Take the Cannoli

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Not long after spotting the happy blue line on a pee stick, my husband and I moved into his parents’ guest house in a rural corner of northwest Connecticut to wait out the nine months of my pregnancy. The house, located in Kent Hollow, was accessed by the kind of New England roads that wind you deep into the woods until you’re certain you’ll never be found again only to pop you back out onto a recognizable interstate. Our driving took us through a tangle of bare winter trees past deep-set houses that must have been required by a state mandate to keep abandoned trampolines in their front yards as a means of collecting ice. Everything was at least twenty-minutes from home-base: supermarket, post-office, gym, and both cannoli purveyors.

Who can say what triggers a food craving during pregnancy? After we had eradicated the field mice, collected firewood, stocked the pantry, refreshed the bedding, and settled in for the duration, I assumed my primary craving would be domestic and predictable: ice cream. In the beginning it was. The Northville Market carried a Turkey Hill flavor featuring dark chocolate ice cream ribboned with wide veins of peanut-butter, and I was content to scoop a generous bowl and bring it into bed where I would set it on my belly and watch my son’s fetal kicks set the ceramic rocking while I listened to Keith Olbermann rant about George W. Bush. But whether it was a function of seasonal change—ice cream a poor choice in a drafty cabin in the middle of winter—or the serendipity of stumbling upon Cousin’s located on Route 22, my sweet tooth, primed by pregnancy and a new bon-vivant approach to eating, found few treats as worthy as cannoli.

Cannoli from Cousin’s came in two sizes: standard and mini. When you came in to pick them up, Vicki or Tony would pull shells from the well-lit cold case and bring the empty tubes into the back of the bakery to fill while you listened to an overhead television blare on about the Giants, Jets, or Pats. You could choose chocolate dipped shells or plain, and you could decide whether you wanted the standard filling or something more exotic. Sometimes you would have to come back because the shells weren’t ready. Cousin’s was located in Wingdale, New York, just shy of the Connecticut border, and it was close enough to send my husband out on a cannoli run without feeling like a terrible person. Well, dependent on weather. Panino’s Italian Gourmet Deli, on the other hand, was too far for such impromptu erranding, but the cannoli there— variations on a theme—were debatably as good or even better than Cousin’s, and they made a nice box of dessert when visiting my family in Westchester County or my husband’s grandmother in Wethersfield.

I have learned some things about cannoli over the years: that they are traditionally a Sicilian dessert and called cannolo when singular. Furthermore, having a strong Italian-American background, being raised in New York with legitimate goombas, and getting socked in the stomach with nostalgia any time I step foot into a place that ties white boxes closed with red and white string means that, regardless of fecundity, I will always be the prime audience, whether with child or not. In regards to fecundity, though, it should be noted that cannoli are thought to be a fertility symbol, but if this is because of the vague phallic shape and cream-filling, I think the Sicilians should try a little more subtlety with their symbolism. Incidentally, if cannoli really are influential in the realm of baby-making, once again I did things backwards. That is, eating cannoli after conception. I have also learned that someone on a bodybuilding website would like to know if you can make protein cannoli. The best answer I could come up with is no. Maybe you can, sir, but I say you may not.

I always chose—and still do—the standard cannoli: plain, crisp shell, fried to a brittle firmness, but not hard. One’s teeth should break into it easily. Then the filling I like is white, a bit floral, and run through with mini chocolate chips. It may be that I’m not as discerning as I could be. I may be partial to any cannoli that has been put in front if me, or it may be that I’ve never had a truly bad cannoli. What I do know, though, is that recipes vary widely. Just visit any recipe board on the Internet: You could use drained ricotta, ricotta impastata, mascarpone, some combinations of the above, and you could add cream cheese or milk or heavy cream. You could sweeten with sugar or powdered sugar, and you could add a variety of oils and essences: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, citrus zest, or something called fiori di sicilia. According to the bickering and hints offered, the recipes vary widely. You can be sure though that it would take a special occasion of tremendous import to convince me to make a two-step dessert, especially when a nice place down the road can make them for me.

Which brings me to this question: Is it possible that the proximity to the Amalfitano Bakery, a real gem of authenticity, influenced my decision to buy the house we now live in here in San Pedro, California? Would someone actually choose a house based on easy access to cannoli from a bakery that feels ripped from her childhood? It seems absurd. Surely it’s the maritime air and South Bay beaches just a jaunt away? Surely it’s the amount of house we got for the money and the nearness of family? Surely it’s the wild peacocks that wander the streets and the view of the harbor? Or, let’s admit that it could be, at least partially, the cannoli. Maybe a cannolo—crisp shell dusted with confectioner’s sugar and filled with cream hinting of cinnamon and orange—feeds into the strong pull of nostalgia. When I stand over the kitchen sink and make quick work of the pastry, not bothering with plate or fork, it’s not that I’m just enjoying a little treat in the here and now. It’s that I’m being pulled back through time so that I land for a moment in a house in the woods, and the snow is really piling up on the deck through the slider windows, but it’s all sweetness, fertility, and contentment as I wait for the birth of my little boy. Cannoli can be very fulfilling.

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