What Is a Cannoli and What Does It Taste Like?

Plus, how do you make a cannoli at home? 

Photo: Allrecipes

The cannoli is a decadent, rich, and absolutely irresistible staple of Italian cuisine. If you've ever wanted to know more about the tubular dessert (including what it is, where it comes from, and how to make one at home), you've come to the right place. Here's what you need to know about cannolis:

What Is a Cannoli and What Is It Made Of?

powdered sugar dusted cannolis from the air fryer

A cannoli is a tube-shaped Italian dessert that consists of fried pastry dough stuffed with a sweet, creamy cheese filling.

The crispy pastry shell is made with the usual suspects: flour, sugar, whole eggs, and butter. It's usually spiked with marsala, a fortified wine that adds distinct flavor and sweetness. The alcohol also helps tenderize the pastry, ensuring a pleasantly flaky finished product.

The creamy filling (often spiked with lemon or orange zest for subtle brightness) is made with sugar and ricotta cheese, but mascarpone is sometimes used. Finished cannolis are often dusted with powdered sugar.

In many parts of Italy, a singular cannoli is called a "cannolo" and multiple cannolis are simply called "cannoli." In the U.S., however, the accepted usage has become the singular "cannoli" and plural "cannolis" – so that's what we'll stick with for the remainder of this article.

What Does 'Cannoli' Mean In Italian?

In Italian, "cannoli" is the plural of "cannolo." "Cannolo" roughly translates to "little tube."

What Does a Cannoli Taste Like?

In a word, heavenly. Cannolis taste sweet, but not cloyingly so. The filling is rich, creamy, and smooth with a slight cheesy flavor. The shell is subtly sweet and crispy, but sturdy enough to support the thick filling.

Cannoli History

Photo by Kims Cooking Now.

Sugar was introduced to Sicily sometime between 827 and 1091, when the island was under Arab rule and known as the Emirate of Sicily. This introduction paved the way for all sorts of Italian sweets we know and love – including the cannoli. The dessert was once known as cappelli di turchi, or Turkish hats, which proves that Sicilians believed the earliest cannolis had Middle Eastern roots.

The cannoli is considered a modern day Sicilian staple, but it's particularly associated with Carnevale. Some say it originally served as a fertility symbol during the festival season.

Cannoli vs. Cream Horn

close up of cream horns made of puff pastry and filled with sweetened cream cheese

Cannolis and cream horns are both tube-shaped Italian desserts. However, they're not exactly the same thing.

The cream horn has a puff pastry shell that's filled with sweetened whipped cream or custard. The cannoli, meanwhile, has a fried pastry shell that's filled with a ricotta mixture that tends to be denser than cream horn filling. Cannoli shells are generally much thinner and crispier than cream horn shells, which have the light and fluffy texture that's associated with puff pastry.

Cannoli Variations

cannoli filled with ricotta and made with wafer cookies
Chef John

There's more than one way to make a cannoli. Traditional cannolis have a simple filling of ricotta (or mascarpone), sugar, and sometimes vanilla extract. Here are a few common additions and variations:

  • Chocolate chips or candied fruits add welcome bursts of sweetness to the filling or the shell
  • Chopped pistachios lend color, nuttiness, and crunch to the filling or the shell
  • Finished cannolis are sometimes dipped in melted chocolate for a touch of elegance and flavor

How to Make Cannolis

three pumpkin filled cannolis on a platter
Kim's Cooking Now

Though making bakery-worthy cannolis isn't exactly easy, it's probably not as hard as you think. You just need to know what you're doing. Here are some of our best tips and tricks to make perfect cannolis every time:

The Shell

  • Roll the dough as thin as possible (while maintaining enough sturdiness to hold the filling) to ensure a perfectly crispy texture.
  • Use a candy or deep fry thermometer to make sure the oil stays at the temperature your recipe requires. If it's too hot or too cold, your shells might end up underdone and soft or overdone and burned.
  • You'll need cannoli molds to roll the shells into the right shape. A wooden dowel, an aluminum foil tube, or even a spare curtain rod will work in a pinch if you don't have commercial cannoli molds.

Note: Of course, if you're short on time, you can always buy pre-made cannoli shells at the grocery store. They're usually found in the baking aisle or the international foods aisle.

The Filling

  • Use paper towels to strain the ricotta before adding the sugar. This way, the mixture won't end up too wet.
  • Don't fill the cannolis until right before serving so the filling doesn't seep into the shells and make them soggy. If you need to fill them more than a few hours before serving, store them in the freezer.
  • Is your filling a bit too stiff to pipe into the shell? No problem! You can thin it out with a splash of cold milk or half-and-half. Just don't add too much to prevent a soupy texture.

Cannoli Recipes


Ready to try your hand at making cannolis at home? We've got you covered. Try one of our favorite cannoli recipes:

Explore our entire collection of Italian Desserts.

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