On a Saturday in November of my 50th year my mother and I pull out my old hand-cranked pasta maker. We set it up on the edge of my counter near the sink. It’s not in the most ideal spot, but it’s what I have. We are about to press long strips of dough from where we will cut circles, wrap them around hollow stainless steel tubes, and deep fry them to make cannoli shells.
In many ways, the act of doing this is a kind of rote memory, a recalling of all the afternoons spent years ago with my mother as she mixed dough, pressed it, cut it, and fried it. As ingrained as all of it should be, it has taken me this long to dive into learning and accepting the ritual as my own, long past where I might have shared the experience with my children like my mother did with my siblings and I, but now I am here and she is here and there is still time. Thankfully, there is still time. It’s not just my 50th year. It’s my mother’s 74th year, and it’s my 12th year since having survived breast cancer.
My mother fiddles with the knob on the pasta maker that determines the thickness of the pressed dough. The dough must be thin, about half that of a pie crust or thinner. My pasta maker is not her pasta maker. She knows how hers works. Mine is a hand-me-down from my paternal grandmother who never used it. I rarely use it but have kept it with the intention of one day making cannoli. I have held on to it through one failed marriage, through five moves from apartment to house to apartment back to house and finally cross country.
I grew up in Southeast Michigan, a suburban landscape much different than the rustic Sicilian one my mother knew as a child. The kitchen of my childhood was big and open and held an oak-colored Formica table with a faux wood grain. There was no wood burning stove and there were no hand-painted ceramic tiles. Instead, we had a green Kenmore electric range and the kitchen walls were papered with a pattern of thin vines of cascading fruits and flowers. Still, there were whispers of that old island kitchen. My mother had her iron skillets and a cupboard full of herbs. She grew things as best she could in a climate that was less forgiving than the one she came from. She also kept a wide wooden cutting board for kneading bread and for making cannoli shells. There she would sift flour and other ingredients into a mound and knead and work it easily into a ball of dough. Then, she would lay the long ribbons of dough out on the board for cutting.
We don’t have the luxury of space in the galley kitchen of my condo in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. My table is half the size hers was and the counters don’t provide all that much room to work either. We make do. Now, instead of sifting flour in a mound on a wide cutting board, my mother sifts it into one of my metal mixing bowls. She adds in a small amount of sugar and a dash or more of cinnamon. She runs through the process out loud in part for me to write it down and in part for her to recall the process. She admits she hasn’t made them in a while. With her forefinger, she creates a cup in the center of the flour like I used to watch her do when I was a kid. There she pours wine.
“A half cup,” she says. “I think it’s a half cup. If you need more, use a little more.”
She tells me I can add some coffee if I want to as well, but I don’t have any made. She mixes it all together with her hands.
As a kid, I was tasked with small, manageable parts of the process like pressing the dough or cutting the circles that would become the shells once fried. Back then, I cut the circles with a lid off an old percolating coffee maker that no longer worked. My mother has saved the lid all these years and brought it with her from San Francisco to Colorado.
“It’s the perfect size,” she says.
Now, I cut the circles like I did then, but I will do the cooking as well. My mother melts a large tub of shortening in a deep pot and we take turns frying the shells. Frying the shells is as much an art as it is a task. It takes patience and care, care not to splash the hot oil as I work the shells off the metal rounds with a fork and care not to cook them too long. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder as she tells me I am doing a good job.
I smile and think about what she means by good job. I’d watched her do this over and over for the better part of the first half of my life, throw herself into a process that meant spending an entire day crafting something from pieces, less for her benefit than for benefit of others. I think about how at the end of it, when the mass of shells were cooled and stacked carefully in the large, speckled Dutch oven she storied them in and the smell of cooked shortening lingered in the air, she sunk into one of the puffy kitchen chairs exhausted from standing at the stove so long but satisfied all the same that she accomplished something. We are only making half the amount of shells she used to make in those afternoons when I was a child, but as I stand in front the stove and the grease settles on my skin, I feel my shoulder ache.
As I take stock of all we have done in this afternoon and of all the cannoli I will be making to share with friends and family in the coming weeks, I realize precisely what the accomplishment meant to my mother. It meant holding on to a part of her that came from a place that is so different form where we are now. She shared that so generously not just with me but with friends and neighbors who found themselves at our table, especially around the holidays, friends and neighbors who would become family. They set aside their roast turkeys and hams to try something a little different, stuffed squid floating in basil infused tomato sauce, eggplant breaded and baked and dripping with melted mozzarella cheese, lasagna, octopus salad, bread, lots of bread, and wine. After all that came the cannoli.
My mother would make coffee and take out the shells. Earlier in the day she made the filling. I helped with that part as well. We whipped heavy cream, mixed it with some powdered sugar to sweeten it, and folded in ricotta cheese, the good, creamy kind from Cantoro’s, the little Italian market my mother’s family had been shopping at since they moved to Michigan from Sicily. We shaved bits of Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds into the cream until it was thoroughly speckled, and refrigerated it until it was time for dessert. In our suburban Detroit kitchen, my mother used a butter knife to fill the shells on the spot. Filling them any earlier would cause the moisture from the cream to soften the shells. We sat around the table waiting in anticipation. We lingered on conversations about all kinds of things, books, art, sports, what new hobby my father was diving full bore into at the time. My mother filled the cannoli one by one. She smoothed out the ends and sifted powdered sugar over them for the finishing touch, and we ate.
I think I finally have the process of making cannoli down now, even if it is late, later than I had imagined anyway, and my mother teaches me something new. Now, she makes her own ricotta because she can’t source the good stuff like she used to, so I see now that the old traditions will always be reshaped, honed in new ways, shared in new ways in new kitchens or old kitchens with less space or more space, with old pasta makers or new.
I make the filling. We sit at my table. The glow of a street lamp filters through my window. We fill and dust cannoli and eat. This could be the last time we make them together, but I don’t dwell on that. I simply enjoy the sweet flavor of the cream and the crispy flakiness of the shell and know I have accomplished something and will again.
Cristina Trapani-Scott, the author of the poetry chapbook collection “The Persistence of a Bathing Suit,” teaches writing in Northern Colorado where she lives with her husband, Jay, and their old dog, Butch.