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Cannoli that won’t bust the carb count

Cannoli paste my way

This is a story about frugality–of the serendipitous sort.

The other week my daughter was with me at the supermarket (sometimes a mistake, sometimes an inspiration), and asked if we could get a packet of sugar cones to go with a drum of Dreyer’s ice cream. This was a trade-off for forfeiting Baskin-Robbins, whose ice cream is consistently higher in fat and carb than Dreyer’s or Breyer’s.

(Shakespearean aside #1) The B-R nutrition brochure is worth a pretty serious look for calories, fat, carbs, the total picture. You can definitely eat a days’ worth of calories–upward of 1500–in a single sitting if you order one of the fancier items. Skip the soft serve and stick to the single cone, for sure.

Not that we never stop in for a cone, but we never knew what the sugar cones were worth carbwise so Abby was limited to a paper cup or a cake cone. And of course for the price of two modest single cones at B-R, you could buy a 1.5 qt. carton at the store and scoop about 10 servings out of it yourself.

In the supermarket, the box with the sugar cones says 10 grams for Keebler and 11 grams for the Ralph’s (Kroger-affiliated) store brand, which is on sale, and about 50 calories per cone. The sugar cones have surprisingly simple ingredient lists for a processed food–wheat, brown sugar, vegetable oil, oat fiber (Ralph’s version) and a bit of salt (though not much–20 mg/cone) and maybe a little caramel coloring and malt flavoring.

But of course the ice cream tends to run out a bit sooner than the cones. And then what? Here’s where the “frugality” comes into it again (okay, I’m sort of rolling my eyes too, but still.)

I had about half a quart of ricotta left over from manicotti (same idea as for the microwaved stuffed shells, only using a plastic baggie with a corner torn out to pipe the spinach and cheese filling into both sides of the parcooked pasta tubes–worked pretty well actually). And ricotta, even on sale, is kind of expensive if you just let half of it sit in the fridge until it goes bad because there isn’t quite enough for another batch of pasta and you don’t know what else to do with it.

So anyway, the availability of leftover ricotta (I’m too cheap to do it with a brand new carton) plus the leftover cones added up in my head the other night to “Hey! Impromptu cannoli! Right now! And I don’t even have to go back to the store!”

I should probably explain.

The first cannoli I ever had were also the best. The parents of one of my sister’s high school friends ran a tiny Italian deli and specialty shop way out near the airport of our town, and what can I say–it was worth the schlep. In addition to imported pastas and olives and pickled peppers and salami and so on, you could buy a tub of their own fresh cannoli paste and a box of carefully packed pastry tubes so you could assemble the cannoli yourself at home and not risk sogginess or breakage on the way.

The D’Elicios’ cannoli paste contained ricotta, of course, sugar, and something else that I finally pinned down as lemon (and possibly orange) rind. And it was heaven on a spoon. So good I asked my mom to bring a box of their cannoli instead of a birthday cake to my college dorm  for my 18th birthday.

How was I to know that would be the last of the really great cannoli for decades? Since moving away from home in my 20s, I’ve eaten cannoli at restaurants and bakeries all over the country and nothing has really come close. The cannoli are always either overdone with fancy add-ons like chocolate frosting or cocoa, or too sweet and powdered to within an inch of their little lives. Or the filling’s stale and stiff, like white icing that’s been sitting on a cake in the freezer for a month, or they’ve been sitting around filled long enough for the delicate, fracture-prone shell to go soggy. It’s enough to make you give up hope. NONE of them have lemon or orange peel in them.  No idea why.

The latest cannoli my daughter had was tiny–a minicannolo. Possibly a microcannolo. Two inches long by half an inch wide, prettily dressed in chocolate drizzle. It turned out to be filled with a too-rich cream cheese filling that was not the real deal and stiff as a board (also a bit soggy/stale on the crust). It was Whole Foods’ version in a paper doily and it was okay for the moment, but not exhilarating. And when we got home we discovered it packed a lot more carb than it looked like when we’d estimated insulin for it.

Somehow, when the cannoli let you down, you put up with it repeatedly, but if they overload your kid, you declare war and say, “I could do better than that!” Or I do. I’m trying to stop doing that every time, really I am.

In short, none of the non-D’Elicio’s cannoli in my life have ever managed to capture that light, fresh flavor or the crunch of a fresh untrammeled shell. Not even my own homemade ones, until now.

Most cannoli recipes are loaded with powdered sugar that’s supposed to help stiffen the filling so it doesn’t leak or run in the shell. Maybe I should be more specific and say American cannoli recipes, because the very similar “cassata” cheese-filled pastries I ate in Sicily way back when weren’t half as sweet and they tasted fine.

In my experience, if you follow these recipes, you first see the cheese go soupy and then it takes a lot of powdered sugar and some refrigeration to make up for it. In the days when I’d make them for a party, the same thing happened every time. I don’t know why it took me so long to stop being dutiful and disregard the standard recipes, since they didn’t really work all that well.

But now, having to think about lowering the sugar and starch content to something reasonable for my daughter, I find myself thinking how to boost the actual flavor of a dessert while lowering the sugar or carb load. I’d rather my taste buds work harder and perceive sweetness via suggestion than have a lot of sugar mixed in without it really registering.

So: for thickeners–cream cheese or mascarpone would certainly lend stiffness without all the sugar but it’s wrong, somehow, heavy and cheesecaky in the mouth. Also high-calorie for a small amount.

Ricotta by itself is a pretty low-carb food, 3-4 grams per 1/4-cup serving, and you can get it anything from whole milk to skim. It’s also usually pretty stiff right out of the carton–maybe if you don’t overstir or ruin it with big liquids or an overload of sugar, the texture will be fine?

So how much sugar do you actually need? Turns out it doesn’t have to be that much and plain granulated is fine. I find that for a cup of ricotta (4 servings, more or less), a tablespoon or two at most, say 15-30 g. of sugar by weight, is plenty for a lightly sweet filling that won’t liquefy. But that’s pretty plain and bland. To make that small amount of sugar count for something and taste like more, you can add something sweetly aromatic like vanilla or almond extract or cinnamon. Or you can add tang.

A small dollop of plain yogurt (the thick well-drained part on the sides of the open carton is better than the liquidy stuff down in the middle)  gives the filling tang without liquefying it or adding a lot of carb or fat, and that acidity somehow plays up the sweet and makes it count more. A dollop of Greek-style very thick (2% or less fat) yogurt would probably work even better since it would help stiffen the mixture while still providing tang.

And frugality trick #3:

For aromaticity, I decided to use citrus peel. This is on the cheap, no kidding–it’s not the McCormick’s or Spice Islands dried lemon peel, which has nearly no flavor left and costs at least a fiver. I don’t usually go for organic fruit unless the price is reasonably close to the regular, but when I do, I make the best use of it I can.

Whenever I get organic lemons or oranges (or in this case tangelos), I wash them well (soap and water, don’t laugh–takes off at least some of the wax and/or lac resins even the organic ones are treated with) and save the peel in the freezer in a plastic zip baggie–grating the peel is a lot easier if it’s frozen, and months later you can still get second benefits from the same fruit for sauces, desserts, maybe microwave marmalade, etc. For cannoli, it gives you great lemon/orange flavor without adding liquids. And you don’t have to spend vanilla or almond extract or whatever on your recipe this time.

Desperate Shakespearean aside here: My only prejudice in this regard is Meyer lemons–call me a culinary infidel if you must, but I actually dislike them. People say they’re milder and sweeter than the usual Eureka lemons, but I think the juice is acidic without freshness and the rind always smells to me like rubber gloves. Awful and disappointing and here in Pasadena, people grow them and fuss over them and offer them out to their friends like personal trophies and what do you do? Grin, bear it, bury it in someone else’s backyard? Yeesh. So if you like Meyer lemons, fine, but for g-d’s sake don’t put anything belonging to them in my cannoli.

A small grating of lemon and tangelo peel in the ricotta filling did exactly what I’d hoped–it brought it a lot closer to D’Elicio standard. Chilling helped too and I even stuck it in the freezer a little while just until it thickened up a bit (and since it’s in the 90s here now, I figured that could only be a good thing).

As for the cones–the topic I started with–how well I know that a sugar cone is not a cannoli shell. But it tastes pretty good, stays crunchy longer, has relatively little  in the way of industrial ingredients for a commercially sold product, and is close enough for folk music on a hot night after supper. It’s also a lot less expensive and you don’t have to go to a fancy boutique imported food shop to find it. And for something relatively unsweet (compared with commercial pastries and the birthday party fare she envies), a cone filled just to the rim with this chilled ricotta filling still gets the nod as a pretty good impromptu dessert from my eleven-year-old.

The final product--impromptu cannoli, happy kid, relatively low carb

Cannoli My Way (makes about 4)

  • 1 c. part-skim ricotta, well drained (fairly stiff)
  • dollop (heaping tablespoon or so, maybe 1/4 c.) plain nonfat yogurt (milk and cultures-only style)–the thicker portion of the yogurt, if it’s already started to separate out, or Greek yogurt
  • 1-2 T sugar (just to taste)
  • gratings of lemon and orange or tangerine etc. peel, about 1/2 t. total
  • flakes or minichips of semisweet or dark chocolate, optional (we didn’t have any and running to the store would ruin the frugal fantasy, but if you happen to have a little, why not)
  • dusting of cinnamon, optional
  • store-bought sugar cones

Mix all ingredients together and taste for sweetness–should be lightly sweet, fresh, not too pasty or caky, with a hint of tang. Chill in the fridge or freezer just until cold/thickened–freezing all the way will give you a crumbly rock (good-tasting, but still a rock), so don’t freeze it solid. Spoon filling into store-bought sugar cones just to the rim (it won’t really scoop like ice cream) and eat quickly.

CARB COUNT: Makes about 4 cones at about 17-23 grams of carb each, depending how much sugar you put into the cannoli paste.

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