Every Thanksgiving, my siblings and I were transferred by my father from suburban Orange County to suburban Los Angeles County. He’d pack us into his car and along the way we’d listen to the same four cassette tapes we’d been listening to for years — the cast album of A Chorus Line, the Lesley Ann Warren version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Annie and/or the original Broadway cast album of Camelot. Sometimes a little Glenn Miller was thrown in, but there was always the treat of Don Ho‘s “Tiny Bubbles” at the end of each tape to signal to my father that it would soon be time to flip over the cassette and play the other side. Thus entertained, we would make our way to my great aunt Marie’s house in Pasadena, Sunday clothed and empty stomached.
My brother , sister and I were greeted in the traditional Sicilian fashion of hugs, kisses and painful cheek-pinching. This typically scared the hell out of me and managed to add an uneven rosiness to my complexion but, even as a child, I understood it was a trade off — a little pain in exchange for something I’d been looking forward to eating since the previous Easter.
It would be a long time before I could get to them — several hours and a few hundred courses of food would be served before I could make myself sick on that mixture of ricotta, sugar and thin fried dough.
After the physical attentions were over, we’d work our way to the breakfast room, where the front half of the table would spill over with various antipasti — salami, cheeses, olives, roasted peppers. The back half of the table was laid out with booze — wine, vodka and scotch. I was allowed ginger ale. This was enough to keep the mouths of the men and children of the family busy for the next couple of hours while the four sisters (my grandmother, Aunt Celie, Aunt Theresa and Aunt Marie) finished preparing our dinner, laughing, yelling and coughing up bits of lung as they went. I busied myself playing under the lemon trees, looking out over the terrace at the Rose Bowl in the near distance, occasionally throwing rocks in its general direction and wondering how much it would hurt if I fell off the retaining wall and into the brush and roses below.
Sitting down to dinner, we would first be presented with soup, generally some sort of minestrone. When that was cleared, out would come individual bowls of ravioli and a giant tureen filled with what my family referred to as “the Sauce”– one of tomato, of course, studded with an alarming amout of meatballs, sausage and spiedini.
That would have been enough for me. It would have been enough for any normal person.
After the subsequent salad course was finished, my brother and I would get up from the table and lie on the floor in order to flatten out our stomachs, thinking that such an action might aid in the digestion of what we had just eaten, More importantly to us, it was a dramatic signal of our discomfort in full view of the rest of the family. We knew we had a long way to go.
After our little digestive break, I would reposition myself back at the table, fortify myself with a sip or two of red wine cut with ginger ale and brace myself for what the rest of America was eating at the same time — Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. And I do mean all of them.
How these old women ate like this I will never know. My Aunt Celie was tiny, about 4′ 11″. Where did she put it? It would take weeks of stomach-stretching meals to prepare one’s self for such a dinner, but these women all managed to maintain their figures. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.
After dinner, we would all repair to various parts of the house to deal with our food comas as we each thought best. The men would watch football, my sister might disappear into a book, the woman would scuttle back into the kitchen to do a few dishes. I would will my stomach to process the week’s worth of food intake I had consumed over the last few hours in order to ready myself for that most important, final object of childhood gluttony — dessert.
Reconvened at the table, coffee and after dinner drinks were served. I think my family would have considered it un-American to leave pumpkin pie off the table, so it sat, largely unattended, between two enormous platters of cannoli — one tray studded with chocolate, the other with candied citron. I politely ate one with citron to make my aunts happy, then made my way to the chocolate ones. I might have been in pain, but it was sweet.
After dessert, I would lie back down on the floor until I could join my aunts back in the now-cleared breakfast room and watch them play penny poker with coins hoarded in their prescription bottles. It was a morbid touch, reminding me just how old these women were, how frail they were becoming. But they were very much alive on these holidays, showing the rest of us they still had it where it counted — in the kitchen. Sometimes they would let me play cards with them, occasionally stealing a sip of scotch, trying not to get the cards dirty with my powdered-sugar-and-ricotta-caked fingers.
To make the shells, you will need either cannelli ( little metal cylinders used specifically for cannoli making) or little wooden rods, which can be made by cutting a broomstick into 4 inch lengths.
I have included a recipe that yields a lot of pastries. I figure, if one is going to make cannoli, one might as well make enough to feed the Italian army. If you only plan on feeding the army of, say, San Marino, halve the recipe.
Also, I have abandoned the candied citron and chocolate garnish of my childhood for ingredients that I believe compliment the ricotta rather than overtake it.
2 pounds ricotta cheese (Use the best you can find. Sheep’s milk is my preference)
2 cups superfine sugar
1 cup pistachios, toasted and chopped
zest of either one orange or two tangerines
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
8 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
canola oil for deep frying
additional egg white
1. Mix ricotta with one cup of sugar, 4 tablespoons of honey, vanilla, nuts and citrus zest. This can be done by hand, but I prefer to use a stand mixer with paddle attachment, which blends the ingredients better and incorporates more air, making for a smoother, creamier mixture than I can provide doing manually. Cover and refrigerate.
2. Mound flour on a clean surface, make a well in the center, pour in the wine. Add the honey, the remaining sugar, salt, whole egg and egg white and knead until you have a fairly stiff dough. Or, do what I did after photographing the above — decide that this step is an unnecessary pain in the ass and throw it all in a stand mixture with dough hook attachment. Shape dough into two disks, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for two hours.
3. Roll dough out as thinly as possible and cut into 4 inch squares. When I say “as thinly as possible,” I mean it. Roll it out and then keep rolling. It’s a dough as tough as the old Sicilian broads who used to make them. You should be able to read a newspaper through them. Wrap them around oiled cannelli diagonally so that they overlap slightly. Press closed using a little egg white to make them adhere. Heat the oil to 350F. Fry the tubes until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and cool enough to handle safely. Slide pastry off cylinders while still warm.
4. Spoon the ricotta mixture into either a pastry bag with a wide tip or, lacking that, into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag, trimming the corner to the desired width. Fill pastry, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Garnish the exposed ricotta mixture with more pistachio, chopped as finely as you wish, if the mood strikes.
If you plan on preparing this all in advance, as you should, please keep in mind that a crisp pastry shell becomes soggy when allowed to sit filled for an extended period of time. I am most likely insulting your intelligence by suggesting that you fill the shells immediately before serving, but there I go.
Today, I will not be with my family. Most of the old revellers are dead, but I will call and send my love to those who remain. Instead, I will spend the day eating, drinking and playing games with the good friends I now consider my new family here in San Francisco. I may not tell them I love them in so many words, but I will make them cannoli.