Friday, August 5, 2011

Mike's Pastry: Cannoli

Bostonians are deeply passionate about their preference for cannoli. It's either Mike's or Modern, and you'll argue until you're blue in the face as to which one is better. Quite frankly, I think that while they're both delicious, and I appreciate that Modern fills each cannoli shell to order, I have to pledge my loyalty to Mike's. It was the first cannoli I had tried upon moving to the Boston area. They're bigger than Modern's, and slightly deeper into the heart of the North End. Obtaining your cannoli takes finesse and fortitude, especially if a craving hits deep in the summer months when tourism is at its peak. But that's part of the fun, and why the payoff of the first bite is so utterly satisfying.
Now, if you've got a cannoli craving and you're somewhere in Massachusetts, odds are you're going to have to make your way into Boston and head on over to the North End. This isn't like the need for a great donut (as most towns have at least one pretty awesome mom and pop donut shop), or say your craving for some cookies, which you can bake up yourself, or again, a proprietor somewhere nearby is selling something that will do the job. In fact, how many people do you know that have all the stuff and the know how to make a cannoli in their own kitchen? If there was a gun put to my head I could probably MacGyver something together, but it's just not worth it. It's not going to be as good as the real deal. So, you suck it up, get into Boston, and with purposeful strides weave in and out of the throngs of slack-jawed tourists (takes some skill) to arrive at your destination... look for the golden sign and listen for the angels singing above.
Having entered the famous pastry shop, you'll see a little marzipan and ice cream counter to your right. The pastries and cookies are actually straight ahead. Don't be alarmed by the swarm of customers... what you see in front of you is less of an actual line, and more of a confused mob. Within this mob there will undoubtedly be at least two dads at different ends of the bakery simultaneously quoting Clemenza from the Godfather (you know which line, don't pretend).  There will also be many a middle aged woman staring up at different pictures of the cannoli offerings, feverishly trying to decide between the yellow vanilla cream filling or the chocolate cream filling. We must forgive them, they simply do not know. That's right, you've been warned. If you walk into Mike's and do not order the original ricotta filled cannoli with the little bitter sweet chocolate chips on the end, you suck at life. You can get additional cannolis, just to try, and if you do, I would say try the florentine... but if you do not order the original ricotta cream filling cannoli, you're simply not getting a cannoli; you are in fact getting a deep fried pastry shell and some pudding. I like pudding too, but just trust the masses on this one. 
So back to the mass of customers standing in front of you. Simply work your way slightly to the left, and walk in front of the shelves and tables that separate the front of the store from the back of the store. Anyone you pass probably won't even notice, and if they do, then you say with confidence, that each server at the counter kind of has their own line. Pick one of the seasoned servers, wait patiently until she's done with her current customer, and make sure to lock eyes with her. You're next. You know what you want. You're going to be quick. Order your cannolis, yes, you want powdered sugar, give her her money and the entire transaction, including boxing up your pastry and getting change, will take about twenty-five seconds. These women are amazingly fast, and pretty darn sweet if you don't waste their time. A quick retreat from the premise, and away from Hanover Street's staggering hoards: Mission Accomplished.
Whenever it is that you arrive home, or get to a quiet area where you can really take in the pastry that you worked so hard to retrieve, it is damn near impossible to wait until after dinner for your first bite of cannoli. In a pirate like maneuver, I always cut the string from the box with a knife; untying just takes too long. Open the box, and there they stand, veiled by the wax paper that your server had used to select your pastry. There is a good shake of powdered sugar over the top, and each cannoli is roughly the size of the length of my hand, approximately 5ish inches, and maybe two three inches in diameter. The first bite makes it all worthwhile: that mouthful of semi-sweet chocolate chips strategically placed on the exposed sweet ricotta cream filling, all sandwiched within a crispy outer shell. The cannoli should crack with your first bite, but not collapse in on itself and make a big mess (at least not yet) as the shell should have enough integrity to make it through a few bites and hold in that delicious cream. It really is all about the ricotta. It can't be too sweet, and it has to be smooth, but still thick and straddling the line between oozy and a cool solid, a little thicker than soft serve, but softer than hard ice cream. As you eat through the cannoli, one of the best parts is when the shell begins to break down a little bit, allowing you to take a piece of the shell, and shovel up your own little serving of the sweet cream: an interactive dessert, if you will. And while the weight of the dessert in your hand may cause you to think otherwise, it also doesn't feel like a heavy pastry, and the "just one more bite" mantra will quickly polish off the slightly flakey, crunchy shell, and all of that delicious filling. 
Mike's Pastry is famous for a reason. It's worth any hassel, and will quickly answer any questions you may have regarding "what's the big deal about cannoli?"

Mike's Pastry
300 Hanover Street
Boston, MA 02113

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