Enjoy the flavors of cannoli in an easy to prepare no-bake cannoli icebox cake! Easy authentic-tasting cannoli cream and even easier "cake" layers make this simple recipe a convenient make-ahead dessert for parties.
Growing up in an area in which nearly every town had an Italian bakery or two, real deal cannoli were not something we ever made at home. Cannoli flavored desserts on the other hand...those are a different story.
This cannoli icebox cake may be the easiest cannoli cake recipe out there.
I thought about how I'd go about making this recipe for awhile. Graham crackers are an overwhelmingly popular choice for this type of cake, but they don't really fit with an Italian icebox cake. Procuring cannoli shells isn't super easy, and frying them at home for an easy dessert in which they intentionally sog up? Out of the question.
What to use? Italian pizzelle! These consistently thin and buttery cookies are perfect in both appearance and taste for the layers, and can be homemade or store-bought. Sometimes rolled hot off the press to make cheater cannoli shells, these are as close to cannoli shell-adjacent as you can get without much trouble.
Reasons to Love This Recipe
- This is a cannoli lover's dessert. Each bite is bursting with fresh cannoli cream.
- Don't have a pizzelle press? Don't worry. Pizzelle can often be found for purchase in the supermarket bakery section for convenience.
- It slices cleanly into 12 servings for a simple no-bake cake recipe. And if you don't need that many, leftovers freeze great!
- Despite its manner of assembly, the layers of this cannoli icebox cake meld together beautifully into a cohesive cake that masks how easy it is to make.
- Ricotta: Choose a quality brand in the whole milk variety. My favorite ricotta that I can find at a basic grocery store is Galbani (not sponsored) as it's nice and thick without a lot of separated moisture, though I still strain it.
- Mascarpone: This has a dense texture similar to cream cheese (though it's not as tangy) and can usually be found in the refrigerated deli case alongside other specialty cheeses.
- Confectioners' Sugar: The finer texture when compared to granulated sugar helps it dissolve into the filling without becoming gritty.
- Cinnamon: A small amount is a crucial element in cannoli filling for that classic flavor we know and love.
- Vanilla Extract: This is important to sweeten up and flavor the blend of cheeses.
- Chocolate Chips: Mini semi-sweet chocolate chips are the easiest to find, but finely-chopped dark chocolate is also good if you prefer. Regular-sized chips will be too big in the layers.
- Pistachios: A classic cannoli garnish. I prefer unsalted.
- Vanilla Pizzelle: These consistently thin, buttery cookies soften beautifully in an Italian icebox cake. If you don't have a press to make homemade pizzelle, certain supermarkets will sell them in the bakery.
Before beginning, it's important to strain the ricotta. Even good quality ricotta will benefit from straining to remove as much excess moisture as possible.
Place ricotta in a paper towel-lined mesh sieve set over a bowl. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 8 hours before using.
- Mix the strained ricotta cheese and mascarpone with an electric mixer until well combined, then mix in the confectioners' sugar, vanilla extract, orange zest (if using), and cinnamon.
- Stir in the mini chocolate chips.
- Spread a little of the cannoli cream on the bottom of the pan so the first layer of pizzelle will stick.
- Place one layer of pizzelle along the bottom of the pan. Slice them into pieces and do your best to cover it fully.
- Spread one third of the filling over top of the pizzelle in an even layer. Use a little care as to not disturb the bottom layer.
- Repeat steps #4 and #5 two more times: pizzelle, one-third filling, pizzelle, remaining one-third filling. Smooth out the top surface.
At this point cover the dish with plastic wrap (careful not to press it into the surface cream) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Scatter chopped pistachio pieces over top before slicing into squares and serving. Candied fruit pieces are also a fun garnish.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- Straining the Ricotta - Excess moisture can prevents the cannoli cream from setting up properly, so don't skip straining the ricotta.
- Precision - You'll have to break up some of the pizzelle in order to make each mostly-full layer. Do your best for complete coverage, but little gaps are not a big deal.
- Pan Sizes - Pictured in this post is a rectangular pan with 10.5-inch by 7.5 inch dimensions and it fit everything nicely. It has a 10-cup capacity, so look for alternative pan sizes with the same if needing to use a different vessel:
- 11-inch by 7-inch rectangular pan (nearly the same)
- 9-inch by 2-inch square pan
- 9-inch by 2.5-inch round pan
Recipe Variations and Substitutions
Ultra authentic cannoli cream can vary by region and often calls for ingredients (smooth and dry Impastata ricotta, ricotta made from sheep's milk, etc.) that are difficult to impossible to find in the U.S. if you're outside of areas with a considerable Italian American population.
This cannoli icebox cake recipe is written to be as authentic as is practical when you're shopping in an ordinary American supermarket. That said, below are some substitutions you can make as you see fit, along with others that are not recommended.
- Use Full-Fat Ricotta - Part-skim and fat-free will be lacking in that "luxe" factor. This is dessert, after all.
- Don't Reduce the Sugar - I would not reduce the amount of sugar here. I worked my way up to this amount in the cannoli cream and lesser amounts tasted straight-up like a savory ricotta filling more fitting for eggplant stacks than dessert.
- Mascarpone Substitute - A block of cream cheese would be the closest substitute texture-wise, though it would introduce a tangy flavor into the mix. While I haven't tried it myself, I've heard from my family members that mascarpone is easy to make at home from heavy cream and lemon juice. I'm intrigued by this Chef John recipe.
- Pizzelle Substitute - If you can't do homemade or store-bought pizzelle, graham crackers are a classic icebox cake ingredient. While they have a similar thickness and would work just fine structurally, they don't mesh as well with the cuisine here. If going this route I'd recommend plain graham crackers over cinnamon or honey as to not alter the flavor too much.
- Optional Ingredients - Pistachios and/or orange zest can be omitted.
Icebox cakes are a summertime classic as they don't require any baking. Constructed of layers of a creamy filling and some sort of flat cookie (often graham crackers or round chocolate wafers), the filling softens the cookies into "cake" layers as it refrigerates for several hours. An icebox is an old school refrigerator, hence the name.
Yes, cakes with cannoli cream are dairy-based and need to be kept refrigerated. When serving, do not leave it out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
Despite the high dairy content, this cake freezes well! After it has softened, wrap each individual slice in plastic wrap, then transfer to a freezer bag with all excess air pressed out or air-tight container and freeze. Thaw slices briefly in the fridge before serving.
If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, I’d love for you to leave a star rating in the recipe card and/or a comment review below!
Cannoli Icebox Cake
- 30 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese strained (32 ounces fine)
- 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
- 1 ½ cups confectioners' sugar spooned-and-leveled
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon finely-grated orange zest or amount to taste (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon or amount to taste
- ¾ cup mini semisweet chocolate chips or finely-chopped dark chocolate
- 2 Tablespoons finely-chopped unsalted pistachios for topping
- 12 4-inch round pizzelle cookies vanilla, store-bought or homemade
Strain the Ricotta
- If your ricotta has excess moisture, place it in a paper towel-lined mesh sieve set over a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight. Lightly press on the surface with a paper towel once the time is up and continue on with the recipe, discarding the excess moisture.
Prepare the Pizzelle
- If making homemade pizzelle, follow the instructions on the linked post, replacing the anise extract with an equal amount of vanilla extract (1 Tablespoon in total). You will not need the whole batch for this cake.
Prepare the Cannoli Cream
- Add strained ricotta and mascarpone to a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until well-combined.
- Sift in the confectioners' sugar and mix it in. Add the vanilla extract, orange zest (if using), and cinnamon and mix until combined.
- Stir in the chocolate chips until evenly dispersed.
Assemble the Cake
- Spread a little bit of the cannoli cream along the bottom of a 10.5-inch by 7.5-inch pan (see notes for alternative sizes) so the pizzelle will stick. Place 4 pizzelle in the pan in an even layer, breaking one up as needed to achieve mostly full coverage.
- Spread one-third of the cannoli cream onto the pizzelle and smooth it out into an even layer. Be gentle so that the bottom pizzelle don't lift up.
- Place another layer of pizzelle in the same manner, lightly pressing them into the cream. Evenly spread another one-third of the cream on top.
- Place another layer of pizzelle, then top with the remaining one-third of the cream. Even it off into a smooth layer. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours so the pizzelle will soften.
- When ready to serve, sprinkle chopped pistachios over top and cut into 12 equal slices. Keep cake refrigerated.
- Pan Sizes: Any baking dish with a 10-cup capacity can work, including:
- 11-inch by 7-inch rectangular pan
- 9-inch by 2.5-inch round pan
- 9-inch by 2-inch square pan
- Storage Instructions: Keep this cake refrigerated since it contains dairy. It can be left out on a dessert table for up to 2 hours, but should be returned to the refrigerator at that time. It will be fine in the refrigerator for 1-2 days without becoming too soft.
- Freezing Instructions: Wrap individual slices in plastic wrap, then place in a freezer bag with all excess air pressed out or in an air-tight container and freeze for several months. Transfer slice(s) to the refrigerator to thaw before enjoying.
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.Food Safety and Nutrition Disclaimer