Cannoli Without Frying

baked cannoli

baked cannoli

I was the kid who didn’t like dessert. Sweet stuff never appealed to me. Maybe a Devil Dog here and there. And I’d always savor my mom’s cupcakes. And for some reason pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream was a favorite. Probably because it was really “food” and not dessert.

But in our house Italian pastries appeared regularly from the Italian bakery.  Sfoglitelle, pastaciotta, baba au rhum, lobster tails, and napoleons, cream puffs, and eclairs. My eyes just passed over these concoctions like they weren’t even there. And then, of course, the ubiquitous cannoli. These I especially didn’t like. And all of them also came in miniature size. Still didn’t faze me. They were like props at the table.

Call it age (I’m not that old, am I?) or evolving palate, or ever-expanding culinary curiosity, but now I can appreciate those sweet, happy cakes. And I’m fascinated with how to make them. I make them. I taste them. But I still don’t really devour.

Other people do. And I love to make people happy with dessert.

Three or four years ago we made traditional cannoli in my cooking classes. The dough was inspired by Mario Batali’s recipe and we formed it around the cannoli molds and deep-fried them. Then carefully removed the cooked shells from the molds and piped in our filling.

cannoli with fried shells

traditional cannoli with fried shells

But recently I came across another way of making cannoli from Nick Malgieri’s 1990 book “Great Italian Desserts.” Malgieri is the head of the baking program at my culinary school: ICE.

In his recipe you use puff pastry to make the cannoli shell. We’ve been making them in class this summer and they are so fun and so lovely and so easy.

You roll out a sheet of puff pastry to fairly thin. Then cut about 1-inch strips. Gently roll the strips around the cannoli form, overlapping as you go. Not too tight, not too loose.

puff pastry wrapped around cannoli form

puff pastry wrapped around cannoli form

Bake them and gently remove from the mold. Let cool, and pipe in filling.

puff pastry cannoli

puff pastry cannoli

They are so beautiful. Delicious. And a blast to make. Mainly because you can’t believe this is actually working! I make my filling not that sweet. Most Italian desserts are not overly-sweet. (And there’s that no-sweets-for-me stubbornness.) If you don’t have a sweet tooth, or are cultivating one, or have a very big sweet tooth, this recipe will satisfy all. Try it. Let me know how you make out.

puff pastry cannoli

puff pastry cannoli

Puff Pastry Cannoli with Ricotta Cream & Crushed Pistachios

(adapted from Nick Malgieri)

1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups ricotta

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup crushed pistachios nuts

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

Equipment: 12 cannoli tubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface until pretty thin (about 30 % larger). Cut dough width-wise into 1-inch strips. Butter the cannoli tubes. Gently, but firmly wrap a strip of dough around a tube making an overlapping spiral. Don’t pull the dough too tightly to wrap, but gently secure. Repeat with the rest of the dough and tubes. Place seam side down on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes until golden. When cool enough to handle very gently slide the pasty off the form. Let cool completely before filling.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the ricotta with sugar and whisk until sugar no longer feels gritty. Stir in the cream and chocolate chips. Spoon half of the mixture into a quart-sized ziplock bag. Push mixture to a bottom corner and seal the bag pressing out air. Snip the corner where the ricotta is— a hole about the size of a pea.

Hold one of the pastries upright and hold the pastry bag about 1-2-inches from the pastry opening. Squeeze bag and let pastry fill. Press crushed pistachio nuts at either end. Repeat with the rest of the tube and filling. Dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Serve right away or refrigerate overnight.

Why Seven Fishes?

Why not 8? Or 14? Or 3?

Turns out that the Christmas Eve tradition of a meal of seven fishes is mainly an Italian-American tradition, not an Italian one. It seems to be based on La Vigilia. The vigil on the eve of Christ’s birth. But the seafood part spins far from the religious part.

And why seven fishes? Conjecture imagines: 7 sacraments of Catholicism? 7 days for the creation of the world in the Genesis story? The 7 hills of Rome?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to have a meal of seven fishes. What a lovely culinary tradition. Ordinarily the star of the show is baccala…the salt-cured cod that takes a few days to rinse and drain of its salt and make into the tender cod that we love. In Nashville, I don’t come across baccala at all. So my Christmas Eve dinner was without it.

Still, when I was growing up, Christmas Eve dinner was the domain of my mom. Relatives all came to our house for the feast. We didn’t have baccala either, but went for the shellfish instead: Shrimp, clams, scungilli, squid, lobster, and crab.

This year the night was all mine (with sous chef help from my friend, Donna). My mom came as a guest and I think she was happy to be just that. I took over the kitchen.

I decided 5 fish would be enough and didn’t let myself feel the pressure of the “seven.” Am I missing some of the sacred glow? Perhaps. But I was willing to risk it!

The menu:

Lump Crabmeat Salad

Fried Calamari

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Shrimp Scampi

Tilapia alla Francese

…plus 2 vegetables & lots of dessert items…

But back to the fish.

Here’s the appetizer of Crabmeat Salad & Fried Calamari…

Crabmeat Cocktail & Fried Calamari

Crabmeat Cocktail & Fried Calamari

This course has Mario Batali written all over it. I tweeted him a question about what to put in the crabmeat cocktail. He answered: lime, fennel, cilantro & celery. I went for some of what he suggested and added to the crab: lime juice, celery, celery leaves, parsley, a bit of olive oil and some salt. For the calamari I went to Batali again. After cleaning and cutting the squid into “rubber bands & spiders” (my sister’s dubbing), I simply tossed them in cornstarch and shook loose the excess then fried squid pieces in 2 inches of hot olive oil. Lifted them out in 2 minutes or so, then sprinkled some salt. These 2 mini-dishes were the perfect complement to each other.

On to Spaghetti & Clams…

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Here’s another easy one: Boil 1 lb. spaghetti in abundant salty water. In another large pot saute 5-6 sliced garlic cloves in about 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil. When starting to color add a handful of chopped parsley. When simmering add about a cup and half of dry white wine. Season with salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes. Let simmer. Then add 3 dozen scrubbed little neck or manila clams. Cover. When pasta is al dente, reserve a cup of cooking water. Drain pasta. When clams have opened add drained spaghetti. Toss. Add more olive oil and some pasta water. Add a few handfuls of toasted breadcrumbs (how to make breadcrumbs: in a medium skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil, add about a cup of crumbs & a garlic clove and saute until crumbs are toasty brown, season with salt & pepper. Use these at table, too, to sprinkle on servings of pasta.)

Third course: Shrimp Scampi & Tilapia Francese…

Shrimp Scampi

Shrimp Scampi

For the Shrimp. Line a sheet pan with foil. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Lay out the peeled, deveined shrimp (I used 2 lbs. large shrimp). Sprinkle shrimp with salt & pepper. Sprinkle with 3-4 cloves coarsely minced garlic. Sprinkle with breadcrumb to cover lightly. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Drizzle with olive oil. Cook in 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes until shrimp are opaque and breadcrumbs toasty. Serve with lemon wedges.

Final fish: Tilapia Francese…

Tilpia Francese

Tilapia Francese

What makes this “francese” or “French-style” is the method. We dip pieces of tilapia in seasoned flour and then in a beaten egg. Saute in hot olive oil. The egg coating gives a lacy, lovely effect. I served this on a bed of dressed baby arugula.

5 of the 7 fishes. Plenty for us!

P with the Peas

P with the Peas