Cannoli Iconic Sicily History & Recipe

Delicious Sicilian Cannoli

Delicious Sicilian Cannoli


 ‘Leave the gun; take the cannoli’ ....     states Clemenza in 'The Godfather'

 As iconic to Sicily as the Godfather the flavours of the sweet Sicilian Cannoli is a decadent yet light dessert that will satisfy your sweet tooth while bringing you back to old-world Sicily.   

 Its origins may be shrouded in legend, controversy and mystery, though most historians do agree on their arrival with the Saracens between 652 to 1072 AD in the Palermo and Messina areas. Thought to be perfected in the harem of ‘Kalt el Nissa’ or Caltanissetta (city of women) in central Sicily brought to convents by a onetime harem member. The evidence is supported by the fact that fried pastries continue to thrive in Andalusia, Spain, from whence some of the conquering invaders had come.

Traditionally Cannoli were prepared as a treat during Carnevale season, possibly as a fertility symbol. One of the reasons they became associated with Carnevale may well be that sheep produce more milk during spring for ricotta from the rich fresh green pastures. Spring is still the best time to buy ‘pecorino’ (sheep) ricotta in Sicily. Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero mentioned the delicacy cannoli back in 70BC. By the end of the tenth century, the Saracens had introduced pistachios, oranges, lemons, and dates, as well as refined sugar and spices such as cinnamon and cloves which have been incorporated into the many variations.

Regardless Sicilian sweets are not just the work of talented pastry chefs; they're the result of hundreds of years of unbroken tradition. Not only were the convents bastions of tradition; they were (and remain) the most authentic source for classic Sicilian sweets.

Consisting of tube shaped shells of fried pastry dough and filled with a sweet creamy filling usually containing ricotta, they range in size from finger diameter to much larger. In theory the crust should be very thin and the best pastry makers still prepare it that way.  You may find to begin that thicker tubes are easier to make and fry. The crust shells are deep fried to achieve a crispy result.  Small pieces of candied fruits particularly lemon, orange, citron and cherry are sometimes mixed into the cream, whilst others prefer pistachios or chocolate chips. Marsala wine is also commonly found in traditional cannoli in Sicily.

Perhaps the most famous baker is Maria Grammatico in the mountain peak town of Erice. Grammatico's life story is recounted in the book Bitter Almonds, coauthored with Mary Taylor Simeti. Raised in an orphanage of Franciscan sisters, she helped in the preparation of sweets. Deciding against the nun's life for herself, Grammatico opened a modest pasticceria. 50 years later it is now one of the largest pastry businesses in Sicily. Grammatico, 70 something,  oversees an assortment of traditional cookies and small pastries, but her true talent lies in frutta di Martorana (marzipan fruit, named after the Palermo convent where they originated) shaped from almonds she still grinds into a paste daily and paints in realistic colors.

These traditions have blended with others through time; chocolate arrived from Spain during the renaissance, and in the 19th century, Swiss pastry chefs migrating to Sicily started blending it with ricotta in desserts. As a result, Sicilians have an astonishing repertoire of sweets, from gelato heaped into a brioscia, the bun a legacy of the French influence on Sicilian food. The cannoli dessert has of course now become a year round staple and national dish throughout Italy.

Taste your way through the many variations on TIKI TOURS 21 day Unspoiled Sicily, Rome & Amalfi Coast in Style tour, departing Wednesday 4 May 2016. Be assured your Sicilian tour director Luigi, will guide you to the tastiest shops along the way to experience these delectable treats for yourself.  Meanwhile why not try this recipe from Natalia Ravida’s ‘Seasons Sicily’.

The pastry shells are best left for filling shortly before serving to ensure they don’t become soggy. In specialist deli’s in major metropolitan areas you may find ready made cannoli crusts otherwise I’m sure you’ll agree nothing tastes as sweet nor as satisfying as preparing the whole dish yourself from scratch.  Specialist kitchen shops may also supply cannoli cylinders for shaping, otherwise we can only suggest rummaging through your drawers to find something similar or get creative.

 Filling   (serves 6)

700g ricotta cheese, thoroughly drained for at least 24 hours

250g sugar

1tsp vanilla

100 gm dark chocolate finely chopped (or choose your equivalent sweetener)

1 tblsp icing sugar

½ tsp cocoa powder

 Mix above ingredients together till combined.

 Cannoli crusts   (fills 4 large or 8 small cannoli crusts)   stores airtight for several days

 150g of flour

1 tsp cocoa powder

1 tblsp sugar

25g butter

1 egg

1 tblsp while wine or marsala

 extra virgin olive oil (for frying)

icing sugar (to sprinkle for serving)


Mix the flour with all the ingredients in a bowl or blender until well combined

The dough must be smooth and elastic

Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes

Roll out the dough fairly thin and cut into 10-12cm squares

Wrap each sheet around a metal or bamboo cylinder, purposely made for cannoli

In a deep frying pan, bring oil to frying temperature and fry the cannoli one at a time

Cool on absorbent paper

When ready to serve carefully fill with the ricotta cheese filling, either by pushing it into the cannoli with a knife or piping bag

Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve.