Nuns or concubines: Who invented Italian pastry, cannoli?

Cannoli is an Italian pastry which has recently made its way to Malaysia. It is a tube-shaped shell made of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling. Yum.

In Italian, cannoli is plural and its corresponding singular is cannolo. However in English, cannoli is usually used as a singular.

The shells are made basically from flour, sugar, butter, egg and oil. Meanwhile, the ingredients for the fillings are ricotta, powdered sugar, ground cinnamon and chocolate chips.

What makes this pastry more interesting besides its crispy shell and creamy filling is the legend behind its origin.

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From a harem to a convent, here are some theories behind who invented the cannoli:

1.Concubines made cannoli in order to capture the prince’s attention

Between 827 and 1091 AD, the city of Caltanissetta in Sicily was under Arab domination.

During the time, the city was known for its large number of harems. Even its name back then was ‘Kalt El Nissa’ which meant ‘women’s castle’.

With so many harems, then there must be many concubines. Usually, these concubines served only one prince.

The women of Caltanisseta reportedly were inspired by their prince’s ‘body part’ that they created a pastry shaped like it with a creamy filling in the middle. Ahem. Nudge nudge wink wink.

If it is true that the concubines in Caltanissetta created the cannoli just to impress their prince, the effort is nothing compared to the concubines in the Turkish drama The Magnificent Century, who resorted to poisoning and framing each other just to be the Sultan’s favourite.

Based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and his wife Hurrem Sultan, a slave girl who (of course) rises through the ranks of the harem’s hierarchy to become Sultana, the drama can be a guilty pleasure as you watch the concubines pulling all kinds of moves just to gain the Sultan’s attention.

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2. The Christian nuns were trying to have fun

The Carnevale season, a celebration which started during the Middle Ages and is still being celebrated today in some part of the world, usually takes place before the liturgical season of Lent. It was celebration involved a lot of food, alcohol and meat before the abstinence of them during Lent.

Some historians believed that the nuns of Caltanissetta were being playful and wanted to join the festivities of Carnavale.

They came up with this brilliant idea of making a fountain with edible faucets where ricotta cream came out instead of water. Patrons would then fill the cannoli shell with cream.

The dessert was a hit and eventually became a year-round staple pastry in Sicily.

3.Former concubines who later became nuns were responsible for passing down the recipe

By 1086, when Arab rule in Sicily came to an end, the harems also started to disappear.

Some of the concubines decided to remain in Sicily and convert to Christianity.

A number of them is believed to have become nuns and resided in the monasteries.

They brought along with them food they cooked as concubines, including the cannoli.

Some historians believed that it was possible that the nuns who brought cannoli to the Carnevale were former concubines themselves or learned the recipes from their sisters who used to live in the harem.

While you might not look at cannoli the same way after knowing the ‘inspiration’ behind it, still we all need to thank these women. If it weren’t for them, we might never indulge in this crispy, sweet, creamy pastry.

Click here, here and here for the recipe.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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