I never cook for fun anymore.
It makes me sad to admit it, but it’s true. I rarely carve out time to cook purely for fun, simply to learn a new recipe, or experiment with an unfamiliar technique. These days, my weekends are focused on Getting Things Done: task-oriented productivity, to-do lists, and habit-building through consistency.
You’re much more likely to find me, on a Sunday afternoon, catching up on reading, working a coding problem for my online class, or preparing macronutrient-balanced lunchboxes for the coming week, rather than elbow-deep in dough for fresh bread. Gone, apparently, are the days when I planned my week around my next culinary project, content to spend hours or days in the kitchen with nothing but a sweet playlist and a few choice ingredients.
In many ways, this is great. I’m making measurable progress on a lot of different projects that I find interesting. It’s an approach to life that I’d describe as:
“Small, simple things – done consistently over time – produce meaningful results.”
On weekdays, I hit my work and exercise goals, in addition to specific days and times set aside for meditating, writing in my gratitude journal, blogging, and reading. On weekends, like most people I know, I plan excursions in advance. A fishing trip, camping at a nearby national park, a concert or summer festival. In addition to any pre-programmed adventures, I prepare for the week ahead and run errands, trying to make every part of my life run smoothly.
On the other hand, there’s a voice in my head that keeps saying:
“Success isn’t one step in 20 directions. It’s 20 steps in one direction.”
My current system for being (or appearing) productive is very scattered. Everything has its allotment of time and energy. But sometimes I wonder if that’s not really the best way to improve. Maybe this is just dilettantism, a little bit of many things, but never truly sinking my teeth into one, satisfying project.
When I devoted a large chunk of my time to cooking projects, I learned to cook. I learned how to select ingredients. I learned about time and temperature, browning and searing, frying and baking. It was deeply rewarding to spend hours making something. I don’t do that anymore, and I truly miss it.
I’m not sure I’m ready to give up the task-oriented, project management mentality just yet, but I’m glad I carved out time this past weekend to simply cook.
I’ve had cannoli on the brain for a couple of months, since Jay and I shared one at my favorite Italian market in Princeton. Though cannoli are one of my favorite sweet treats, I almost never eat them. The recipe, it turns out, was just unique enough – not your average cookie or cake – to pique my culinary interest, but simple enough to execute with minimal preparation in one afternoon.
The most important step is to buy your cannoli forms, short metal tubes about 3/4in in diameter and 5 inches long, in advance. I toyed with the idea of cutting my own forms from bulk metal tubing, but ended up ordering these forms from Amazon. Everything else is fairly straightforward.
First, make fresh ricotta from whole milk (and cream, if you like it sweet) and a little vinegar. This can be done in five minutes in the microwave. Let the curds drain for about 15 minutes to get the moist consistency you want for cannoli. Keep in mind that you need a lot of milk to make a sufficient quantity of cheese for the filling. I used 4 cups of milk and had enough filling for 3 cannoli. I would recommend using a gallon of milk to make 10-12 cannoli.
While the cheese drains, prepare the dough for the shells. It’s a very dry dough made with flour, sugar, a little butter or shortening, egg, and sweet wine. Resist the temptation to add extra liquid (as I unfortunately did) that will make the shells puff up excessively when fried. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
For the fillings, combine your fresh ricotta with powdered sugar and vanilla to taste. Add heavy cream for a lighter, smoother filling that is easier to pipe. Set aside, at room temperature if you will be using it soon. Storing at room temperature makes the curds toughen up.
Roll out small sections of the pastry dough until paper thin. Cut 3 inch circles from the dough, then wrap around the metal forms, pressing to seal the edges. Let these rest on a parchment lined sheet while rolling and wrapping the rest of the shells (depending on how many forms you have). Resting the wrapped shells allows the seal to get stronger, prevent them from unrolling when fried.
Fry shells and metal tubes one or two at a time in hot oil (~400F) or shortening (~360F) for 2 minutes, until brown and crispy. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels and let cool before removing the metal forms. Allow the shells to cool completely at room temperature before preparing the cannoli.
To finish, melt chocolate chips with a big of cream to make a dipping sauce. Crush pistachios and chocolate chips to make a small sprinkles. Dip the cool shells in chocolate and let set until the chocolate forms a hard shell. Then pipe cheese filling into the shell. Top with crushed chocolate chips and pistachios.
Enjoy fresh. They say you can store extra shells in an airtight container, but why would you want to? Just eat them.