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Exploring Cannoli: History of the Sicilian Dessert and 7 Fun Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Cannoli originates from Sicily, Italy

Cannoli originates from Sicily, Italy

What Does Sicily Mean to You?

What do you think of when you hear the name Sicily?

  • Perhaps you envision the beautiful beaches with pristine white sands and robin’s egg blue waters. The climate is definitely Mediterranean with short, mild winters and dry hot summers. Sicily, a triangular-shaped island, is surrounded by three seas (the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, the Ionian Sea to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south). Catania, on the east coast, has the most hours of sunshine of any city in Europe
  • My husband, the geologist, thinks of volcanoes. Sicily is home to Mount Etna, the tallest (and most famous) volcano in Europe, but there are nine other volcanoes on the island as well. Etna is the most active (yes, it still rumbles several times each year), but Stromboli and Vulcano are active too.
  • Those who appreciate the arts will know that Teatro Massimo, on the Piazza Verdi in Palermo, is the largest opera house in all of Italy (and it’s featured in The Godfather, Part Three).
  • Speaking of The Godfather, Sicily is where the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, began—a group of men offering protection to their neighbors who were beset by cattle thieves. In time the group devolved into a racketeering business, exacting payment for protection.

When I think of Sicily, I dream of cannoli.

A Brief History of Sicily

It has been said that Sicily is the “gem” at the toe of the boot of Italy. This island region, roughly the same size in square miles as the state of Vermont, is home to five million souls. At the Strait of Messina less than two miles separate Sicily from the mainland. Because of its proximity to an area once considered the crossroads of civilization Sicily has been colonized by numerous empires in the past 12,000 years. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicily was inhabited by numerous other cultures. Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Byzantines each placed their mark on the island nation. The aggressive construction program of the Normans imparted a decided influence on the architecture of the island. But it was the Arab Emirate of Sicily (827-1091 A.D.) that introduced the foods we associate with Sicilian cuisine.

Citrus fruits in a Sicilian fruit stand

Citrus fruits in a Sicilian fruit stand

During their 250-year reign of the island, Arabs introduced many new plants; citrus trees were cultivated on a wide scale. The aroma of their blossoms lingers to this day. Buckwheat, saffron, almonds, and pistachios helped infuse the cuisine of the island with an unmistakable Arab touch; as a result, the foods of Sicily are spicier, sweeter, more adventurous than those of mainland Italy. And these ingredients are found in cannoli.

Requirements for a "Perfect" Cannoli

  • A delicate, tender pastry shell fried perfectly golden; if cooked correctly it should never be oily. The shell should shatter the moment you bite into it.
  • Silky smooth filling, not overly sweet. The taste is slightly tangy from sheep's milk ricotta.

How to Make Cannoli

Authentic Sicilian Cannoli

In the above video Chef Billy Parisi shows us step-by-step how to make perfect, authentic Sicilian cannoli. A list of all the ingredients and written instructions are here.

Lemon Ricotta Cannoli With Pistachio and Pine Nuts

Lemon Ricotta Cannoli With Pistachio and Pine Nuts

Lemon Ricotta Cannoli With Pistachio and Pine Nuts

The Arab influence on Sicilian desserts certainly shines through in these lemon ricotta cannoli with pistachios. This particular style of cannoli comes from Catania, a small village near Bronte where the best pistachios grow.

Read More From Delishably

Healthy Baked Cannoli

Healthy Baked Cannoli

Homemade Baked Cannoli

This baker, the Carb Diva, has a confession to make—I have a fear of frying. Well, actually I'm not afraid of deep-frying, but if given the chance to use a healthier option, that is what I will do. These homemade baked cannoli were created by Rosemary Molloy who a little over 25 years ago left friends, family, and a successful career in Toronto to start a new life in the eternal city of Rome. Only love could make one make such a move. They are still in love, but Rosemary discovered another passion in Italy—the food.

Over the years she has learned the best of authentic Italian cooking and puts her own creative and healthy spin on those dishes. One of those is these beautiful baked cannoli.

Gluten-Free Cannoli Shells

Gluten-Free Cannoli Shells

Gluten-Free Cannoli Shells

My Godson is allergic to gluten, and so I'm always on the lookout for gluten-free options for foods. These gluten-free cannoli shells are made from standard ingredients every GF cook will have in their pantry. They are as crisp and flaky as the "real thing."

Vegan Cannoli

Vegan Cannoli

Vegan Cannoli

Whenever possible, I search for vegan options for my friends who avoid animal products or are allergic to dairy products. Although not "authentic," these vegan cannoli are creamy and crispy. Silken tofu helps create the smooth, rich filling and egg roll wrappers make a delicate crispy shell.

Cannoli Bites

Cannoli Bites

Cannoli Bites

All the flavors of cannoli, in oven-baked treats. Cannoli bites are oven-baked (not fried) and a perfect one-serving size. There are so many ways to decorate these little desserts; pipe a rosette of whipped cream on top, drizzle with chocolate, adorn with mini chocolate chips, or dip the edges of the cups into melted chocolate.

Cannoli Cheesecake

Cannoli Cheesecake

Cannoli Cheesecake

This is not your typical Philly cream cheese cheesecake; the traditional flavors of ricotta, mascarpone, orange, chocolate, and cinnamon are blended in this cannoli cheesecake to create a masterpiece dessert for family and friends.

Keep in mind that making a cheesecake is a labor of love—plan to make this cake the day before you plan to serve it. Chilling in the refrigerator for at least four hours and up to 24 is a must.

Trivia

  • The word cannoli comes from canna, the name of the river reeds originally used to form the pastry cylinders. (Today we use metal tubes).
  • Cannoli is actually the plural form of the Italian word cannoli, but in English, we call one or more cannoli.
  • The largest cannolo weighed 262.5 pounds (holy cannoli!) and was created by the makers of Galbani cheese and the Golden Cannoli Shells Company at the Feast of Little Italy Festival in Jupiter, Florida, on November 9, 2014.
  • June 16 is National Cannoli Day.

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum

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