By John DeMers
Getting a few thousand Sicilian Americans mad at me is probably not the brightest thing I’ve ever done. Yet the fact is, I never cared much about cannoli from Italian bakeries in Little Italys all across America. Cannoli (the word is plural) were okay, but not special enough to justify the calories.
It was only when I stepped off a ship in the Sicilian port town of Messina that I let my youngest daughter talk me into walking in search of cannoli. And it was only when I tasted true Sicilian cannoli, made to order in a pastry kitchen downstairs from where we sat, that I realized what I had been missing all along. I will never say nasty things about cannoli again.
The way most of us know cannoli is as a pastry-shop takeout dessert, several pieces large or small piled into a decorative box and tied with a string. In fact, that’s the visual of cannoli when it was “ready for its close-up” in The Godfather, thus adding the post-Mafia-rubout instruction “Drop the gun, take the cannoli” to America’s pop vocabulary.
All the same, it’s clear what happens in the film, as well as in a million other occurrences. Cannoli are made by stuffing a tube of fried pastry with a sweetened filling of flavored ricotta cheese. Over the hours the cannoli sit in that box, the filling merges into the pastry, becoming what I always knew as only okay. The experience of stopping for cannoli in Sicily is entirely different.
In our case, we were shown to a table and ordered some coffee. In my broken Italian, I made sure the place really had cannoli, since none was anywhere to be seen. The manager went back to his podium, picked up the phone and launched into a long, highly emotional conversation with the person at the other end. I went over to him again, and tried again to confirm, possibly asking “How big is the red pencil box?” – my Italian is that fluent. I gathered that our cannoli were being created then and there, and that this happened down in the basement, and that he would bring our treat to us very, very soon.
That he did. And since it had been filled only moments before, the pastry and the filling were still distinct, the filling creamy and lush, the pastry the very definition of crisp. It was clear to me, as I waxed eloquent (in English this time) about how amazing these cannoli were, that the dramatic textural contrast was the thing I’d been missing all along.
Like so many things in Sicily, cannoli are part of the legacy of Arab conquest and occupation, the latter lasting from 827 to 1091. Who knows, there might have been an old Arab saying, “Drop the scimitar, take the cannoli.”
As many Italian American families understand, you can’t get more Sicilian than lemons and figs. Indeed, both are among the most popular trees planted in Italian American backyards, wherever the climate is the least bit willing. Mixing them as a marmalade into a lush cheesecake with crushed cannoli shells for a crust is a Sicilian dream come true.
5-6 large cannoli shells
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons plus 1 ½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon Marsala wine, optional
2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Whole Lemon Fig Marmalade
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons orange juice, or 1 teaspoon orange zest
5 large eggs
½ cup milk chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan or spray generously with vegetable spray. Crush the cannoli shells in a food processor. Add the butter, 2 tablespoons sugar and Marsala, processing into medium-fine crumbs. Press the crumbs firmly and evenly onto the bottom of the pan and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the ricotta, cream cheese and flour until well blended. Add the cream, marmalade, vanilla and almond extracts and the orange juice, blending until smooth. Add the eggs 1 at a time, blending only until incorporated. Pour the filling over the cooled crust and bake on the middle rack for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Sprinkle the top with chocolate chips, pressing them in lightly. Bake for 10 minutes more until chips are starting to melt. Remove the pan from the oven and run a sharp around the edges to loosen the cake.
Let cool gradually for about 2 hours atop the turned-off oven – this will help avoid cracking. Then cover, still in the springform, and refrigerate overnight. Cut in wedges and serve, with additional heated marmalade if desired and/or whipped cream. Serves 10.