Ancient Local Specialties of Sicily: Cannoli with Ricotta Cheese



The traditional cuisine of Sicily, in Southern Italy, is rooted in the history , culture, and religious devotion of the area. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, at the crossroads of the most important routes of the basin, the island has been, since ancient times, a natural harbour for merchants and sailors.
Its strategic location encouraged the meeting of many civilizations and cultures. From the Phoenicians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Spanish, the repertoire of Sicilian cuisine has the traces of all the people that in three thousand years have lived in this long disputed territory. The generous nature has given the island a mild climate, a sea full of fish and fertile soils that have inspired extraordinary combinations of local and imported ingredients.
So, Sicily, land of citrus fruits, prickly pears, almonds, and vegetables of exceptional quality, offers a wide variety of local products which is so rich to be hardly comparable to that of any other territory.

The Sicilian Cannolo, together with the Sicilian Cassata, is probably the most representative of the confectionery sweet Sicilian, symbol of Made in Sicily culture and traditions.
The Cannolo is a sweet made of a cylindrical wafer of fried dough (from 15 to 20 cm long, with a diametre of 4-5 cm), filled with fresh creamy ricotta cheese, sugar, pistachios, chocolate and candied fruit. For the wafer, you have to form small circles of dough which is made of typical and genuine ingredients: wheat flour, wine, sugar and lard. The dough is rolled in small metal tubes and fried in lard. Traditionally, the cylindres were common pieces of bamboo, which is “canne” in Italian, so that’s from where the name of the delicious recipe derives.
The traditional filling is sheep ricotta cheese and sugar sifted, but some people also use ricotta cheese (which is less tasty than the sheep one, but more delicate and digestible), pastry cream or the chocolate one. The Cannolo should be filled just before serving, as the wafer tends to absorb moisture from the curd, losing its typical crispness. To remedy this problem, some pastry chefs use the trick of covering the inner surface of the cake with melted chocolate: in this way, the wrapper is crispy and not soak fo a longer time.
In every corner of Sicily and, nowadays, in numerous pastry shops throughout Italy, these specialties are custom made, thanks to the skill and creativity of the pastry chefs: from place to place, Cannoli may be different in the decoration, but they are equally delicious everywhere. For example, while in Palermo, they are used to laying two cherries on the ends of Cannoli and a slice of candied orange peel on their back, in Eastern Sicily, Cannoli are garnished with chopped pistachios, in some other localities they use almonds or chopped dark chocolate. Then, the sweet is dusted with powdered sugar.

The rise of Cannoli maybe took place in Caltanissetta, home to many ancient harems of Saracen emirs. It is said that the emir's favourite women, while imprisoned in the castle of the city, where devoted to the preparation of cakes, and created the Cannoli, sly allusion to the virtuous art of love of the sultan. The Cannoli, therefore, have a meaning of fertility, generation power, but also a value of expulsion of evil influences. When the Arabs were expelled by the Normans, the harem was empty, and it seems that some of the sultan’s women, converted to Christianity, withdrew in cloistered monasteries, bringing with themselves the secrets of gourmet that had seduced the courts of the emirs. So, they revealed them to other nuns who, while taking the vow of chastity, enjoyed the pleasure of the voluptuous Cannoli. A further hypothesis on the invention of this recipe handed down that this delicacy was born as a joke at Carnival: cream cheese was made out of a tap, instead of water you made out of a tap. Actually, in Sicilian dialect, cannolo means just tap, so this might be another origin of the name of this excellet recipe.
Thus, while originally the Cannoli were prepared only during the Carnival period, over time this product has lost its traditional occasional feature and it has undergone a remarkable spreading throughout the country, becoming one of the most popular examples of Italian confectionery in the world.

The Cannolo is a specialty that is so important to the Sicilians that it is celebrated with a special festival, which is held every year between January and February, in the village of Piana degli Albanesi, not far from Palermo. There, in addition to the parade of Carnival floats, you can enjoy Cannoli of all sizes. In 2003, during the festival, a pastry chef was awarded of the Guinness World Record for the longest Cannolo in the world: it was 4 metre and 3 centimetre long!

Marzia Vaccaro - I Like Italy

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