After nine months of emergency displacement, our family is back home. Our 1925 house decided to grow mold to a disastrous level, causing months of remediation, demo, abatement and, finally, construction.
This means two things: One, I’m ready to celebrate our sweet return with a sweet treat; two, I don’t quite have a kitchen ready for cooking said sweets — so the barbecue and freezer have to suffice.
Letitia Clark’s “La Vita è Dolce: Italian Inspired Desserts” is exactly the fit to celebrating the sweet life home.
An Englishwoman living in Sardinia, Clark pulls from her Italian experiences. While giving a nod to tradition — there’s tiramisu and pabassinus (a spiced grape must raisin nut cookie) — her aim is recipes inspired by her life abroad and the people she meets. Clark’s own candied clementine fennel seed polenta cake is a perfect example of her creative interpretation on flavors of the region. Given the COVID-19 lockdown during her book’s development, with much of Italy at a standstill,it’s quite impressive how tangible she has made her Sardinian experience for us.
Part of our life in a trailer these past months involved finding ways to relax within relatively few square feet. With one dog, three kids, and my husband and I, the screen was our friend. We’d spend evenings binge-watching cooking shows and getting hungry for things we planned to make when we have a kitchen again.
We’d seen cannoli as the mystery dessert on “Crime Scene Kitchen” and put that on top of our list. Of course, cannoli can be found in “La Vita è Dolce” — where would the Italian sweet life be without them? There was also the pistachio-green princess cake from both “Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition” and “Crime Scene Kitchen” that looks much like the sugared fruit-bejeweled cassata cake from Clark.
We chose to leave the cassata and take the cannoli — nod to “The Godfather” completely intended. The cannoli turned into a frying session on the barbecue with my daughter juggling tongs, hot oil and an iPhone for TikTok. We had fun dashing in and out of the house exchanging fried shells for raw and back again. The ricotta chocolate flecked filling was just sweet enough and the candied cherries a perfect garnish.
I sampled a more adult recipe as well — coffee brown sugar granita with whipped cream. Amaretto-infused whipped cream is a dream, but when partnered with the icy crisp of sweetened coffee granita, becomes swoon-worthy.
I set my eye on the citrus Campari yogurt upside-down cake. And by the time this goes to print, I am hoping the gas will have been connected to the range and I’m able to inaugurate our new kitchen with the aroma of this Italian-inspired deliciousness.
There’s plenty more sweet to be had in Clark’s cookbook — bomboloni (doughnuts) with pastry cream, poached peaches with rose geranium served with ricotta fig gelato, tiny peach almond cookies filled with ricotta cream. I’m sure our taste for celebration hasn’t ended, and with Clark’s inspiration, being back home is the sweet life indeed.
You can make the dough ahead, like we did, or fry the shells and store them. But ideally, it’s best to fill and decorate the cannoli just before serving. Cannoli tubes can be found online and at cookware shops. I found I needed a bit more liquid to make the dough come together properly. Don’t forget there’s hot oil inside those tubes; be sure to tip them as you remove them from the hot oil.
For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lard or butter, at room temperature
1 heaped tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice
4 tablespoons marsala
4 cups sunflower or other flavorless oil, for frying
For the filling:
4½ cups ricotta (sheep’s milk if you can find it), drained
Generous ¾ cup sugar
4 teaspoons mild honey
½ cup dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), cut into small shards
For the decoration:
glace (candied) cherries
Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
To make the dough, put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
Add the lard (or butter) and use your fingertips to rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the honey, vinegar or lemon juice and marsala and mix to form a shaggy dough.
Knead the dough on a work surface for 1–2 minutes until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.
Roll the dough (this is easiest using a pasta machine but you can also use a rolling pin) to a 2-millimeter thickness. Using an upturned pint glass or a round cutter of a similar circumference, cut out 20 circles. Roll the circles with a rolling pin to extend them into long ovals, then roll the ovals over the Cannoli tubes. Dip your finger in water and wet the edges to seal them. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a large, deep, heavy-based pan (don’t fill it more than ⅔ full). If you don’t have a thermometer, test the temperature of the oil using a small piece of bread. If it browns after 30 seconds in the oil, the oil is ready. Fry the cannoli a few at a time for about 1 minute, turning occasionally, until sandy brown all over. (Remove the metal tubes while they fry, using tongs, if you can, to ensure the cannoli fry evenly in the middle too.)
Fish them out once they are brown and drain on a baking sheet lined with absorbent paper. Allow to cool completely before filling.
For the filling, beat the ricotta in a bowl with the sugar and honey until smooth and creamy (the sugar will dissolve as you beat). Gently fold the chocolate shards through the cream. Using a table knife, spread the cream into the cooked cannoli tubes, smoothing off each end.
Decorate with crushed pistachios, glace cherries or slivered candied peel and serve.
Makes 20 4-5 inch cannoli.
Coffee and brown sugar granita with whipped cream
Clark uses her leftover morning espresso, which given I make in a machine, I rarely have. Thankfully, this also works by brewing up very strong coffee via a French press, or by pouring hot water over ground dark coffee beans and letting sit for 3-4 minutes then straining with a sieve — your coffee should be a ratio of at least 2 tablespoons per 8 ounces of hot water. I recommend doubling the whipped cream recipe — use leftovers to make espresso con panna.
2 cups leftover strong espresso
5-6 tablespoons light brown sugar
Scant 1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Amaretto
If the coffee is cold, warm it slightly so the sugar will dissolve easily. Stir in the sugar (add more to taste) until completely dissolved, then pour the mixture into a rectangular container, put in the freezer and leave for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, remove the container and mash the contents evenly with a fork. Repeat this 3-4 more times at roughly 30-minute intervals until you have an even, flaky slush.
Whip the cream, icing sugar and Amaretto to soft peaks in a mixing bowl.
Serve the granita and cream together in glasses.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Citrus, Campari and yogurt upside-down cake
“Citrusy, light, moist, and with the slightly bitter kick of Campari in the background of every bite” — exactly what I plan to enjoy when my stove is operational. Make this one along with me. Clark recommends that for an Instagram-worthy cake shot, overlap the orange slices and once inverted, brush off any sneaky bits of cake that have cooked through the fruit.
For the upside-down decoration:
3 tablespoons Campari
2 teaspoons water
3 teaspoons sugar
2 oranges, finely sliced
For the cake:
6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
⅔ cup yogurt, plus extra to serve (optional)
½ cup mild light olive oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
5 tablespoons Campari
Zest and juice of 2 small oranges and 1 small lemon (around ½ cup of juice)
1⅓ cups sugar
1¾ cups, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Good pinch salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch cake tin with butter and line with baking parchment.
To make the decoration, put the Campari, water and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. Leave to simmer and reduce for 2 minutes. Lay the orange slices gently in the syrup, spreading them over the base in a single layer so they cook evenly and cover with a cartouche — a disc of waxed paper or parchment used to cover the tin allowing a little stam to escape, but keeping ingredients moist. Simmer on a low heat (making sure the sugar doesn’t catch at the edges of the pan) for 8-10 minutes until the oranges are just tender and pink all the way through. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
Arrange the orange slices in the base of the prepared tin and gently pour over the syrup from the pan. Set aside.
For the cake, whisk the butter, yogurt, olive oil, eggs, Campari and the zest and juice of the oranges and lemon in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.
Whisk in the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until you have a smooth batter (it will be quite runny).
Pour the batter into the prepared tin very gently, making sure not to dislodge your arranged orange slices.
Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, using a skewer or spaghetti strand to check it’s done. Allow to cool completely.
Carefully invert onto a plate and serve with extra yogurt, if you like.
Makes 10-12 servings.
— Recipes excerpted with permission from “La Vita è Dolce” by Letitia Clark, published by Hardie Grant Books, June 2021.