help and advice on improving your smoking or drinking habits, please contact your health provider to assist you better.

     

  • Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • It’s always good to be up-to-date on the status of your reproductive health. It’s also a courtesy for your sexual partner(s) to know about your health and share the results with each other. To protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases, it is recommended to reduce the number of sexual partners. Vaccination is highly regarded for preventing hepatitis B and HPV since they are safe and effective. Of course, using condoms is another barrier between getting infected with  STDs and your safety. Practicing safe sex practices will decrease your chances of catching these diseases.

    Now that you are equipped with strategies to maintain a high fertility rate, we want to remind you that there is nothing more romantic than lovers eating Cannolis. This is such an iconic dessert that you can’t ever pass up. We hope you learned a bit more about it. If you’re like us, already craving a Cannoli dessert at this point, use our Dessert Advisor search tool to find Italian Cannoli near you!

    About the author

    DessertAdvisor.com is an organization dedicated to the research of desserts, baked goods, and snacks. The community maintains one of the largest databases of dessert items and dessert places in Canada. 

    With a mission to facilitate foodies’ search for their desired products, the site allows finding locations that dessert items are sold at, enhances knowledge on various treats (i.e., variety, flavours, health benefits, history, origins, etc.), and enables people to enjoy the wealth of life.

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