The art of the Cannolo and Cassata: when sweetness of dessert transformed into a work of art

Bless the Sicilians, for their culture rich in delicious sweets, so today Italy and the whole world can enjoy many delicacies!

Tintu è cu nun mancia a ccassata a matina ri Pasqua!

Today we are going to talk about two of the most famous and tasty: the Cassata and the Cannolo. Let’s learn more about the history of these two sweets and how they are depicted in many works of art to represent the abundance of Sicilian culture, traditions, and identity.

The origin story of the desserts

Now, let’s take a trip back to Sicily’s antiquity, to when the Arabs still ruled the island around 827-1091 AD. Legend has it that the Cannolo was born in the area called “Qal’at al-Nissa“, today Caltanissetta, which translates to “Castle of the Women“. The Cannolo was born right here, within the walls of the harem inside the castle, where the Emir lived with his concubines.

In the palace, Arab women used to experiment with new recipes and prepare dishes and sweets to pay homage to the prince. Apparently, the concubines were also inspired by an ancient Roman recipe modified, however, in appearance to have an unusual phallic shape.

Around the same time, the Arabs imported various products to the island, including sugar, citrus fruits, and pistachios.

According to tradition, one night a shepherd decided to mix sheep’s ricotta cheese with sugar or honey: he named this dessert “quas’at” after the bowl in which the mixture was contained, and later, the dessert took the name “Cassata.

Years later, at the emir’s court in Palermo’s Piazza Kalsa, the cooks decided to wrap the dough in a sheet that was then baked in the oven.

The recipe of Cannoli: a trip between dough, cream and decoration

The crunchy part of the Cannoli begins with the dough, a skillful mixture of flour, sugar, butter, and white wine. Simple ingredients that are expertly worked into a soft, elastic mixture. A short rest allows the flavors to blend and create a perfect dough to roll out. Thin sheets wrapped around metal cannoli give the cake its iconic cylindrical shape, ready to be dipped in boiling oil.

Frying is a crucial step. The hot oil envelops the cannoli, causing them to swell and brown until they reach an irresistible crispness. This is when the magic is born: the dough transforms into a golden shell, ready to hold a heart of pure goodness.

Ricotta cream is the soul of the cannoli. Sifted fresh ricotta, powdered sugar, and a pinch of vanilla come together in a perfect combination of creaminess and sweetness. The ricotta gives structure and softness, while the powdered sugar enhances the flavor without overdoing it. Finally, vanilla adds a delicate and refined aroma that complements the harmony of the filling.

For a final touch of elegance and flavor, the cannoli are decorated with candied orange peel or dark chocolate chips. A contrast of colors and flavors embellishes the dessert and makes it even more inviting.

Arte dolciaria siciliana

Sweet journey of the preparation of Cassata

The gastronomic story would not be complete if we did not talk about our sweet and pretty cassata. The journey begins with the preparation of the sponge cake, which is soft and light. Eggs, sugar, and flour are skillfully mixed to create a dough that, after careful baking, will become the base of Cassata.
The real soul of cassata is the ricotta cheese, worked with passion to obtain a smooth, velvety cream. Sugar, candied fruit, and a dash of liqueur (such as maraschino or anise) are added to enrich the flavor and give it that unmistakable touch.

Cassata is also a work of art for the eyes. Its surface is covered with a coat of white icing, on which candied fruits of all shapes and colors are imaginatively arranged: oranges, citrons, pumpkins, and candied cherries create a veritable rainbow of flavors. To complete the work, cassata is often garnished with candied orange peel cut into thin strips, which perfumes the dessert and enhances its taste.

Cannoli and Cassata: symbolism and interpretation in the work of art

From a cultural point of view, both sweets have great significance for Sicilian traditions. As an undisputed symbol of Sicily, they are present in the most important cultural and religious celebrations such as Easter and Carnival… but there is even a Cannolo Festival!

The Cannolo’s distinctive cylindrical and phallic shape represents fertility and abundance, while the ricotta cream inside represents wealth and prosperity.

The rounded shape of the Cassata, on the contrary, represents perfection and harmony. Its colorful appearance brings a sense of liveliness and joy.

Moreover, because they are often served at festivals and celebrations, they also represent joy and togetherness.

The characteristics of both desserts are not only irresistible from a gastronomic point of view but have also seduced the eyes of artists. In fact, many creative people have captured them in their paintings or other art forms.

One example is the contemporary art of Sicilian artist Eugenia Affronti; through the surrealist approach of her paintings, the artist depicts the beauty of Sicily in a unique and creative way, depicting objects that represent the region as well as citrus fruits, Cannoli, and Cassata.

These irresistible-looking sweets also attracted the attention of one of Palermo’s young artists, Stefano Lo Voi. In February 2024, he presented his project “Teste di Moro Dolci Siciliani“. With his surrealist approach, he depicted sweets as if they were the hair of a Moor. The combination of bright watercolor colors made her design playful and lively.

Not only did he use the sweets to promote his Sicilian identity, but he also combined several other elements of Sicilian delicacies to represent Sicilian ceramic art from the details of his drawing.

Two other famous examples of how the Cannolo embodies Sicilian cultural identity are:

  • a scene from the film The Godfather;
  • and in the writings of Andrea Camilleri’s super famous Commissario Montalbano in which the protagonist is a big fan of Cannoli and Cassate often enjoyed in the company of friends and acquaintances during his investigations.

Cannoli e Cassata: a tongue-tingling journey between Sicily and Milan

Sicily is the undisputed home of the Cannolo and Cassata. If you are on the main island, you cannot miss the opportunity to taste them in one of the authentic places:

  • Pasticceria Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Modica): a real temple of Sicilian chocolate, where you can enjoy cannoli filled with ricotta cheese with chocolate from Modica in different variations;
  • Bar Vitelli (Catania): this place is famous for its Cassata siciliana, prepared according to the traditional recipe with ricotta, candied fruit and almond paste;
  • Pasticceria Florio (Messina): a historic establishment that offers a wide range of Cannoli and Cassate, as well as other typical Sicilian desserts.

dove comprare i migliori cannoli

Also in the capital of Lombardy, like Milan, we can find several Sicilian pastry shops where you can taste high-quality Cannoli and Cassata:

  • Pasticceria Marchesi (Milan): a Milan institution that offers a refined take on Sicilian pastries, including Cannoli filled with ricotta and pistachio and single-portion Cassatine decorated with fresh fruit;
  • Cannoli Siciliani by Cannoli Factory (Milan): a workshop specializing in Sicilian Cannoli, made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. It offers several flavor variations, including pistachio, chocolate, and salted ricotta Cannoli.

In conclusion, Cannoli and Cassata are not simply just sweets, but symbols of Sicilian culture and tradition. Their presence in works of art shows how these gastronomic masterpieces have conquered not only the palate but also the imagination of artists and writers, becoming true icons of Sicily.

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