Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Holy Cannoli, Batman: KCRW’s 5th Annual Pie Contest Serves Up Childhood Creativity

I don’t remember when or where I had my first cannoli. It was probably at Giuliano’s, which has been the go-to Italian mercato of the South Bay ever since I was a kid. There was nothing in my previous pastry-eating experience to prepare me for this unusual treat. The plain, yet oddly satisfying cookie-like shell and the vague sweetness of ricotta cheese laced with chocolate and candied fruit, was so unlike American cheesecake from a deli.

And I don’t know how I came to the conclusion that real Italian cannoli must be made by cloistered nuns, toiling in some medieval kitchen with a wood-burning oven. Maybe it was the exoticism of the pastry, which rivaled anything that Dolly Madison or Hostess could churn out in the 1970s. I learned later that cannoli actually originate from Sicily, where the only possible connection to divinity is a “Godfather.” No matter, my saintly image of the pastry has stuck.

Mini cannoli from Amalfitano's Bakery, San Pedro
My love of cannoli is often sullied by the fact that when you bite into one, the shell shatters, spilling sticky ricotta and chocolate filling all over the place. The inconvenience is heightened by the fact that I for some reason am usually blessed with cannoli while in the car. I brake for bakeries, and when I find myself passing Amalfitano’s Bakery on Western Avenue on the way home from the gym, I can’t resist going in.

While brainstorming for my entry to this year’s KCRW Good Food Pie Contest, I thought of the genius solution of flattening out the tube-like cannoli shell to a pie shell.

I envisioned myself clamping two Marie Callender’s pie tins together with a blob of cannoli dough in between them. But the prospect of dunking them in a vat of boiling oil would only amount to a stunt that would earn me the “Most Dangerous Baker” award. Ever health-conscious (and lazy!), I set to work searching out recipes for cannoli shells that could be baked in an oven, hoping to ease my way into a worthy pie shell.

But all the recipes and videos online clearly underscored the fact that a cannoli shell is not a cannoli shell unless it is fried. I puzzled again over how I would achieve a pie or bowl-shaped vessel of deep-fried dough safely. Then I hit upon it: I would get one of those metal baskets used to form and deep fry tostada shells. The cannoli “pie” would be a bit undersized, but that would be all right. 

Gonna fry now: Cannoli dough is formed into
a "pie shell"
with the help of a tostada mold
For me, giving something the “old college try” includes doing what I actually did in college – waited until the absolute last minute. The night before the KCRW contest, I did a test run in my kitchen.

The oil – three bottles of 100% Natural “Wessonality” – took forever to heat. We kept testing it with a meat thermometer, which had to wind itself around the dial nearly twice to meet the required 350 degrees. I periodically dropped tiny wads of cannoli dough into the oil, hoping to see them start sizzling and rising to the top. When one of these finally buoyed its way optimistically to the top of the pot, we cheered.

In the meantime, I had rolled out a disc of the fragrant cannoli shell dough, just big enough to make a prettily fluted bowl, and secured it in the wire baskets. I dunked it in the pot of oil, which bubbled happily with a professional-sounding sizzle, not unlike the sound of onion rings being cooked at your favorite charbroiler.

My excitement was tempered by the need to know how much time was necessary to cook a large cannoli “bowl” thoroughly.  I peered at the darkening color of the shell through the bubbling oil. Having noted the time on my phone – which may or may not have a stopwatch, but I’ll never know – I saw that it took about 3.4 minutes to fry the shell to a nut-brown perfection.

I was way too excited about having created such a large and unwieldy food item, using a potentially hazardous and none-too-calorie-conscious method. When it was sufficiently cool to the touch, I greedily tore a swath of the shell off and ate it. It was amazing, like a cross between a donut and a pie crust. I couldn’t stop eating it. For a moment, I considered the possibility of winning – the pie pundits always say it’s all about the crust, and mine was pretty darn good. And then, due to the late hour and impending panic that the contest was the next day, I worried that the next attempts would not be as successful, but they came out beautifully. 

It's all about the crust: Cannoli dough "pie shell"
is flaky, with complex flavors from cinnamon
and splash of Marsala wine.

I wish I could say the same for my cannoli filling, which although it was very pretty, studded as it was with 60% cacao dark chocolate chips and pistachios, was sadly nondescript in flavor. I followed a recipe that I found online that was promisingly luxe: along with the requisite ricotta cheese, a tub of buttery mascarpone was added to the mix. This resulted in a very creamy filling, but one that was kind of bland. Upon tasting it, I realized it needed the kick of some vanilla extract or something to bring out the richness of the cheese and other flavors.

This year, a new category for young bakers was introduced, and kids were invited to enter the contest. Their pies were not judged like the rest, but before the winners were announced, all the junior pastry chefs were called to the stage by “Good Food” host Evan Kleinman, who recognized their efforts and solicited hearty applause for them from the crowds milling about in Hancock Park. 

Pie on Ice: This one went to the judges.
When I was finally installed at the contest site with the other competitors to serve our pies to the public, I realized that I was placed at a table with four adorable little girls and their equally adorable entries. Standing under a canopy that just missed covering the pies on our table, I looked beseechingly at passers-by who overlooked my tiny pile of melting ricotta cheese for more tempting fare. One of the judges, came by, fork in hand, probably wondering how the middle-aged woman ended up in this lineup. He proceeded to taste each pie, and walked away telling the girls to, “Keep baking. I started when I was your age and never stopped.”

The young bakers had done themselves proud, with some classic fruit pies that were quickly disappearing. The girl to my right had created a magazine-worthy concoction of peanut butter, chocolate chips, and bananas in a chocolate crust that she had also labeled as a “cannoli pie.” She asked me without irony if I was entered in the “Kids’” category. Somehow managing a straight face, I said I was not.

Sister Mary Marsala (atop pie) and I greeted the crowds
with one of my Holy Cannoli Pies.
I tasted her pie, and it was amazing, hitting all the umami pleasure centers of the palate as only a classic combination of flavors can. She told me that she had been baking for a while and that next year, she would be able to compete as an “adult,” as she would be past the cut-off age for pint-size bakers of 12 and under. We compared notes on what our favorite things to bake were – she likes to make brownies and I am a cookie monster when I have the time.

As I was coming down off the highs of the brainstorming, worry, and euphoria of preparing for the contest, I felt a happy calm. I survived my third year of the KCRW Pie Contest, which has become a personal tradition. I didn’t win, which is also a personal tradition. But I was able to share the experience with well-wishers who recognize the excitement of competition, my creative and talented fellow contestants, and best of all, a cadre of dear and loyal friends who turned out to cheer me on and taste lots and lots of great pie. 

I am optimistic about another cannoli-fest in the near future. Since I don’t need to turn it into a pie next time, I’ll shape and fry the shells with their traditional cylindrical molds, and dip the edges in melted chocolate. Maybe I’ll add some zip with dried apricots or some candied citron. But the experience took me back to when I was a kid, and willing to try anything.

I once ate raw, unprocessed olives off the tree my Dad had planted in our front yard – big mistake. I tried to make perfume from vanilla extract and gardenia petals – also a disaster. But I learned from both of these trials. I not only never attempted them again, but took away a little more understanding about the chemical elusiveness of achieving taste and texture. And today, I know how to have a wild deep-frying adventure. I’ve got a tostada mold, and I’m not afraid to use it.

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