Last Friday I tempted you with some of Italy’s Sweet Treats for Carnevale. But don’t worry if you missed the Carnival celebrations in bella Italia this year. Italy has an endless selection of delightful desserts you can enjoy any time of the year. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at the fun stories behind some of the most popular traditional Italian desserts. This week, let’s start with one that was originally prepared only for Carnevale—just like chiacchiere and castagnole are today—but has since become one of Italy’s most famous desserts. Known (and enjoyed!) around the world, we are—of course—talking about the divine cannoli siciliani (Sicilian Cannoli).
The Sicilians have used their unique and vibrant touch to create some of the most beautiful and extravagant desserts in Italy. But the king of all of the island’s delectable desserts is surely cannoli, crunchy fried pastry tubes open on each end and traditionally filled with sweet fresh ricotta cheese and a mixture of chocolate and candied fruit pieces. Although most people around the world—particularly in America—call a single tube “a cannoli,” only one of these treats is actually called a cannolo – a name that refers to the tube shape of the pastry. The linguistic corruption is easy to justify, though. After all, who can just eat only one!?!
The origin of cannoli is now covered by a haze. (Or is that powdered sugar?) Food historians suggest it was probably first made in a now forgotten convent or monastery near Palermo during the period of Arab rule of Sicily. We do know that they were originally a sweet prepared during Carnevale. There are even stories that suggest—in keeping with the practical jokes and festive spirit of Carnevale—a cannolo would sometimes be stuffed with something unpleasant inside and covered with cream on both ends as normal. The unsuspecting victim would bite into the scrumptious looking cannolo to find the surprise inside!
Whatever the true story may be, cannoli have long since lost their connection to Carnevale, and can now be enjoyed throughout the year. This is, of course, good news for cannoli lovers traveling to Sicily and Italy! You will find them in a variety of sizes, from the tiny cannulicchi or cannolicchi (no bigger than a finger) to cannoli of gigantic proportions made near Piana degli Albanesi near Palermo. Every year this town hosts the Sagra del Cannolo (Festival of the Cannolo) from January to February, which carries on the tradition of celebrating Carnevale with cannoli. What a perfect opportunity to indulge in true cannoli siciliani!
Although most people around the world—particularly in America—call a single tube “a cannoli,” only one of these treats is actually called a cannolo – a name that refers to the tube shape of the pastry. The linguistic corruption is easy to justify, though. After all, who can just eat only one!?!
Traveling around Sicily you’ll find countless different regional and family variations on the classic cannoli filling. Some bakers will add little bits of chocolate or different types of candied fruits. Sometimes you’ll find bright red candied cherries decorating each end, which is a typical decoration in Palermo, while in the eastern part of the island you might find the bright green of chopped pistachios from the town of Bronte sprinkled on each end. Cannoli shells are even sometimes dipped in chocolate before being filled. In Sicily the filling is flavored with vanilla extract or sometimes with Marsala wine, and the final touch is the dusting of powdered sugar.
Cannoli are one of the staples of the Italian-American household and, like so many things, everyone remembers Grandma’s cannoli as the best. The dessert has even more variations in America, although the cannoli you’ll find in most Italian-American bakeries are still commonly filled with the traditional sweetened ricotta. Sometimes you’ll also find mascarpone cheese or a sweet custard in place of the ricotta, though. Vanilla is the most common flavoring, but it’s still possible to track down a good cannolo made with a touch of Marsala at a traditional bakery. Just as in Sicily, you’ll find candied cherries and citrus peel, pistachios and chocolate pieces decorating the tops of the cannoli.
Now that I’ve got you heading to the nearest pasticceria or bakery, don’t forget to stop back by The italyMONDO! Blog next Friday as we travel from Sicily up the coast of Italy to Naples where we’ll discover the traditional Babà Napoletano.
Would you like to taste true Sicilian cannoli and find your family in Sicily? Contact us and find out how italyMONDO! can help you discover your roots in Italy and create a vacation of a lifetime for you and your family!