A Sweet Italian New Year: Cannoli Pound Cake

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Happy 2016! I hope everyone has enjoyed this holiday season and eaten some fabulous food. 🙂 Every year I pretend that I’m going to take it easy on the baking in January, but I guess there’s no point in such delusions, now is there? Let’s be real– I’m going to frolic in sweet, decadent, delicious desserts all year long, so I might as well just dive in head first! (See how I just justified that shit? You’re welcome.) It’s no secret that I have a drunken love affair with Italy, and I thought it would be great to kick off the year by blogging about an Italian-inspired recipe in anticipation of my Italy trip this summer. (Maybe, just maybe, I’ll manage to finish my blog posts from the last trip before then…) I am busily studying that beautiful Italian language that I plan to use to navigate through as many bakeries as possible, and I figure that it makes sense to take in as much Italian flavor as possible between now and then, am I right??

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But first, I should take a moment to discuss my 2016 goals. I’m hesitant to call them “resolutions” because we all know how that goes… Instead, I look at them as real and attainable goals that I have a better shot at accomplishing. Last year, my baking goals were as follows: improve my caramel technique, figure out why I can’t seem to properly dye frosting, continue working on my cake decorating skills, work on chocolate tempering, and start learning laminated pastry. I did take several classes on advanced pastry and chocolate techniques (though I haven’t done much at home, sadly), and the rest continue to be works in progress. This year, I’ll keep working on those, and I also plan to work more towards developing my own recipes, rather than adapting existing ones. It always amazes me to think back even a couple of years at how much my skills have progressed, and I know that I’ll never stop learning when baking is concerned!

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But back to this recipe. I saw Smitten Kitchen‘s Cannoli Pound Cake a couple of months ago, and I thought it would be perfect for the holidays. Although I’ve never been to Italy over the holidays, I know it’s one of the most beautiful and magical times to visit– it’s on my bucket list. Instead, I can bake the hell out of some Italian desserts in the meantime. Cannoli are special and festive in my book– not one of the things I’ve attempted at home. The most amazing cannolo I’ve ever had was in Taormina, Sicily a couple of summers ago, and ever since, I’ve been a little snotty about my cannoli. Were they filled to order? No? Pass. Were the shells made on-site? No? Bye. If you’ve had a true Sicilian cannolo, you’ll know precisely what I mean. If not, I recommend putting it on *your* bucket list. In fact, I’ll add “making cannoli at home” to my 2016 goals, just to up the ante. But for now, this cake will tide me over. It contains all the essential elements of cannoli: pistachios, chocolate, citrus zest, marsala wine, and of course, ricotta cheese. I don’t know if cannoli contain olive oil in some capacity or not, but Deb Perelman uses that for the fat instead of butter– she pulls out all the flavor punches to emulate Italian/cannoli flavor as much as possible. I think it’s a valiant effort, and I really enjoyed it, as did my Italian friends. It is super moist, chock full of flavor and texture, and despite several ingredients to prep, it’s pretty easy to pull together.

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The one thing I’d like to experiment with is the ricotta. I didn’t use fancy (i.e. fresh) ricotta because a) I don’t think Deb did when she made it, and b) I had just dropped a lotta dollahs on some nice ricotta for another Italian cake that I’m still working on. My one minor quibble with the recipe is that the ricotta flavor gets a bit lost. I’d like to try it again with a nice basket of fresh ricotta, and I predict that it will be even better. (If you do this, please let me know in the comments how it turns out.) The difference between a tub of ordinary supermarket ricotta and fresh ricotta (usually comes in a basket and packed in a little liquid) is pretty mindblowing. The former generally has a gritty texture and fairly weak flavor, whereas the fresh kind has a smooth, creamy, almost velvety texture once you drain off the whey, and it boasts a milky, slightly sweet flavor. (I love to eat it on top of an English muffin with salt and pepper for breakfast.) I’m plotting some sort of a ricotta-pistachio glaze on this cake next time…

If you’re a fan of cannoli or Italian desserts or have a soul, I think you’ll find this rather delightful. Let’s get this 2016 baking party started! 🙂

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Cannoli Pound Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Yields 1 8×4″ loaf

Try to use fresh ricotta cheese, such as Bellwether Farms Whole Jersey Milk Ricotta, which often comes packaged with some liquid. Drain the cheese in a fine-mesh strainer (no cheesecloth needed) for a few hours or overnight before using.

I always have a hard time telling when loaves are done, but mine was perfect at 62 minutes with a very moist texture and lovely, complex flavor.  This loaf will get very brown; resist the urge to pull it out too early– the middle must cook through.

  • 1½ cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (170 grams) mini chocolate chips or 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped into tiny bits
  • ½ cup (60 grams) pistachios, chopped small
  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
  • Finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sweet marsala wine or 2 tablespoons white wine (optional)
  • 1 cup (250 grams) whole-milk ricotta cheese (see note above)
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 or 2 pinches allspice
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

Place a rack in the center of an oven and preheat to 350°F. Spray a 1-pound loaf pan (8 x 4½”) with nonstick cooking spray (or grease with butter). Line the pan with parchment paper so that it overhangs on the long sides, and spray the parchment.

Whisk together the flour, chocolate chips, and chopped pistachios in a medium bowl; set aside. (Tossing the chocolate chips in flour helps prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the batter while baking.)

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Combine the sugar and the orange and lemon zests in a bowl and rub the zest thoroughly into the sugar with your fingers. The mixture will be fluffy and citrus-scented and flecked throughout with orange and yellow bits.

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Add to the bowl the olive oil, marsala, ricotta cheese, and eggs; whisk to combine into a fairly thin, homogenous mixture. Sprinkle the baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and allspice on top, and whisk to combine everything.

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Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the flour/chocolate/pistachio mixture into the wet ingredients until just blended.

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Scrape the pound cake batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 55-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center cracks of the cake comes out clean. Make sure the batter in the cracks is cooked before removing the cake from the oven. Transfer the pan to a wire cooling rack and let the cake cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Pull the parchment paper up and out of the pan, and let the loaf cool to room temperature on the rack.

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Dust with confectioners’ sugar if desired, for a more festive look. (I… forgot.)

The pound cake will keep for at least 3 days (didn’t make it past that), and its flavors will continue to develop, so there’s no need to snarf it all on the first day… though you’ll want to. Store it in an airtight container at room temperature.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.

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