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Cannoli Sheet Cake

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What a bizarre time these (how many?) months have been… When everything locked down in mid-March and life shrunk down to me and my apartment walls, I found myself in the kitchen much more than usual– I was positively delighted at this silver lining of the unfathomable global crisis that had suddenly taken hold. Of course none of us knew how this mess would unfold, and it was painful to watch what was happening in my beloved Italy. In my imagination, I looked forward to baking and blogging all the live-long day once my school year ended in early June. Since my trip to Northern Ireland/London/Spain had obviously vanished into thin air, this year’s summer break would be ALL about finally posting the many recipes I’ve been hanging on to. But…. I just didn’t. Although I’ve been baking and developing recipes all these months, I just had no motivation to do any writing or photo editing whatsoever, at all, zero. All summer. Now, compared to the many people who are deeply suffering right now, I’ve been extremely lucky. Still, I’ve been feeling out of sorts due to corona dragging on with no end in sight, the impending doom of the upcoming election, unexpected personal heartbreak, plus not knowing when I can touch humans again, so writing just hasn’t materialized.

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But the weeks stretched and blended, and even baking became monotonous. (Who am I?) So I tried to shake things up a little with some local Northern California road trips– Napa, Point Reyes, and Jenner are always good for the soul, not to mention as much time as possible in San Francisco. Each time I brought my personal journal, and after staring at blank pages for a while, I slowly felt words start to flow. And finally it felt right to open up some blog drafts and revisit some of the recipes that I’ve loved from the past several months.

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Meditations upon life often lead me back to food, and my thoughts are never very far from… ricotta. This isn’t the first time I’ve spoken of my love for the fluffy goodness of my favorite Italian cheese product (see here, here, and here, to start). Many Italian desserts are not terribly sweet in the way that American desserts often are; ricotta is a common ingredient for fillings, creams, and toppings. Now, in Italy bakery cases overflow with sumptuous pastries brimming with fresh ricotta that is completely different than what most Americans would identify as “ricotta” that is commonly found in plastic tubs in the supermarket. This is not true ricotta. There, I said it. Technically ricotta is not actually a cheese; it is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process made with leftover whey, and the fresh kind comes in a basket that you have to drain, leaving behind a luxurious white cloud. The good news is that it is possible to find fresh ricotta in the U.S., such as Bellwether Farms in Northern California. If you cannot find it at a well-stocked market, I implore you to make your own– it is absurdly easy. I was afraid to try for years, but while in lockdown, I’ve been making a greater effort not to waste food, and I had both milk and cream about to expire, so I finally gave Smitten Kitchen’s recipe a try, and I’ll never go back to buying it.

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Now… I may have a slight conflict of interest. On one hand, I fully admit to being an Italian food snob– I can’t unsee the magical, yet simple, culinary artistry that I experienced in Italy. The love, attention, and care that Italians put into preparing food speaks to the depths of my soul. I’m pretty sure I was meant to have an Italian nonna to teach me how to roll cavatelli pasta and perfect my tomato ragù, but somehow I was born into the wrong family. Part of making Italian food authentically is that sometimes things have to be done just so, and you don’t mess with tradition. Sometimes this brings great comfort, other times I just chuckle, and other times it’s a bit maddening.

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Which brings me to cannoli and my conflict. It’s fair to say that I am ruined for all other cannoli after having them in Sicily and accidentally taking a one-on-one class with a pastry chef in Taormina. (Accidentally because I signed up for what I thought was a group class, but I was the only one enrolled.) Traditional Sicilian cannoli, while they can have slight variations, are pretty consistent: ricotta cream laced with candied orange peel and mini chocolate chips piped into a crisp cannoli shell, often dipped in chopped pistachios on the sides. Ricotta + chocolate + orange peel + pistachio… capisci? This combination is one of my favorites of all the Italian flavors. Thus, and here’s where the conflict lies, I am tempted to cannol-ify everything that I possibly can. Is it delicious to make things like pound cake and Italian crumb cake in the spirit of cannoli? Absolutely. Would Sicilians approve? Mmmm… I’m gonna guess there would be some head-shaking, quite possibly some exasperated hand gestures. 

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So on one hand, this Cannoli Sheet Cake is one of my favorite things that I’ve made in recent months. On the other hand, I sort of cringe just a smidge, because it goes against my belief in keeping Italian food as authentic as possible. But! If I tell you that it absolutely tastes like cannoli, does that make it better? I THINK SO. 

I made a few adjustments to the recipe from Bake From Scratch to skew it a bit more towards authentic. As I mentioned, Sicilian cannoli generally have candied orange peel and mini chocolate chips mixed into the filling. Furthermore, the dough for the shells should contain a touch of cinnamon and sweet marsala wine. The original version of this recipe called for none of those things (chopped chocolate has a slightly different look and effect than chips). Reflected below is my altered version, which I was soooo happy with! Also– the frosting recipe produced a massive amount, like I could almost frost a second cake, so I cut it to ⅔ of the original quantity. I also subbed mascarpone for the cream cheese the second time I made it, which yielded a fluffier frosting texture (the first batch was a bit softer), and I omitted the orange juice because why was there orange juice in there??

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Lastly, the baking time in the recipe is 40-45 minutes. When I first made the cake, I checked it at 35 minutes, and it was already overdone! I was soooo very sad. I made it a second time and found that 30 minutes was perfect, so I’ve suggested below to start checking for doneness earlier.

I was thrilled that this cake really, truly exudes the flavor of cannoli– I was actually surprised how much! It’s great for any celebratory occasion where you might serve a sheet cake, just a little swankier. And it’s certainly perfect after a special homemade Italian meal. I hope you enjoy this delicious tribute to Sicily’s most famous dessert!

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Cannoli Sheet Cake
Adapted from Bake from Scratch
Yields 24 servings

Make sure to use high-quality basket ricotta or make your own; common supermarket ricotta will not behave or taste the same. Definitely don’t even think about using low-fat ricotta.

For the cake:

  • 3 cups + 2 tablespoons (375 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1¾ cups (385 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks/170 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons sweet marsala wine (optional)
  • 1½ cups (360 grams) whole buttermilk
  • 1 cup (170 grams) mini chocolate chips
  • ⅓ cup (30g) finely chopped candied orange peel

For the whipped ricotta frosting:

  • ½ cup (115 grams) high-quality whole-milk ricotta cheese, homemade or store-bought
  • 3 tablespoons (45 grams) mascarpone or cream cheese, at room temperature (I preferred the texture of the mascarpone)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1⅓ cups (160 grams) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1⅓ cups (320 grams) heavy whipping cream

For garnish, to taste:

  • Mini chocolate chips
  • Chopped pistachios
  • Chopped candied orange peel

Make the cake batter:
Preheat an oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center position. Line a 9″ x 13″ baking pan with a large sheet of parchment paper, so that the excess extends over the sides of the pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.

Stir together the brown sugar and melted butter in a separate large mixing bowl until smoothly blended. Add the eggs and vanilla and stir until the mixture is well combined. Stir in the marsala.

Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, followed by half of the buttermilk, then repeat with half of the remaining flour and the rest of the buttermilk, stirring just until combined each time. Add the chocolate chips and candied orange peel to the last ⅓ of the flour and toss them together until the pieces are all coated, then add it all to the batter and mix just until combined (total of 3 additions of the flour mixture). Scrape the cake batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a small offset spatula.

Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (overbaking will yield a very dry cake). Set the cake on a wire cooling rack and let it cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Pull the cake up and out of the pan using the excess parchment paper handles, and let it cool completely on the rack.

Make the frosting:
While the cake is cooling, place the ricotta, mascarpone, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until completely smooth, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse just until incorporated; do not overmix. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.

Using a hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream at medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the ricotta mixture with a rubber spatula in 3 additions. Spread the frosting over the cooled cake with an offset spatula, creating swoops and swirls with the edge of the blade. Sprinkle the chocolate chips, pistachios, and candied orange peel evenly over the top of the cake. Let the frosting set for about 10 minutes before serving.

Store the cake in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Make ahead:
The frosting can be made up to a couple of days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2020.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. This includes recipes, photos, and all other original content. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dafna Adler and Stellina Sweets with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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