High-Flavor, Low-Fat Italian Desserts
...in honor of Columbus Day
by Steven Raichlen
Columbus Day honors Italy's most famous explorer. But while Columbus may have discovered the Americas, his legacy has wreaked havoc on the American diet. I'm talking about cannolis, tiramisu, panne cotta, and many other mouthwatering Italian desserts.
Italy's desserts may seem like unlikely candidates for a low fat makeover. Take the cannoli, for example. What could be worse for you than a tube of fried dough stuffed with whipped ricotta cheese? Or panne cotta, a jelled custard made from sweetened heavy cream.
This brings us to what I call the Italian paradox. (Why should the French have all the fun?) On the one hand, Italian cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and simply prepared meats and seafood, seems a paragon of balance and moderation. On the other hand, Italians love desserts laden with cream, cheese, and other high-fat dairy products.
Over the years, I've developed my own style of Italian cooking high in flavor, but lower in fat. You can even slash the fat in some of Italy's favorite desserts.
A Secret From Asia
My low-fat cannolis, for example, start with an ingredient most Italians would find downright bizarre: Chinese wonton wrappers. I use these slender squares of dough in place of the traditional shortening based pastry. Some years ago, I discovered that by baking a wonton wrapper in a hot oven you could obtain a crackling crisp crust with a fraction of the fat. Wonton wrappers are available in the produce section of most supermarkets. If you can't find them, buy eggroll wrappers and cut them into quarters.
Bake Instead Of Fry
To make a low-fat cannoli shell, I roll the wrapper around a cannoli tube (available at cookware shops, or use 4 inch lengths of broomstick). I lightly spray it with oil, bake it until golden brown and crackling crisp. (The oil helps the pastry crisp.)
Put The Fat On The Surface
Another trick for low-fat baking is a technique I call the "surface application of fat." I like to brush the finished shells with a little melted butter to give them the richness and mouth feel of deep-fried pastry. The idea is that the first thing you taste is the butter and it gives your mouth the impression that the dessert possesses a buttery richness throughout. You'll be amazed how effective this technique can be for tricking a skeptical palate.
Slash The Fat In Your Dairy Products
My cannolis are filled with low-fat ricotta. My low-fat panne cotta uses skim milk plus a non-traditional ingredient sweetened condensed skim milk, which is creamy, thick, rich, and utterly fat free.
Think Flavor, Not Fat
Pump up the richness of fillings and custards with flavorings, not fat. I like to perfume my cannoli, for example, with an Arab flavoring called orange flower water. This may not be the first taste you associate with Italian confectionery, but this fragrant Arabic flavoring was brought to Sicily by the Moors, and remains a popular ingredient in the south of Italy. Look for orange flower water in Middle Eastern markets. In a pinch you could substitute Cointreau or Grand Marnier. Almond extract, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and lemon zest give my panne cotta so much flavor, you won't even miss the fat.
Try Steven Raichlen's Recipes:
Amazing Low Fat Cannolis
Steven Raichlen is the author of 20 books, including the IACP/ Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and the new Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (both published by Workman) and the High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking series, which won two James Beard Awards. He recently created a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his web site: www.barbecuebible.com.
He has appeared numerous times on national television, including The Today Show and Good Morning America as well as CNN and The Discovery Channel. Raichlen lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with his wife Barbara.