One of my best friends is the antithesis of a romantic. Whenever the topic of Valentine’s Day comes up, she rolls her eyes and starts on a diatribe about commercial holidays and celebrating love everyday. She used to do it when she was single and she still does it now that she’s in a relationship. On the other end of the table, my other friend huffs. She’s still waiting for the love of her life to ride in on a white horse. Literally. She’ll probably be single forever. In the middle, I’ve been with Giulio longer than all their relationships combined and frankly romanticism isn’t our strong suit. I’m a natural cynic and anything but a good sport, but for some reason, I have a soft spot for holidays. So what if Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday enforced upon the masses? Is it so horrible to go to a little extra effort one day a year and do something special? That said, Giulio and I can never remember to celebrate our anniversary, let alone Valentine’s Day.
It’s one of those little quirks you learn about Italians. They are very low key when it comes to parties. Or at least, my Italian is, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say all Tuscans are anti-celebrations. They tend to spurn the big Christmases and birthdays and weddings that I’m used to as an Australian born into a Southern Italian family. Back home, we never went to a wedding that had less than 300 guests. Here in Tuscany, you’re lucky if they even get married.
I don’t have anything special planned for this Tuesday, but hopefully you do! When I was young (and foolish), I would prepare Giulio the most elaborate Valentine’s Day desserts, Heston Blumenthal-worthy creations with a million elements and a thousands steps that always imploded in my face. I’ve learnt my lesson, which is why this year’s offering is beautifully simple, but very impressive, if I do say so myself!
Cannoli, the queen of Italian pastries, is getting revamped with my typical flair for the dramatics. The base of this cake is my nonna’s signature sponge cake. There are not enough words in the world to describe how long it took me to get this sponge cake right. My nonna can make it with her eyes shut and half the ingredients. I failed so many times, I wanted to chuck my KitchenAid out the window. So after months of tweaking the recipe, I have come up with a cake that is foolproof, light and spongy. Seriously, if you squish this cake with your fingers after it comes out of the oven, it makes little squishy sounds like a sponge! So proud! So proud!
A traditional Sicilian cannoli has ricotta, but mine is deliberately old school, harking back to the Italo-Australian desserts of those aforementioned weddings. You weren’t somebody if you didn’t offer your guests a platter of shop bought cannoli, tarts and biscuits after the cake. These crimes against wholesomeness were a wicked yellow – lemon-flavoured custard – on one side and dark brown – chocolate custard – on the other. I’ve combined the two in my cannoli cake in a far more natural way. No artificial colourings or custard powder, just a beautifully light lemon custard filling spiked with a healthy dose of limoncello. I made the limoncello and grew the lemons myself, so I am suitably chuffed. I feel like a real country Tuscan!
On top of the entire thing is my chocolate ganache, which is eat-from-the-bowl-with-a-tablespoon worthy. If you’re particularly fond of Terry’s chocolate oranges (I am most definitely not), you can swap the lemon juice and zest for orange and limoncello for Grand Marnier.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
My Valentine’s Day cannoli cake
200g self-raising flour
4 teaspoons corn flour
200g caster sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the cannoli custard
125ml each milk and pouring cream
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
3 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
15g plain flour
200ml thickened cream, whisked to soft peaks
200g dark chocolate
125g double cream
Preheat oven to 180°C. Combine the our and corn our, mix well and set aside.
Separate the eggs. Place the whites in an electric mixer and slowly whisk while adding the sugar. Increase the speed to high and whisk for 12-15 minutes or until pale, thick and tripled in volume. Add the yolks one at a time, whisking between additions. Add the vanilla extract. Sift the our mixture over the eggs and using a large metal spoon, gently fold to combine. Spoon the mixture into a greased 22cm round cake tin lined with non-stick baking paper and gently smooth the top. Bake for 35 minutes or until the sponge is springy to the touch and comes away from the sides. Remove from the tin and cool completely on a wire rack covered with a tea towel.
For the custard, warm the milk, cream and zest in a little saucepan over a how heat. Combine the yolks, sugar and flours in a bowl, then whisk in the warmed milk/cream. Make sure you whisk your little heart out or you’ll cook the yolks. Return to the heat and stir continuously until your custard coats the back of a spoon (about 4 minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the liqueur, before chilling in the fridge. When cold, fold in the whisked cream.
For the ganache, heat the cream in a small saucepan until almost boiling, remove from the heat. Break the chocolate into chunks and stir into the cream. Then stir in the butter and set aside.
To assemble your gorgeous cannoli cake, carefully slice your cake in three layers. The best way to do this is to get a long bread knife and work your way around the cake, rotating as you go. Don’t worry about cutting all the way into the middle. Once you’ve finished your circle, run your knife in, through the middle and out the other side. Spread half the custard on the bottom layer of cake, sandwich with the middle layer of cake, spread with the remaining custard and top with the final layer. Drizzle with the warm chocolate ganache and scatter with your slivered almonds.
Happy Valentine’s Day!