Plus, what makes the best cannoli, from shell to filling.
Boston is an eater's kind of town. The oysters from New England and the Maritimes bring on the brine and the restaurants are as good as anywhere. But the true objects of any serious diner's desire are the North End's cannoli — sweetened ricotta-filled fried pastry shells — specifically the specimens at Mike's Pastry and Modern Pastry, barely a block away from one another on Hanover Street. Judging by the ever-present crowds, there are legions with a white-hot burning passion for these miracle cylinders of cream, crunch, and sweetness. Though each has its distinctive charms, be assured that Mike's and Modern are equally best in class. (Yes, of course, some Bostonians are adamant that one is better than the other. Maria's and other bakeries have their passionate advocates, too. Take a deep cleansing breath and calm down. But feel free to vent in the "Comments" below.)
It would be simple enough to love the Mike's and Modern cannoli for what they are and pay them no further mind. But that's too easy. It's time to consider the deeper questions: What makes great cannoli great? How do they make the shells? What ingredients properly comprise the sweet creamy filling? Even more fundamentally, how and where did cannoli originate?
Is That a Cannoli in Your Pocket…?
If it's too disgusting to contemplate that cannoli's rigid cylinder shape and cream filling were intended as a tribute to the male organ, go ahead and disregard Allison Scola’s detailed and scholarly article, "I Cannoli: Nothing Better in the World." Scola’s analysis on the topic is compelling, and she’s not alone.
Cannoli were lionized, if not invented, in Sicily. They and other pastries were typically associated with annual Christian rites. Cassata, a ricotta cake in the disk shape of the sun, was an ode to Easter and spring’s renewal. A ricotta-cream cake with a candied cherry on top called Minne di Sant’ Aita resembled women’s breasts and was served on Catania’s February festival day commemorating the martyrdom of St. Agatha.
Cannoli came from a happier, more boisterous place. As Scola describes them, cannoli were "symbolic of Carnevale’s carnal and culinary debauchery," a time when "masques were worn to hide revelers' identities allowing them the freedom to do whatever was pleasurable." Much like modern food cart vendors, street sellers of yore are thought to have sold their cannoli to holiday revelers crowding Sicily’s public squares. Scola’s account pinning cannoli’s origins to Sicilian Carnevale celebrations finds support in most of the skimpy literature on the topic. In the new Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the place of origin is even narrowed to Palermo and the name attributed to "canna," a variety of cane reed, sections of which were used as the original cylindrical forms for making cannoli shells.
The ricotta-filled fried pastry shells were "symbolic of Carnevale’s carnal and culinary debauchery."
But leave it to Waverly Root — the brilliant World War I American news correspondent turned obsessive culinary researcher and author of seminal works The Food of France and The Food of Italy — to cast doubt on cannoli’s Carnevale genesis. Writing in his 1971 Italian food treatise, Root acknowledges that Sicilians have long been mad for sweets, in part owing to their early access to sugar cane. Beyond that fortuity, Sicily is "where mystical currents run deep and the past lives in the present… Sweets embody most clearly the ritual role of food, forgotten elsewhere, which through the ages has bound it to magic, superstition and religion."
Yet, for all its association with Sicily, Root attributes cannoli’s origin to the Saracens, referring to ancient Arabic peoples. His proof is that cannoli were once known as cappelli di turchi, or Turkish hats, "indicating a Sicilian belief that they were of Saracen origin." But even that may not go back far enough. As Root wrote of cannoli a few years later in The Best of Italian Cooking, cannoli's sweet filling may be credited to the Saracens, but not the shells. "According to students of ancient rites," the tube shape might be traced back to human prehistory, invoking the form of "menhirs, the stone steles which were probably fertility symbols."
So, again cannoli are a representation of an erect penis, but centuries and perhaps millenia before the Sicilians began their annual holiday debaucheries. Isn't history fun?
What The Shell?
With only two major components, shell and filling, you better bet that each has to be excellent to create superior cannoli. According to Angelo Papa, the step-son of Mike Mercogliano, the Mike in Mike's Pastry, the secret to great cannoli are the shells. At Mike's, where Papa started working as a dishwasher in 1976, the shells are made fresh daily. The labor-intensive process involves mixing the dough, rolling out disk-shaped pieces which may be elongated to an oval, wrapping the dough around a hollow metal cylinder called a cannoli tube and frying each one in lard, peanut oil, or some other fat. (Baking instead of frying is mentioned in some books, presumably the same ones that promote the virtues of raw kale and quinoa. Ignore.)
A great cannoli shell is all about texture; for flavor, the name of the cannoli game is the filling.
Scola says in her article that the dough for cannoli shells varies in four major respects: by type of wine or wine vinegar included; whether cocoa powder or cinnamon is used; whether butter or shortening is the fat of choice; and whether eggs are in or out. Naturally, the two recipes I focused on, in Nick Malgieri's Great Italian Desserts and in Root's cookbook, blew Scola's neat divisions right out of the water. Malgieri relies on both cinnamon and cocoa powder for his cannoli shell dough. He also ignores the butter or shortening dichotomy, suggesting olive oil, vegetable oil, or pure porky lard instead. Further, Maglieri's recipe lists Marsala, but offers an OK to any other fortified wine. Vinegar is also included in this recipe. Root's recipe skips both cinnamon and cocoa powder in the dough, but otherwise tracks Scola's paradigm, employing any white wine or Marsala, plus both butter and egg.
At Mike's, the 19 varieties it makes require 6,000-7,000 shells daily, each of which is made by hand, in-house. Papa intimated darkly that everyone else buys their shells, which takes even the best of their competitors down a notch. (I wanted to give Modern equal time on the topic, but John Picariello, who runs the place, didn't respond to my inquiry.)
Papa tossed out that Mike's uses wine vinegar in its cannoli dough for better flavor and color, but frankly, it's barely noticeable. Instead, a great cannoli shell is all about texture. For best results, this means taking on the laborious task of passing the dough through a pasta machine over and over, as in Malgieri's recipe. This step ensures even distribution of the fat and helps create a flawlessly smooth dough before the thin sheets are cut into the proper shapes, rolled around tubes, then deep-fried to dark golden to ensure that the shells possess optimum crunch. Once drained of any excess oil, removed from around the forms and cooled, they are ready for filling at long last.
Fill ‘er Up
For flavor, the name of the cannoli game is the filling. Basic cannoli filling begins with high-quality ricotta cheese that is thoroughly sieved to creamy smoothness. In Sicily, they use sheep's milk (though Scola recounts a puddling-like variation from the city of Agrigento that relied on cow's milk cream and cornstarch). In the United States, most ricotta makers eschew the ewe, opting for easier to obtain and less gamey cow's milk ricotta. Sweetener is added to the cheese — typically cane sugar or, echoing Root's Saracen origins theme, honey.
From the basic sweetened ricotta foundation, the universe of possible additives is seemingly endless: mascarpone, whipped cream, goat cheese, pastry cream (vanilla or chocolate), crème de cacao (or other liqueurs), cinnamon (ground or oil), nutmeg oil, vanilla, jasmine extract, bittersweet chocolate (shaved, chopped, chips or melted for dipping the ends or all of the shells), chopped pistachios, chopped croccante (almond brittle), candied orange peel, citron, and zuccata (candied pumpkin). In other words, anything goes. The origin of candied fruit, which is a standard addition for many cannoli makers, is a mystery: It's difficult to determine if it was a part of the earliest ensembles or whether it was introduced at some later point in time. It's safe to surmise that the color and flavor of the fruit found special favor in connection with Sicilian Carnavale revelries.
Whether fruit (or any other ingredient) was in or out of the first cannoli turns out to be a dead-end inquiry. As with Bouillabaisse along the Provencal coast, every little Sicilian town and village developed its own authentic version of cannoli. So, when waves of Sicilians emigrated to the United States beginning in the 1880s, their respective cannoli formulations moved with them. Then, in the new world melting pot of the United States, additional innovation and evolution occurred, such as the preference for cow's milk ricotta over sheep's milk, offering modern American cannoli lovers a diverse selection of cannoli styles from which to choose.
In the search for the holy grail of cannoli, however, simplicity turns out to be triumphant. Fresh crispy golden-fried shells with smooth, creamy ricotta piped in moments before — unembellished — is the ultimate expression of cannoli maker's craft. And they will set you up just fine that way in Boston, at Mike's or Modern.
Chocolate-chip and plain cannoli from Mike's Pastry; nut-encrusted and plain cannoli from Modern Pastry.