I think this post should be filed under “I-Can’t-Just-Leave-It-Well-Enough-Alone”. Because, really, I can’t. Here’s the rub: while, in thirty-four years of eating I’ve eaten many a cannoli, I could count probably on one hand the number of times I have actually enjoyed it. This, coming from an Italian (and even more so a Sicilian) food fanatic, is a very sad, even embarrassing admission. But it’s true.
If I think about it, the components themselves sound absolutely amazing. Sweet ricotta lightly nuanced with orange zest and cinnamon – delicious! Crunchy cannoli shell – incredible! But somehow, when I get an actual cannoli and bite into it, I am almost always disappointed. The filling, often, tastes starchy, almost glue-like; it is often so incredibly sweet that no other flavors shine through. The shell is almost always too hard, too sandy-tasting. Perhaps my disappointments stem from a certain inexperience, but here we are. And I have a crepe cake to show for it.
I don’t know how I first conceived of a cannoli masking as a cake. At first I thought of a traditional layer cake but the idea felt somewhat unexciting. Somehow, in my mind’s palate, the ricotta filling and the cake layers, while sounding good, needed more. The filling needed a more delicate background against which to truly shine. My next idea led me to individual crepes, rolled up with a ricotta filling and served individually. But for some reason it lacked the ta-da! aspect of presentation. I was already thinking of doing a mushroom duxelles crepe cake for Mother’s Day brunch, and decided that doing two crepe cakes side by side might be too much.*
And so, I was almost ready to present this cake before you. The cake was almost perfect, but it was missing something.
But then something happened. Andrew took me out for my birthday to Aldea, an incredible Portuguese restaurant run by a very talented chef, George Mendes. We sat at the bar, facing the open kitchen – it was like theater to me. My main course emerged (a duck paella-like dish) and the plate had been dotted with these small orange blobs that tasted of the most intense orange I’ve ever had. On their own they were stupendous, but mixed with the saffron rice and the salty black olives – the puree was revelatory. Curious, I asked our server about it, and she went back into the kitchen to find out. A few minutes later, the chef himself (!), came over and explained exactly how he made the puree. And then, moments later, he returned with a small container of the puree, “This is for you to take home. It’s amazing on toast in the morning.”
I was floored by that small, kind gesture alone. I managed to squeak out a thank-you,
but in my head all I kept thinking was, “This is it! The missing element to the cannoli crepe cake.”
And there you have it. A little patience and a touch of serendipity – and the most amazing orange puree that will transform not just a cannoli cake, but just about anything that could use a little burst of sunny citrus.
As for a traditional cannoli, perfecting it is one of my many summer projects albeit slightly below getting married and finishing another book. But only slightly.
*If anyone wants to see a mushroom duxelles crepe cake, speak up. Maybe it’ll be perfect for a Father’s Day brunch? Not that Mother’s Day brunch should be all dainty and sweet and Father’s Day brunch should be all manly and savory.
Cannoli Crepe Cake
The orange puree here is entirely George Mendes recipe, as told to me. I approximated the number of minutes to whip the puree to get the consistency I had at the restaurant. The puree will look an awfully lot like curd, but the beauty of it is that it’s vegan friendly. Of course, my ricotta filling throws that notion right out the window.
For the Ricotta Orange Filling:
2 cups fresh ricotta (homemade is always best*)
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
For the Orange Puree:
1 orange, preferably organic
1/2 cup sugar
For the Crepes: (makes about 16 crepes)
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
4 large eggs
1/4 cup unsalted melted butter, plus additional for the pan
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brandy
1 scant tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Make the Ricotta Orange Filling:
1. In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, powdered sugar, cinnamon and the orange zest. Refrigerate until needed. [*If you decide to make your ricotta at home, be sure to drain it until it’s thick and creamy, not completely dry. Depending on how you’re draining your ricotta, that time will vary – I use flour sack towels and it takes about 6 to 8 hours. When I use cheese cloth, that time goes much, much faster. My advice to you is check on your ricotta until it’s the consistency of whipped cream cheese.]
Make the Orange Puree:
2. Zest the orange, making sure to have nice long strips of zest and discarding any pith you might inadvertently get. Cut the orange into large chunks, discarding any pits. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and blanch the zest in boiling water for 2 minutes. Transfer the zest to an ice bath. Repeat the process 2 more times.
3. While you blanch the zest, bring 1/2 cup of water and the sugar to a boil. You will have more simple syrup than you will need. You can add the syrup to your morning iced coffee, cocktails, what-have-you. It’s good for 2 weeks.
4. Add the blanched zest, the orange segments, and 1 tablespoon of the simple syrup to a blender. Starting on low speed and gradually increasing to high, puree the mixture for about 8 minutes or until it becomes thick and emulsified. Refrigerate the puree until needed.
Make the Crepes:
5. Place the flour, milk, eggs, butter, sugar, brandy, vanilla extract, and the kosher salt into a blender and whip on high for 2 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
6. Warm a 10-inch crepe pan (or another shallow non-stick pan) over medium heat. Brush the pan very lightly with melted butter. Ladle 1/4 cup of the batter onto the pan and quickly swirl the pan to coat the bottom with the batter. Let the crepe cook, undisturbed for about 2 minutes. Using a small offset spatula (I find these work best for me), flip the crepe over and finish cooking the other side, about 30 seconds to 1 minute longer. Transfer the cooked crepe to a plate to cool. Repeat with the remaining batter. You can stack your crepes on top of one another and then gently peel the crepes off – don’t worry, they won’t stick.
Assemble the Crepe Cake:
7. Lay 1 crepe on plate or a cake stand. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta filling over the crepe and dot with 2 teaspoons of the orange puree. Spread the puree. Top with another crepe and repeat with the filling and the puree until you are out of crepes. If you have enough ricotta at this point, you can spread the remaining on top of the last crepe. [I don’t recommend mixing the ricotta filling with the orange puree because if you have any puree left over, you really want to save it to put over your morning toast – it’s divine.]
8. Serve the cake immediately or refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. The cake should stay good for about 4 days, if it lasts that long.
Serves 8 to 10