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Chocolate Cannoli and the Italian Birthday Feast

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Last weekend I attended the wedding of a childhood friend.  It was wonderful to catch up with the, “old gang” and find out what everyone had been doing in the years after high school.  Some of us moved away and others stayed close to home.  One amusing subject that came up was how we all tell strangers we meet that we are from Baton Rouge.  The fact is that we are from a small town across the river from Baton Rouge, but I have learned that for most people from other states, New Orleans is the only town, “on the map” in Louisiana.  Even so, Baton Rouge is the capitol, and we expect people to have heard of it even if they don’t know where it is.

Almost any woman from Baton Rouge whose mother cooked anything at least had a copy of River Road Recipes.  It is a cookbook published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge and although there have been four different River Road cook books, the first one, published in 1959 is a classic.

Until recently, I always used the River Road lasagna recipe, because that one was the recipe that my mother used.  It’s the one I remember bringing to the Girl Scout potluck suppers when I was growing up.  When I became a mother and started using that recipe, I always doubled the meat sauce, and it was always a hit – especially with the guys.  It was also guaranteed to feed the multitudes.

I mentioned in a recent post that it is a tradition in our family for the, “Birthday Girl/Boy” to choose their birthday meal.  In June, my oldest, “Sweet Thing One”  turned 17 and wanted to invite friends to her birthday dinner.  At first she requested pan sautéed fish.  When I learned that she was inviting six of her friends in addition to the eight family members I’d already invited, I suggested lasagna.  Her response was, “Only if it’s really yummy.”

Always a fan of Italian cuisine, I have recently been watching and learning from the many wonderful Italian chefs on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  I realized that the recipe that I had been using was not traditional, and remembered that my mother-in-law recently gave me an Italian cookbook that she found at the Pottery Barn.  The title is, The Italian Country Table: Simple Recipes for Trattoria Classics, by Maxine Clark.  Although I have not ever heard of Maxine Clark, I decided to try her recipe for, “Oven-baked lasagna” instead of my old tried and true.  I was glad I did.

I remembered that one of  my Sweet Thing One’s favorite Italian desserts is chocolate cannoli.  In fact, we once walked all over Little Italy in New York on a quest for chocolate cannoli and she had to settle for one that had a chocolate dipped cannoli shell and a regular ricotta filling.  A friend of mine who had once made chocolate cannoli shared a recipe with me some time ago, and I thought that this might be a good time to try it.  I gave my daughter a choice – cake or cannoli.  She said, “Can you do both?”  Since the cake she wanted was Italian Cream Cake, I said, “Sure, why not?!”  (Am I a glutton for punishment or what?)  I have used the same recipe for Italian Cream Cake for years, so I knew I could handle it.  Cotton Country Collection, a publication of the Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana has a recipe for Italian Cream Cake that turns out very moist, and has a pecan and coconut cream cheese icing that has me licking the bowl, the spoon and the beaters!

My daughter’s 17th birthday turned out to be a memorable one!  I did adjust the lasagna recipe a bit, as I felt that for the crowd I had, I needed more meat and tomato.  The cannoli was a hit, although my daughter’s friend thought they were eggrolls when she first saw those chocolate ricotta filled tubes of deliciousness.  The friend quickly learned what cannoli was.  I used the recipe my friend gave me and combined it with others.  The dough for the shells proved to be the biggest challenge.  I realized as I was working with the dough that it is really a basic pastry dough, such as a pie crust.  A little cold water went a long way in helping me to roll out the dough.  The recipe I have posted is a combination of a recipe given to me by  Matthew Mechana and this one at Cooks.com.

I learned a great deal from that  birthday dinner.  Tradition is important, but the most important thing about tradition is not necessarily doing exactly the same thing over and over again.  It’s about re-creating the feeling that you associate with that warm memory of what happened and that you want to create over and over again!

Chocolate and ricotta filled cannoli
These cannoli tubes filled with chocolate and ricotta fillings were delicious!

Cannoli Shells

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour, plus more for kneading
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 Tablespoon Cinnamon
  • 4 Tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces
  • 5 Tablespoons white wine or Marsala wine
  • 2 eggs beaten lightly
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Cannoli molds -- may be purchased at a kitchen store, or you may make them from wooden dowels.

Instructions

  1. Preheat vegetable oil to 375 degrees. (Or, if you do not want to fry them, you may bake these in the oven at 375 for 10 minutes.)
  2. Put flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl and stir to combine.
  3. Add butter and work with fingers until mixture resembles fine meal.
  4. Add wine and 1 egg.
  5. Mix with a fork until dough can be formed into a ball.
  6. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until elastic and silky.
  7. Wrap the dough in wax paper and let rest in a cool place for 2 hours.
  8. Divide dough into 8 balls.
  9. When you are working with this dough, remember it is pastry dough. Keep a glass of ice water handy as the dough will dry out. It helps to cover the dough with a damp cloth when you are not working with it. It helps to work in batches, frying around four at a time.
  10. Run 1 dough ball through a pasta roller on its widest setting, then repeat several times, gradually moving to narrower settings, until it can be run through at the narrowest setting.
  11. Or, if you do not have a pasta machine, roll each dough with a rolling pin until it is as thin as you can get it and still work with it.
  12. Cut the dough into 3.5" by 3.5" squares.
  13. Wrap each square around a cannoli form and seal the edges. Fry until golden brown.
  14. Allow to cool before sliding off of the mold. (The metal molds especially can get very hot. Be careful when you're removing the shell from the mold. You may want to use a butter knife to carefully slide the shell from the mold. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.
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Cannoli Filling

Ingredients

  • 3 cups of ricotta (I'm told sheep's milk ricotta works well if you can find it)
  • 1 2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

Instructions

  1. Beat ricotta with a mixer at high speed until smooth.
  2. Add sugar.
  3. Add vanilla.
  4. In a separate bowl, whip the heavy cream until thick.
  5. Fold the whipped cream into the ricotta/sugar mixture.
  6. If you want to have both chocolate and vanilla cream filled cannoli, then divide the filling into two bowls. Add cocoa to one of the bowls of filling.
  7. Chill the fillings for 1 hour before filling the shells.
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To assemble the cannoli, spoon a little of each filling into separate pastry bags.  Pipe the filling into each of the shells.  For a garnish, you may dip the tips of the filled shells into shaved chocolate, mini chocolate chips, crushed pistachios or chopped candied citrus peel.

Chill 30 minutes before serving.