Take one step into my Nonna’s kitchen and there’s no question: You’re in Nonna’s kitchen. My grandmother runs a tight ship. It’s her space. Her ingredients. Her mixing bowls. Her way. And that is exactly what I love about being in her kitchen.
With the holidays fast approaching, this is her time. Out of her kitchen, 100s of soft, lemony, frosted biscotti cookies and dozens of her signature cannoli (which uses custard rather than ricotta) will make their way into church potlucks, gifts, and most notably, my very grateful husband’s hands. And I will help her as I’ve done since I was a little girl.
I say “help her” but it’s more like “stand in awe” of her. For as long as I can remember, I’ve marveled at how this fiery Italian, who bounces mid-sentence from Italian to a heavily-accented English, can turn everyday dishes into unforgettable masterpieces.
Somehow, everything she cooks just tastes better. When I ask her “how much sugar do you add”, she replies, “Whadayou mean, eh? I jus’ use this much!” When I ask “how long do you bake it,” she replies “until it’a feels lik’a this!” Measure with your eyes, bake with your instincts. Who needs precision?
If only it were that easy! Her method has been perfected over seven decades, beginning in her native Bari, a small fishing village on the southeast coast of Italy. She immigrated to the U.S. as an 18-year-old newlywed speaking not a word of English and a full eight months pregnant. She brought with her only her experiences, her dreams, my dad and a wealth of traditional dishes she would use to bring years of joy to family and friends.
Now at 80, she shows no signs of slowing down. And as we have so many times before, we get ready for the holidays and bake. And talk. And laugh. I watch and I learn. Adding to the legacy of this amazing woman and the season that brings us together in such a meaningful way.
So at this special time, pull out your mixing bowls, ready your kitchen and see how you do with my Nonna’s signature cannoli filling from scratch. Happy baking.
Nonna’s Signature Cannoli Filling
1 pint milk
1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp. corn starch
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp. butter
1 or 2 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Scald milk. Mix flour, cornstarch and sugar in a bowl. Stir and gradually pour hot milk over mixture. When well mixed, return to double boiler. Stir and cook until mixture thickens, then cover and continue to cook for 15 minutes.
While that’s cooking, add melted butter. Beat eggs and add salt to them. Add them gradually to milk mixture stirring vigorously while combining. Stir and cook a few minutes longer. Cool then stir in flavoring.
When ready, fill cannoli shells (available at Italian bakeries or better local bakeries) with filling and lightly sprinkle with powdered sugar. Enjoy!