Holy Cannoli! The history of an iconic Sicilian sweet!

It is without a doubt the Cannoli will satisfy the sweet tooth of anyone who tries it. Considered by many as the most popular speciality amongst Italian and Sicilian desserts, the Cannoli has become a true symbol of Sicily.

cannoli with orange candy
The term cannolo (little tube) comes from the word canna, a cane-like reed which consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough with a creamy, ricotta filling.

A combination of ingredients including flour and sugar are combined to make the shells which are then wrapped around a metal tube and deep fried in oil.

Previously, the dough was wrapped around a sugar cane stalk instead of the metal tubes until food safety regulations were enforced in the region.

cannoli tubes wrapped around metal after deep fried

Traditional recipes use sweetened, fresh ricotta cheese from sheep’s milk for filling;
however, in the Ragusa region and the eastern parts of Sicily, cow’s milk is preferred because of its milder flavour as oppose to the sheep’s milk which is considered very sweet.

Candied citrus peel, chopped pistachios or semi-sweet chocolate bits are often added and the dusted confectionary sugar completes the dessert. Ideally, the shells should be filled as soon as they finish frying and immediately before serving.

This allows the shell to retain its crispy, flaky texture instead of becoming soggy by the wetness of the filling. Another method used by some pastry chefs is to coat the inside of the shell with melted chocolate.

empty cannoli shells after deep frying

In terms of the Cannoli’s origins and when they came into existence, there are different variations.

Some claim that Cannoli were created by the skilled hands of the nuns of a convent from the town of Caltanissetta, thus passing on this traditional ancient Roman recipe, only later to be revisited and modified by the Arabs during their rule of Sicily.

Another legendsuggests that the Arab women from the Caltanissetta Castle were the first to invent this recipe. According to this particular tradition, Cannoli originated in the harems where the concubines would shape the pastry to honor the sultan’s “gifts.”

In an effort to kill time during the long absences of their spouses, the concubines would prepare dishes to occupy themselves. Apparently, they referred to an existing Arab dessert made with ricotta, almonds and honey and slightly modified it, thus creating what has, over time, become a universally popular dessert.

assorted cannoli flavours

Despite its suggested origins from Caltanissetta, Cannoli owe their worldwide notoriety to the pastry chefs from Palermo, who made the recipe what it is well known for today.

Credit is also given to the pastry chefs of Messina as they expanded on the traditional cannoli recipe, filling it with non-traditional ingredients such as dark ricotta and chocolate cheese mix.

Historically, the Cannoli was eaten around the Carnevale period but today is a dessert that is enjoyed all year round.

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