I fell in love with the city of Boston when I fell in love with my late husband, James. Born and raised in a small town not far from the city, James attended school there (located almost underneath the famous Citgo sign) and knew Boston well. James took great pleasure in showing me the sights of the city as we traveled home at the end of our honeymoon in September of 1997.
Once we found ourselves living in New Hampshire just over two hours driving time to the city, I envisioned us spending lots of time there. The history buff in me found Boston fascinating. The Coalcracker in me, having been an “arm-chair” traveler for most of my life, embraced the fact that I was going to be able to leave the chair and see New England and all it offered first-hand. Unfortunately, trips into Boston did not materialize the way I had hoped due to the brutal travel schedule involved with James’ job, especially during our early years there.
In 2010, James found himself home for a rare “long weekend” a few weeks before Christmas. We decided Boston was calling. James’ brother volunteered to babysit the miniature horses, Nigerian dwarf goats, and houseful of tiny Pomeranians. Blessed with a stretch of clear, dry weather — an unusual occurrence in New England in December — we loaded up the SUV and headed down I-93.
Saturday dawned clear and tolerable for that time of year. We boarded a taxi at the stand in front of the hotel and headed off to Faneuil Hall Marketplace (you cannot “hail” a taxi in Boston, you must get one at a taxi stand). We explored the waterfront then hopped on a trolley for a broad tour of the city. As I took in the sights and sounds of the city that is small in size but big in heart and history, I found myself thinking, “If I ever have to live in a city, Boston would be the one I’d choose.”
As the weekend drew to a close, and we packed our bags Sunday morning, James asked if there was anything else I would like to do before we left the city. I turned to him and exclaimed, “Yes! I want to hit the North End and Modern Pastry!”
Famous throughout Boston, Modern is the quintessential Italian neighborhood shop located in The North End — a mecca of Italian shops, bakeries, and eateries. The parking on narrow, busy Boston streets is a nightmare, so James dropped me off in the front of the shop. I pulled open the door, stepped inside, and was immediately overcome by the feeling of having stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting.
A line of customers filled the narrow space between display cases, each clutching a white plastic card bearing a number. The crowd consisted largely of locals who knew exactly what they wanted, but I just stood there, looking around, completely overwhelmed — transfixed on row upon row, case upon case, of trays of classic Italian cookies, pastries, and desserts.
To my right, nestled against the one wall that afforded them the little space they could carve out in that tight shop, sat a couple bistro tables each with two chairs. On those chairs perched some “little ‘ole gents and ladies” in their Sunday best, conversing in Italian, sipping espresso from delicate cups while dunking and nibbling on biscotti.
Still at least a dozen customers away from my turn at the counter, I was roused from my Rockwell painting by the realization that James had materialized at my side. He had miraculously scored a parking place after circling the block a dozen times. Now we had a problem; both of us were salivating, taking in the massive selection of goodies. We had to decide, in short order, what was going in the ubiquitous white bakery box that the ladies behind the counter deftly tied with twine before shooing you away to wait on the next person in line.
Having grown up in western Schuylkill County in The Coal Region, my experience with Italian pastries was fairly lacking; I was much more familiar with the PA Dutch classics of fasnachts and raisin-filled cookies. James. however, grew up in a small town outside Boston and his best friend throughout childhood was a part of a very traditional Italian family filled with great cooks. He was like a kid in a candy store pointing out childhood favorites. “I don’t know what to get!” I whispered as we approached the counter. “I want one of everything”, I whined. “Get a cannoli, hon. It’s right up your alley.” James said. “Trust me.”
And so, along with an assortment of glorious Italian pastries, a confectioners sugar dusted cannoli, freshly filled with a rich ricotta cream studded with miniature chocolate chips was among the goodies we carried from the shop. As we pulled away into Boston traffic, I just could not resist freeing that bakery box from the ties of twine that bound it. I peeked inside and came face-to-face with that cannoli. I look back and tell myself I really tried to resist the urge to dive in, but I didn’t — not in the least. By the time we traveled a couple blocks, I had practically inhaled it and, oh my, it was delicious! Even James’ laughter generated by the dusting of confectioners sugar that crawled across my lips and towards my nose did not deter or sway me. And thus began my love affair with the classic Italian cannoli.
“Leave the gun — take the cannoli”Clemenza, “The Godfather”, 1972
Back in New Hampshire, I tried cannoli at several restaurants and from baked-goods cases but always met with disappointment. The biggest issue always seemed to be soggy cannoli shells — brought about by the failure to fill the crispy shells with the ricotta filling immediately before serving.
The boonies of New Hampshire did not afford us an Italian market or bakery within convenient distance at which to buy ready-made cannoli or the shells to stuff myself. So, as the resilient Coalcracker and Dutchie that I am, I decided to make my own. They are not rocket science. All you need are a few pieces of equipment including cannoli forms, a pastry bag and optional decorating tip, something to cut a 4 1/2 inch circle, the ability to deep fry, and some patience while you navigate the learning curve.
Over our remaining years in New Hampshire, the occasional trip into Boston never again included a visit to Modern Pastry. After I lost my leg in early 2015, our trips to Boston ended all together. However, every time I made canolli in my kitchen, I could close my eyes and embrace the wonderful memories of one of the most enjoyable weekends of my time in New England. Now that James is gone, those memories mean more than ever before. I miss you, “Mr. Boston”. You were right, James, life with you was an adventure. I am absolutely heartbroken that it has come to an early end. Your last words to me were, “I’ll see you again in another place.”. I hold those words precious in my heart. Here’s hoping that “other place” will be Heaven’s version of the Modern where we can sit together, sipping espresso and nibbling on biscotti together for eternity.
- Use a really good quality ricotta which helps prevent the filling from being “grainy”. Buy ricotta that does noit contain gums, fillers, or stabilizers. Read the label! Adding some mascarpone also adds to the creaminess of the filling.
- Drain the ricotta well or the filling will be runny.
- The dough must be rolled thin or the final fried shell will not be crispy.
- Fill the shells immediately before serving, as needed..
Homemade CannoliCourse: DessertsCuisine: ItalianDifficulty: Intermediate
1 3/4 cups (250 g) unbleached all-purpose flour (scoop and level to measure)
1 1/2 Tablespoons (18 g) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, diced into small cubes
1/3 cup dry or sweet marsala wine, plus additional as needed
1 large whole egg
1 egg white, beaten (to seal dough edges when wrapped around cannoli form)
Vegetable oil or shortening, for frying (about 8 cups or as needed)
32 ounces (2 pounds) whole milk ricotta, drained very well (use ricotta that does not contain stabilizers, gums, or fillers) OPTIONAL: substitute 1 cup mascarpone for 1 cup of the drained ricotta
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or Grand Marnier
Optional: Chopped unsalted shelled pistachios OR mini semi-sweet chocolate chips, as needed to dip ends of filled cannoli in
Optional Confectioners sugar for dusting
- In a mixing bowl fold and stir together strained ricotta, mascarpone, if using, powdered sugar, cinnamon, vanilla/Grand Marnier. Transfer into a piping bag fitted with a large round or star tip. Refrigerate several hours. To USE: Pipe filling into cooled cannoli shells, piping from each end to fully fill. Dip ends of exposed filling in chopped pistachios or mini semi-sweet chocolate chips if you choose. Dust with confectioners sugar, if desired. Do not refrigerate unfilled shells. Fill shells immediately before serving. Store unfilled shells in an air-tight container.up to 4 days
- To a food processor add flour, sugar and salt. Pulse about 10 times. Add butter and pulse just until no clumps of butter remain.
- Add in marsala wine and whole egg. Pulse to mix well, add a couple additional Tablespoon marsala as needed just to bring dough together in a soft mass; dough will look shaggy.
- Shape into a round, transfer to an oiled bowl. Cover and let rest at room temperature at least 30 minutes to 2 hours.
- Heat 2-inches vegetable oil in a deep, heavy pan to 345 – 355 degrees or set up a tabletop deep fryer according to manufacturer’s directions. Working with half the dough at a time (keep other half covered) roll dough to 1/16th inch on a well floured board.
- Using a 4 1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut dough into rounds. Spray cannoli form with cooking spray. place on a round of dough near the edge of the circle then roll the dough around the form; where the dough will meet, wet edge with beaten egg white using a pastry brush or your fingertip,. Press edge to opposite side to adhere. Brush excess flour from scraps, press together gently, cover in bowl and let relax at least 10 minutes then roll and cut more circles for a total of 24.
- Using metal tongs, carefully immerse 4 to 5 shells in preheated oil and fry until golden brown and crisp, about 1 – 2 minutes. Adjust heat as needed to prevent over-browning.
- Remove from oil using metal tongs to grasp the cannoli shell; allow oil from inside cannoli forms to drain back into the frying oil, transfer to paper towels to drain. Use metal tongs or a towel to hold the end of the hot mold and carefully slide fried shell off of form. Repeat process with remaining dough circles.
- Allow shells to cool completely on a wire rack then fill with cannoli filling right before serving and garnish ends as desired (chopped pistachios, mini chocolate chips or dust with powdered sugar).