Cannoli siciliani + Blog Birthday

April has been a pretty exciting month: I've spent a weekend up north in Bologna and one down south in Matera, I've had the chance to run a market-to-table class with Carla Tomasi, and I've (happily) fallen down the fresh-pasta rabbit hole, making more lasagne, fettuccine, and ravioli than I can count --  and in the midst of all this, I've quite nearly forgotten perhaps the biggest news of all:

Pancakes & Biscotti turned 5 this month!!!!

That's right! This blog has been in existence for 60 months, half a decade, 1,825 days, five whole years, and to put it more tangibly, if this blog were a person (first name Pancakes, last name Biscotti) she'd no longer a baby or even a toddler, but a kindergartener (aww). All this time later, this blog remains my very favorite activity and one of the things that I am most proud of (you can bet that within at least half an hour of meeting me, I'll mention that I have a blog and then want to tell you all about it. You were warned). Running this blog has and continues to teach me so much about cooking and baking, giving me a place to continually challenge myself and move  of my usual culinary comfort zones (today's recipe for cannoli is a perfect example, a recipe I would have never even considered attempting five years ago). The constant writing and photographing keeps the creative side of my brain working -- important when one works a 9:00-5:00 job in admin -- as has lots of recipe developing, and social media upkeep. If that weren't enough this blog has also connected me with so many other cooks and bakers and foodies and bloggers (Instagram is truly a wonderful thing) which has not only provided me with inspiration and ideas from all sorts of people, but also given me lots of lovely like-minded friends. In short, deciding to launch a food blog was the very best thing I did in 2014, and continues to be so, a consistently positive force, and a project I never tire of (this, even with all the work that goes in to maintaining it on a weekly basis). In short: here's to you, Pancakes & Biscotti. And here's to another year of blogging! 

So! To celebrate an occasion as momentous as a Fifth Birthday, I give you these homemade cannoli, a beloved, revered dessert not only in Italy but also beyond, especially in the U.S. -- heck, they even got a mention in The Godfather ("Leave the gun -- take the cannoli.") A few cannoli basics you should know, before we proceed:

1.) Cannoli hail from Sicily and are part of its excellent dessert tradition, up there with cassata, granita, and la frutta di martorana, or intricate fruit made from marzipan. In bakeries, they are usually available in a mignon version, too, i.e mini cannoli in addition to the usual large ones. 

2.) Per tradition, true cannoli filling is made with sheeps milk ricotta, which has been drained overnight to make it a little firmer and less watery.

3.) Cannoli shells here in Italy are traditionally made with the addition of Marsala and cocoa powder, but the recipes can vary from family to family (I know of someone who even puts cinnamon in the shell filling). They are also made with strutto (blunt translation: pig fat, the same used to make piadine and tigelle in the North) and therefore make them not very vegetarian friendly. 

4.) Cannoli should be eaten straight away; otherwise the filling makes the shells unpleasantly soggy. If possible, they should be filled to order. 

5.) Fun fact: much like the use of the word "panini" (to imply in English one sandwich, when panini is really plural) it is technically incorrect to say "I'll have a cannoli" as the singular form of the word is actually cannolo. One cannolo, two cannoli! 

Having said all this: I know what you're thinking! Why make cannoli when you can just buy cannoli? I'll be honest here: these aren't quick to make, and require a few steps and some time, but really, none of the steps are difficult, and truly, THESE ARE JUST SO GOOD. The shells are shatter-y and crispy and delicious in that way that all fried things are, the ricotta is smooth and just barely sweet and dotted with bits of chocolate, and the contrast between the two textures -- crisp shell, creamy ricotta -- is just dreamy. Really: how cool would it be to trot out a plate of these powdered-sugar-dusted delights and say that you were the one to make them, kneading, rolling, frying, filling, and all?! These are a weekend project sort of thing, yes, but I'd say that making your own cannoli on a rainy Sunday afternoon isn't a bad idea, not a bad idea at all. 

On a more sentimental note: these cannoli are also a nod to my Nonno Jim, who would have turned 98 this month, and who built quite the life for himself thanks to the very humble ricotta cheese (indeed, ricotta has crept in to a lot of my cooking the past few months). He would have gotten a real kick out of knowing his granddaughter had learned to make cannoli. Happy Birthday to you too, Nonno. I love you.

A couple of notes: These are definitely a bit of a project, so will require a bit of time (yay rainy weekend project) and will also require a few tools. To make your own cannoli, you will need a pasta machine, cannoli cylinders, a pasta cutter, a kitchen thermometer, and a pastry bag (phew!) If you're a cook/baker like me you'll have these on hand, but otherwise you'll need to invest in a few things. Cannoli should be eaten immediately, otherwise they will go soggy, but you can make the shells in advance and keep those in a tupperware at room temperature for 4 or so days. 

Looking for more birthday-worthy desserts?! I've also got this Limoncello Cake, this Chocolate Fudge Souffle Cake, these Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes, this Brownie Ciambellone, this Best Ever Lemon Tart, this Wellesley Fudge cake, this Honey Pine nut Tart, this Crostata di Ricotta e cioccolato, these very festive Funfetti Cookies, and this impressive German Chocolate Layer Cake.

Recipe taken and translated from Giallo Zafferano. Makes 30 small cannoli.

2 cups (260 grams) 00 flour
2 tablespoons (25 grams) sugar
2 ounces (30 grams) strutto, cold from the fridge
1 tablespoon (7 grams) cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 an ounce (20 grams) beaten egg
2 teaspoons (10 grams) white wine vinegar
1/4 cup (60 grams) Marsala

Ingredients for the filling:
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) sheeps milk ricotta, left to drain overnight in the fridge
1 cup (130 grams) sugar
3 ounces (80 grams) mini chocolate chips

A beaten egg
1 liter oil for frying

To garnish:
Powdered sugar
Chopped pistachios
Candied orange

1. Start with the cannoli shells! Put the flour, the cocoa powder, the sugar, the salt, and the strutto in a large bowl and mix it all together lightly, and then add 20 grams of the beaten egg (save the rest of the egg to brush the cannoli later on before frying). Mix again lightly and then add the marsala and the vinegar.

2. Start to bring the dough together with your hands, and then once the dough starts to form in to a ball, move it to a clean work surface and knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough's surface feels smooth and soft. Form the dough in to a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for an hour.

3. Set up your pasta machine on a sturdy work surface. Take the dough from the fridge and divide it in to two equal pieces. Take one of two pieces (cover the other one again and put it back in the fridge) and dust both sides lightly with flour. Form the dough in to a rectangular shape and flatten it lightly with your hands. Pass the dough through the rollers of the pasta machine at the largest setting. The dough may rip a little, but just be patient and patch it back together.
4. Fold the two ends of the dough together and pat the dough down slightly. Next, pass the dough again through the pasta machine at the next setting (1). Repeat this process 3-4 times, folding the dough and rolling it through the machine (on the longer side). You will notice that the dough will seem a little craggy but will eventually become smoother as you continue to roll it.
5. Once the dough starts to become smooth, fold the dough again, but only with one fold instead of two, passing it through the rollers again 3-4 times. Next, fold the dough again on the shorter side, and pass it through the rollers of the next setting (2). Continue to roll out the dough in this way, one time per setting, until you get up to setting number 7. The dough will get longer as you go, so feel free to cut it in half and divide it in to two pieces to make your life easier.
6. Once the dough is rolled out, trim the edges to make a neat rectangle (add any scraps to the ball of dough you haven't yet used). Using a pasta cutter with a smooth edge, cut out 10x10cm squares, and stretch each one out carefully with your hands, then place in the middle of the dough a cannolo cylinder. Brush one of the ends of the dough with egg and then wrap both together, pressing to seal. Brush the rest of the cannolo shell with egg. Continue this way until all the cannolo cylinders are wrapped in dough. As you do this, let the already prepared cylinders dry a little bit (i.e, don't bother covering).

7. Heat the oil in a large pot until it reaches 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Begin to fry the cannoli shells one at a time, placing them in to the oil with a slotted spoon, keeping the immersed in oil for a few moments (this way they won't touch the bottom of the pan and they wont burn) and then turn them continuously until bubbly and brown (this will take a bit less than a minute). Place the cannolo shell on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil and let cool; continue with the remaining cannolo shells.
8. While your cannoli shells are cooling, prepare the filling; whisk together the ricotta and the sugar until smooth and blended, then stir in the chocolate chips. Next, when the cannolo shells are completely cool, remove the cylinders (which are made in such a way that if you squeeze the ends of the cylinder together, it will retract, meaning the shell will slip right off).
9. Transfer the cannoli filling to a pastry bag and fill the cannoli on both ends, then dip in whatever garnish you have chosen (in my case, chopped hazelnuts and more chocolate chips). Assemble your cannoli on a plate, dust with powdered sugar and eat immediately.

Matera, Polignano, Bari

I'm back from a mini vacation in the south of Italy, and oh, how I wish I weren't! (It's nothing personal, Rome, I promise). This past weekend my sister Alexandra and our friends Emma and Alice headed to the Puglia and Basilicata regions of Italy for the Easter break (note that Monday is an official holiday in Italy, called Pasquetta) visiting the cities of Matera, Polignano, and Bari. I'll keep the post short as I feel the photos here should do most of the talking, but:

WARNING: this post may just cause you to take out your wallet and spontaneously book a trip to any of the three above mentioned cities. However, this is highly encouraged. But, don't say I didn't warn you.

Ahh, Matera! I had last visited this beautiful city 7 years ago ago (time flies!) and therefore another visit was certainly in order. The main points, before I let you get to the photos: Matera is home to i sassi, or rather two neighborhoods in the city center (Il Sasso Caveoso and Il Sasso Barisano) which are entirely carved out of the rock of the hillside, more specifically la murgia materana. These dwellings are constructed one on top of the other, neatly, as if held together by magic, and they're breathtaking. Having said this: the sassi have quite a comeback story, so to speak -- they were formerly considered "the shame of Italy," a slum without electricity, plumbing, or running water, where diseases like malaria ran rampant. The situation was so grave that in the 1950s, inhabitants of the sassi were relocated to live elsewhere. Some 60 or so years later however, the sassi have been named UNESCO World Heritage Site, a top tourist destination, and the 2019 European Capital of Culture, not to mention the location for many a movie set (most famously: The Passion of the Christ, and most recently: the next Bond film). After we were done marveling at the sassi we headed to lunch, where we were also left speechless by Matera's food, dining on troccoli (a long pasta typical of the Basilicata region) with ricotta and peperoni cruschi (another specialty -- dried and fried peppers, not so unlike potato chips) and mischiglio, another pasta shape unique to the region and made with various kinds of flour. Yummm.

On Easter Sunday, we headed to Polignano a mare, a little seaside town in the Puglia region. Polignano was picturesque, incredibly well-kept and clean, a little haven with wonderful views of the sea, lots of little balconies, and lots of flowers, not to mention quotes from famous authors and scientists decorating the town walls, all in the same handwriting (I still need to look in to this to see what the story is here). On the menu for Easter lunch?! Panzerotti, a specialty from Puglia, or rather fried calzones filled traditionally with mozzarella and tomato, but actually with whatever your heart desires (in our case, our hearts desired not only mozzarella and tomato but also  panzerotti with broccoli rabe/anchovies/tomatoes/cheese and radicchio cream/speck/cheese and zucchini, cheese, and tomatoes). Easter lamb who?!

If this trip had a theme, it would be picturesque, I think; Bari had a "strong balcony game" (a direct quote from Emma) with lots of colorful laundry fluttering on the lines and plants and flowers, making the city look like a postcard come to life. I was reminded of what a beautiful country Italy is, even in its simplest state -- the town piazza! a tucked-away side street! -- which may seem obvious, but is actually something often forgotten by those of us who live in Italy and often can become a little "immune" to its beauty. What else was gorgeous, besides Bari itself?! It's food, of course! While in Bari we sampled all sorts of typical dishes and sweets from Puglia: sgagliozze (squares of deep-fried polenta) plus orecchiette with cime di rapa, anchovies, tomatoes, and breadcrumbs, sospiri (an airy cloud of pastry filled with cream) and bocconotti (sweet crumbly pastry dough filled with cherry jam and cream). BONUS: an encounter with a very cuddly, very affectionate, very fluffy ginger stray cat who we named Raviolo, and who took a liking in particular to Emma. Awww. Note: we used Bari as our home base during the trip (there are trains that go directly from Roma Termini to Bari Centrale, which we found convenient. 

And just like that, our (very restful, very sunny) mini vacation was over! I've been lucky enough to do quite a bit of traveling lately, so stay tuned as well for a post about my recent trip to Bologna -- all the way up north, to shake things up -- as well as some very Spring-y recipes, too!